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LEE, JOHN (1733–1793), lawyer and politician, a member of a family settled in Leeds since the early part of the sixteenth century, was born in 1733. He was the youngest of ten children, and his father dying in 1736, he was principally brought up under the influence of his mother, a woman of superior talents, who, although a protestant dissenter, was a friend of Archbishop Secker. She designed John for the church, but in spite of his pious disposition and keen interest in theology and in church matters, he was more fitted by his blunt and boisterous manner for the law, and he was accordingly called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn and joined the northern circuit. Though his advancement was slow, his learning and dexterity, his ready eloquence and rough humour eventually gave him an equal share with Wallace of the leadership of the circuit, and he held the office of attorney-general for the county palatine of Lancaster till he died. In April 1769 he appeared before the House of Commons as counsel for the petitioners against the return of Colonel Luttrell for the county of Middlesex. The petition failed, but this debate was long remembered at the bar. The government offered him a seat in the house and a silk gown in 1769, and in 1770 a silk gown, with the appointment of solicitor-general to the queen, was again offered to him, but he refused both offers on political grounds. On 18 Sept. 1769 he became, however, recorder of Doncaster. In 1779 he was one of the counsel for Admiral Keppel when he was tried by court-martial for his conduct in the engagement off Ushant on 12 July 1778. Upon his acquittal Keppel sent to Lee a fee of 1,000l., and this being refused, he presented to each of his counsel, Erskine, Dunning, and Lee, a replica of his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1780 Lee became a king's counsel, and in the second Rockingham administration was appointed solicitor-general, and came into parliament for Clitheroe in Lancashire. Subsequently he was elected for Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, and sat for that place till he died. He resigned office on Lord Rockingham's death, but returned to it under the Duke of Portland, and on the death of Wallace at the end of 1783, he was promoted to be attorney-general, and held the office till the Duke of Portland was dismissed. In politics he was a thoroughgoing party man. One of his maxims was, ‘Never speak well of a political enemy.’ Wilkes spoke of him as having been in the House of Commons ‘a most impudent dog,’ and attributed his success there in comparison with other lawyers to this characteristic (Croker, Boswell, vii. 52). Wraxall (Historical Memoirs, ii. 237) calls him ‘a man of strong parts and coarse manners, who never hesitated to express in the coarsest language whatever he thought,’ and says of him that he ‘carried his indecorous abuse of the new first lord of the treasury to even greater lengths than any other individual of the party dismissed from power’ (see, too, Lord E. Fiztmaurice, Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, iii. 457; Doran, Walpole's Last Journals, ii. 585). At the bar he was universally known as ‘honest Jack Lee,’ was distinguished for his integrity, and amassed a large fortune. Having been injured by a wrench while riding, he was attacked by cancer, and dying on 5 Aug. 1793 he was buried at Staindrop, Durham, a seat which he obtained by his marriage with Miss Hutchinson, by whom he had one daughter. His portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1786, and was exhibited in that year at the Royal Academy.

[Lord Albemarle's Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham, 1852, whose account of Lee is prepared from papers furnished by Lee's family, including a memoir prepared by his widow; see, too, Twiss's Life of Lord Eldon, i. 107, 132; Gent. Mag. 1793, ii. 772, 859; Nichols's Literary Illustrations, iv. 832; Trevelyan's Early Hist. of Fox, p. 441; Campbell's Chief Justices, iii. 104.]

J. A. H.