LEE, John (?1733-93), of Staindrop, co. Dur.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



20 Apr. 1782 - 1790
1790 - 5 Aug. 1793

Family and Education

b. ?1733, of a family established in Leeds since the 16th century.  educ. G. Inn 1751; L. Inn 1754, called 1756.  m. Mary, da. and h. of Thomas Hutchinson of Staindrop, co. Dur., 1da.

Offices Held

K.C. 1780; bencher, L. Inn 1780; solicitor-gen. Apr.-July 1782 and Apr.-Nov. 1783; attorney.-gen. Nov.-Dec. 1783.


John Lee, the youngest of ten children, was only three when his father died. His mother was a Dissenter, but Lee seems to have been brought up in the Church of England. In later life, however, he was a member of the Unitarian congregation which met at the Essex Street meeting house; and a close friend of Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, and other radicals and pro-Americans.

Some time before 1769 he became connected with Rockingham. Lee had by then a considerable practice at the bar, and Rockingham consulted him a good deal on legal matters. In 1769 Lee was associated with John Glynn in the defence of Wilkes; in 1774 appeared for Massachusetts before the Privy Council; and in 1779 defended Keppel at his court martial. Lee was concerned in the petitioning movement in Yorkshire in 1779, and followed Rockingham in opposing shorter Parliaments and parliamentary reform. In 1780 he was sufficiently close to Rockingham to be informed of the course of the negotiations with North. Yet before 1782 Rockingham appears to have made no attempt to bring him into Parliament, which considering Lee’s experience and ability seems strange.

Lee was appointed solicitor-general in the second Rockingham Administration, and a seat was found for him on the Lister interest at Clitheroe. On Rockingham’s death he resigned: ‘after the death of one excellent friend, and the secession of a great many others from public employment’, he wrote to Thurlow,1 ‘it cannot be an agreeable thing to me to remain longer in office’. In the Commons on 9 July he pronounced an encomium on Rockingham, and criticized the appointment of Shelburne.

Lee did not speak again until 17 Feb. 1783, the debate on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries.2 He condemned the treaty as ‘a disgraceful, wicked, and treacherous peace, inadequate to its object, and such as no man could vote to be honourable without delivering his character over to damnation for ever’. He then defended the Coalition between Fox and North. North was ‘honest and manly in his dealings ... his thoughts were upright, and his hands were clean’.

When he was to decide which of the two men to prefer, the noble Lord or the Earl of Shelburne, he could not hesitate for one moment; because he could not hesitate for one instant to prefer openness to concealment, and honesty to artifice. He spoke in most severe terms of the minister, and reprobated in the warmest terms the whole of his system. He had gained his situation by means not only mean but dishonest. He had shewn as little faith to his colleagues, as he had gratitude to the men who brought him into office; and all his dealings were marked with low cunning and jesuitical hypocrisy.

Walpole describes Lee’s manner as ‘very brutal’;3 and Wraxall writes:4 ‘During the whole time I sat in Parliament, I never was present at a speech more personally abusive.’

Lee returned to office with the Coalition; and in November 1783, on the death of James Wallace, was promoted attorney-general. On the third reading of Fox’s East India bill, 8 Dec. 17835

he declared he was as much an enemy to the influence of the Crown as ever, and said if the new influence, so much complained of in the present bill, had been given to the Crown, he should have been against it. He passed an eulogium on Mr. Fox; said that he did not care a rush for his office ... if it were not that his holding it were necessary for the support of his right honourable friend. He urged the folly of talking of the sacredness of chartered rights, when so great an object depended on their violation, and asked what was the consideration of a charter ... compared to the happiness of thirty millions of subjects, and the preservation of a mighty empire?

Lee was dismissed with the Coalition. In the Parliament of 1784 only seven speeches by him are recorded—six on the Westminster scrutiny and one on the Bedfordshire election; and none after Feb. 1785. He voted with the Opposition throughout this Parliament, but otherwise seems to have faded out completely.

He died 5 Aug. 1793, aged 60.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. Rockingham Mems. ii. 121.
  • 2. Debrett, ix. 287-8.
  • 3. Last Jnls. ii. 484.
  • 4. Mems. ii. 432.
  • 5. Debrett, xii. 391.