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Gov. Harry Lee Requests All Virginia Slave Condemnation Cases for Clemency Review
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“Light Horse” Harry Lee was a Revolutionary War hero, governor of Virginia, and father to famous Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Here, he requests that county clerks fill positions of “Escheator,” persons overseeing land reverting to the state if there are no heirs, and adds that he would like the clerks to inform him of any cases of a slave condemned for crimes where the “person be considered as an object of mercy or not…”

HENRY “LIGHT HORSE” HARRY LEE. Printed Document Signed as Governor of Virginia, Circular Letter Richmond, January 25, 1794. 1 p., 6 ½ x 8 in.

Inventory #25033       Price: $3,900

Complete Transcript

IT is essentially necessary that all vacancies in the office of Escheator, within this Commonwealth, be filled up. I request you will be so good as to recommend to me, without delay, a fit person within your county, to be commissioned as Escheator, in case there should be no such officer at present; but if there be one already commissioned, be pleased to direct your Clerk to certify his name, and the time of his qualifying, to me. I have also to request that you will instruct your Clerk, in all future cases of the condemnation of slaves, to forward to the Executive, the proceedings of the court previous to the sentence being carried into effect, whether the condemned person be considered as an object of mercy or not; and to acknowledge the receipt of this letter, with the one inclosed [not present] to the Escheator of your county, which I recommend to your care.

Historical Background

In his memoirs, Lee called slavery a “dreadful evil, which the cruel policy of preceding times had introduced” and privately lamented that the 1787 Constitution did not provide for a “gradual abolition of slavery.” Lee himself owned slaves until his bankruptcy in the late 1790s forced him to liquidate his property. Although he privately opposed the institution, as governor he did much to defend the legal status quo, in part because he, like many white southerners, feared a revolt. Lee remembered well how the British used the carrot of freedom to convince slaves to rise up against their owners. In fact, he considered slavery a threat to national security. In 1792, when he learned that slaves on the Eastern Shore had plotted a revolt, he ordered local officials “to crush the mad attempt.” In 1800, while serving in Congress, he opposed the body receiving a petition from free blacks, advocating “such measures as shall in due course emancipate the whole of their brethren from their present situation.” While he favored closing the slave trade as stipulated by the Constitution, he resisted any effort to interfere “with the property of any of the citizens.”


Very good, weak folds repaired on verso with archival tape, light to moderate toning.


Charles Royster, Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution, 1981, p. 126-127.

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