Under the cover of darkness on the evening of Saturday 23rd May 1778, a man slipped through the city gates of Vienna. Within an hour the British Ambassador, Sir Robert Murray Keith, received “immediate information of his Arrival” and rushed to find the Habsburg State Chancellor, Prince Kaunitz. He was to be found at one of his usual weekend billiard parties, silently onlooking in the corner of the room. Kaunitz already knew of the arrival. The French Ambassador arrived earlier and explained how in the morning he would “take the liberty to present [a] gentleman traveller” to him. When Keith arrived on the scene, Kaunitz raised the matter with, “Mr. Lee is in town, don’t you know?”
Soon everyone knew. “Mr. Lee” became the overnight celebrity of the Habsburg capital through the usual avenue of gossip around the dinner-table. Although first impressions of Lee fixated on his appearance as “rich, thoroughly ugly, [and] marked by the smallpox,” many of the “great partisans of the Americans” helped to ensure his fame. It was for this reason that Lee could boast home to Congress that “some of distinction here are warm for the part of America,” and at the same time the British Ambassador lamented to his superiors, “It has been a matter of great uneasiness to me, to remark within these few Days, that the Treatment of Mr Lee is very much changed in his Favour.”
The Viennese in 1778 certainly knew a lot about William Lee; the same cannot be said of historians nowadays. The noterirty which the younger brother of Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee and older brother to Arthur Lee enjoyed in 1778 never outlasted the exploits of his more famous family members. However, the stir which William caused above is just one example in a life as filled with adventure, misfortune, and importance as any other revolutionary or as one to rival the exceptional life of Maria von Born.
The escapade in Vienna was one of many in the transatlantic life of William Lee. His upbringing at his ancestral home at Stratford Hall on the Northern Neck of Virginia was short-lived. From his time as a merchant and politician in London — where he became the first American alderman of the city — to joining his younger brother in Paris in the service of his new nation, Lee led one of the most mobile lives in the Age of Revolution.
After his diplomatic mission to Vienna as the first representative between the United States and the Habsburgs, Lee ventured in the same capacity to the Prussian capital Berlin. Whereas most Americans experienced the revolutionary war in North America, Lee darted across Europe as much as John Adams, if not more. Eventually he, his wife and children settled in Brussels for the remainder of the conflict.
Recent books like Janet Polasky’s Revolutions Without Borders bring to light these nomadic experiences but William Lee is surprisingly downplayed and absent. For far too long he has lived in the shadows of his other Lee relatives. From my work on his role in early US-Habsburg relations, I have collected documents related to his life and aim one day to complete a more robust account of one of the most active American revolutionaries in the creation of the United States.