The Other Charles Lee - Attorney General of the Adams Administration
Charles Lee was the third Attorney General of the United States.
Lee also acted as the Federalists go-to lawyer for many important Supreme Court cases during the Jefferson Administration.
The Lee Family
Not to be confused with the Major General, this Charles Lee was part of the famous Lee Family of Virginia. He was a brother of Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ and cousins with Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Arthur Lee and William Lee.
After studying law and passing the bar, Charles opened up a successful practice.
His ascent into important cases was no doubt affected by the fame of his family.
By late 1795, President George Washington was in need of a new United States Attorney General.
Charles’ ability as a prosecutor having been refined, coupled with the ever present need to satisfy the desires of the Lee family, led to him being chosen as the third Attorney General.
Lee remained as Attorney General through the end of Washington’s Presidency and continued through the Adams Administration. Charles was the only cabinet member to remain with Adams for his entire term in office.
Alien and Sedition Acts
As Attorney General, Charles Lee was authorized with enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts.
These Acts (specifically the Sedition Act) were aimed at Democratic-Republican newspapers. They made it illegal to speak poorly about the United States Government, especially the President.
During these years, Lee prosecuted several famous publishers. These men were all pardoned when Thomas Jefferson became President just two years later.
Marbury v. Madison
As a Federalist, Lee was not welcome when the Jefferson Administration stepped into the White House.
Charles went into private practice and took up several important cases. Most notable of these cases was Marbury v. Madison. In these proceedings, Lee worked for the legal team which sued the government.
The case is extremely complicated, but the end result was an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall which established the process of Judicial Review. This means the Supreme Court gave itself the ability to determine if laws were constitutional or not.
An interesting note is, if this Marbury v. Madison had taken place earlier, Judicial Review most likely would have determine the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.
At this point, Charles Lee had established himself as a Federalist defender against the Democratic-Republican Party who dominated the National Government.
Following Marbury, Lee was asked to defend Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase during his impeachment trial.
This marked the final time Charles Lee, one of the most important lawyers of the Founding Generation, stood in front of the Supreme Court.
To learn about America’s first Attorney General, check out my essay on Edmund Randolph.
If you want to know more about the Marbury v. Madison case, I recommend picking up a copy of ‘The Great Decision’ through the affiliate link below.
Don’t forget to subscribe to my email list for a new Founder every day.