Charles Lee served as attorney general of the United States from 1795 to 1801 under presidents GEORGE WASHINGTON and JOHN ADAMS.
Lee, born in 1758 in Leesylvania, Virginia, descended from a prominent English family. His earliest known ancestor, Lionel Lee, received a title and estate from William the Conqueror. The Lee line in the United States traced back to 1649, when Richard Lee, a member of Charles I's PRIVY COUNCIL, emigrated to help settle the Virginia colonies. Prior to the American Revolution, six of Richard Lee's descendants served simultaneously in the governing body known as the Virginia House of Burgesses; one of those descendants was Charles Lee's father, Henry Lee II.
Lee's father was a well-educated farmer with extensive landholdings in Virginia. His mother, Lucy Grymes Lee, had been admired and courted by George Washington prior to her marriage. In fact, Lee's mother continued to cultivate Washington's interest long after her marriage—and it was largely owing to her influence that Lee's brother, Henry Lee III (a future general and statesman, and father of General Robert E. Lee) and Lee himself were able to advance far and fast in their chosen careers.
Lee probably followed his brother to the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton). From the beginning, he was interested in the law. He completed his legal studies in Philadelphia under Attorney Jared Ingersoll, and he was admitted to the bar in about 1780. As a young lawyer, he served as a delegate to the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, and he was a member of the Virginia Assembly. But Lee also maintained his family's tradition of military service. He served as chief naval officer of the District of the Potomac for more than a decade. He resigned in December 1795, when he was appointed attorney general of the United States by President Washington.
When Lee's predecessor, Attorney General WILLIAM BRADFORD, died suddenly in August 1795, Washington was faced with the difficult task of appointing the nation's third attorney general in just six years. The position had little to recommend it. It was a part-time job with no staff, little power, and many demands. Because Lee felt duty bound to repay Washington for years of family support and patronage, he honored Washington's request to take the job. He served as attorney general for the balance of Washington's term and for the entire Adams administration—from December 10, 1795, to February 18, 1801.
The role of the attorney general in Lee's time was to conduct all the suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States was a party, and to give advice and opinions to the president and Congress when requested. Because few suits had made their way to the High Court through the nation's fledgling court system, Lee did not spend much time trying cases. Some of his time was occupied with administrative responsibilities: once in office, his first order of business was to finish a task started by Bradford, the establishment of a fee schedule for compensating federal judicial officers. The vast majority of Lee's time was spent writing opinions that would help to shape the direction of the evolving government.
The nation's first investigation of a federal judge took place in 1796 when the House of Representatives considered a petition to impeach Ohio territorial judge George Turner for criminal misconduct. Given the difficulty of conducting a long-distance IMPEACHMENT proceeding, Lee was asked if there was another way to address the complaint against Turner. Lee's opinion that "a judge may be prosecuted … for official misdemeanors or crimes … before an ordinary court" cleared the way for the high court in Ohio to settle the matter.
In the 1790s, it was commonly believed that insulting or defaming a representative of a foreign government was punishable by INTERNATIONAL LAW. But when Adams asked Lee if the United States could bring a LIBEL action against the editor of Porcupine's Gazette for an allegedly defamatory article about a Spanish ambassador, Lee's opinion anticipated the free speech concerns of such a prosecution. Lee conceded that foreign representatives were due the respect of the U.S. citizenry, but he also noted that "the line between freedom and licentiousness of the press [had] not yet been distinctly drawn by judicial decision."
In another international matter, Lee was asked to render an opinion in a volatile EXTRADITION dispute. Jonathan Robbins was charged with murder on board a British ship. British authorities wanted him bound over to face the charges, but he fought extradition, claiming that he was a U.S. citizen who had been imprisoned on the ship. Lee and SECRETARY OF STATE Timothy Pickering argued that the treaty governing extradition did not apply to crimes committed on the high seas; thus, President Adams was under no obligation to surrender Robbins. The president disagreed with his advisers and delivered Robbins to the British authorities. Adams's decision was extremely unpopular with the public, and his actions may have contributed to the defeat of his party in the subsequent presidential election.
In 1803 Lee represented William Marbury against President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state, JAMES MADISON (MARBURY V. MADISON,
5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 ). Marbury was appointed by Adams, Jefferson's predecessor, as a JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, but owing to the rush and confusion surrounding the eleventh-hour appointment, Marbury's commission had not been delivered. When Jefferson ordered Madison to withhold delivery of the commission, Marbury filed suit. Lee lost the case when the Supreme Court ruled that the act of Congress under which Marbury had been issued his commission was unconstitutional. Significantly, Marbury established the federal judiciary as the supreme authority in determining the constitutionality of law.
Four years later, Lee was more successful in his defense of statesman and former vice president AARON BURR, who was tried and acquitted on charges of TREASON (a violation of the allegiance one owes to one's sovereign or to the state) (United States v. Burr, 25 F. Cas. 2 ). In 1806 Burr had traveled west to promote settlement of land in the Louisiana Territory. His intentions were suspect, and he soon found himself accused of treason for planning to initiate a separation of the western territories from the United States. Lee had been a longtime Burr supporter, and he took the case, winning an acquittal.
Lee died June 24, 1815, in Fauquier County near Warrenton, Virginia.