John Lee (1733-1793) was born in Leeds, England, to Thomas Lee and Mary Reveley. He was educated at Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn, and was admitted to the bar in 1756. He ran a successful law practice before coming to the attention of Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, whose party was then in opposition in Parliament. In 1769, Rockingham insisted that Lee be appointed recorder of Doncaster. Lee supported the Rockingham party's opposition to war with the American colonies, and followed their positions on parliamentary reform. He participated in the Yorkshire petition movement, and favored the reformist campaign that arose in the last years of the American War for Independence. In 1779, Lee served on the defense counsel for Admiral Augustus Keppel, who was court martialed and acquitted for his actions during the First Battle of Ushant. Rockingham became prime minister for the second time in 1782 (having previously served from 1765-1766), and he appointed Lee solicitor general. Soon after, Lee was elected a member of Parliament for Clitheroe. After Rockingham's death in 1782, Lee resigned as solicitor general and threw his support behind the North-Fox Coalition, which opposed Lord Shelburne's government. Lee then served again as solicitor general, and then attorney general, before the Coalition fell from power in December 1783. Though he still supported Charles Fox, poor health limited Lee's ability to participate actively in politics after 1783. Lee died of cancer at his home in Staindrop, Durham, in 1793. He was survived by his wife, Mary Hutchinson Lee (1734-1812), whom he had married in 1769, and a daughter named Mary Tabitha (1777-1851).
The John Lee papers (202 items) contain letters and documents related to the legal and political career of John Lee, as well as items concerning his personal and family life. The collection consists of 189 letters, 2 legal documents, a memoir of Lord Rockingham, an engraving, and 4 pieces of memoranda and ephemera. Approximately one third of the collection consists of letters written to Lee’s wife, Mary Hutchinson Lee, and his daughter Mary Tabitha, after Lee’s death in 1793.
Much of the collection concerns Lee’s political career. Frequent contributors to the collection include the Marquess of Rockingham and his wife, the Marchioness of Rockingham. An early letter from Lord Rockingham to Lee concerns an unfavorable report from the Board of Trade regarding corruption charges brought against Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire, who Rockingham believed had been treated unjustly (June 1, 1773). In 1779, Lee served on the defense in the court martial of Augustus Keppel. In a brief letter with the instructions "Give this to Mr. Lee as soon as he is awake in the morning," Lady Rockingham informed Lee of Keppel's situation and wrote, "I am permitted the high honour of being the first to apprize you of your being Retained on the side of the worthiest man, and in the purest cause, that perhaps your zeal and integrity were ever engag’d in support of" (December 9, 1778). Though the collection has little material relating to the trial, a letter from Keppel in February thanks Lee for his service: "…if you suffer'd much from so long & so tedious an attendance, I hope it has been some recompense to a mind like yours to have protected innocence and to have formed an acquaintance with some honest seamen whose plain and upright hearts are so consonant to your own" (Feb. 23, 1779). In addition, a memorandum from 1779 notes that Keppel sent Lee £1,000 for his service, but Lee immediately returned it, claiming he attended the trial out of friendship, and requested only a picture of Keppel. Another item of note is a letter from Lee to Sir Fletcher Norton, in which Lee turned down an offer to serve on the King’s Council (Feb. 12, 1770).
The collection contains several items related to the Yorkshire petition movement, including a letter Lee wrote to Reverend Christopher Wyvill, chairman of the Yorkshire Committee of Association for Reform in Parliament, who had sent out a circular to members of Parliament. Lee was critical of the state of the country, and supportive of Wyvill’s reformist goals. Lee wrote: "All things have gone wrong, but in no respect in my mind so wrong as in this, that the public cares little about it. It seems to me as if our Governors were highly pleased with this general apathy in the body of the People, which I think Montesquieu calls the mournful silence of a City that the Enemy is about to storm" (April 15, 1782). The collection also documents Lee’s brief and tumultuous service as solicitor general and attorney general. Of note is a letter from Lord Shelburne inviting Lee "on Wednesday next to kiss the King’s hand on being appointed Solicitor General to his Majesty" (April 15, 1782). After Rockingham’s death, Lee sent a letter to the Lord Chancellor offering his resignation (July 1782). Lord North signaled Lee's reappointment to solicitor general (April 13, 1783), and Lee received several letters of congratulation following his appointment to attorney general in November 1783.
Personal letters comprise a large portion of the collection. One of the most frequent contributors in the collection is Lady Rockingham, who often discussed politics, society, health and medicine, and everyday life. Lee wrote several affectionate letters to his wife and daughter. Though the letters contain few mentions of his religious affiliation, one letter from Reverend Theophilus Lindsey mentions Lee's support for the construction of a Unitarian chapel (June 22, 1793).
The bulk of the collection dated after Lee’s death consists of personal correspondence written to Lee’s wife and daughter. The letters of Lady Charlotte Wentworth are of particular interest, containing detailed descriptions of important events. Her March 7, 1799, letter contains notes on the difficult winter affecting merchants; events in Germany; Mr. Pitt’s planned union with Ireland; news of a wedding and a birth; and an account of Ambassador to Berlin Thomas Grenville’s ship being wrecked off of Newark Island, and Grenville’s narrow escape from the wreck. Another letter from Lady Wentworth in January 1805 documents Lady Rockingham’s death the previous month: "Mrs Thornton and her maid thought she walked toward the bed as if she was stronger than the preceding night & remarked it to her, but she told them they were mistaken, & before she was laid down, she said to Mrs. Thornton I feel ill, don't leave me I'm sure I am dying, they instantly sent for the medical person who lives close by, but before he came the symptoms of death were strong upon her, no violent pain but her breath grew very short." In 1815, Lady Busk wrote a letter to Mary Tabitha, in which she discussed the Battle of Waterloo: "What wonderful Revolutions have happen’d since my son and I left town, the battle of the 18th of last month was beyond all description…My Grandson Harry Vane we saw amongst the number of slightly wounded & am only surpriz’d any one person escap’d being kill’d as the contest lasted so many hours…it proves when God is for us who can be against us? & Bonaparte is now a mere Nothing! We may truly say, how are the mighty fallen!"
Also present is a Memoire of the Marquis of Rockingham, which contains a brief biography of Rockingham, a list of offices held, and an account of his death on July 1, 1782; an engraving of the Marquis of Rockingham (July 31, 1781); several epitaphs for inscriptions on tombs; and a few legal documents.