First Lady of Maryland
Mary Digges was born in Maryland in 1745, on her family’s estate, Mellwood Park, the daughter of Ignatius and Elizabeth Parnham Craycroft Digges, prominent landowners in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The family home received such distinguished guests as George Washington. The future President would visit Mary’s father, Ignatius Digges, for a brief rest from his travels around the colonies.
Image: Mary Digges Lee
Portrait by John Wollaston
The Digges were Roman Catholic, and Ignatius consented to the marriage only after Thomas, an Anglican, wrote a series of heartfelt letters during the summer of 1771 giving his assurance that he would convert and that all their children would be raised Catholic.
Coming from such a prominent family, it was fitting that Mary would be courted by the son of another prominent family, the Blenheim branch of the Lee family. Thomas Sim Lee was born in Maryland on October 29, 1745. His was educated in the private schools of his native state, and may have studied in Europe as well.
On October 27, 1771, Mary Digges and Thomas Sim Lee were married at her home, Mellwood Park. They lived at Needwood, which is now in Frederick County, and had seven children who survived to adulthood. They were very committed to their religious and community ties. They founded the St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Petersville, Maryland.
The couple were very active in patriotic activities during the American Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Lee organized a local militia in which he served as colonel. He entered politics in 1777, serving as a member of the Governor’s Executive Council, a position he held two years.
The Maryland Legislature elected Thomas Lee as the second governor of Maryland in 1779, and he was reelected in 1780 and 1781. During his first tenure, Maryland officers reported deplorable conditions suffered by the Continental troops.
In the summer of 1780, Mary, now First Lady of Maryland, rallied the support of Maryland’s women to provide much needed supplies for the soldiers. She personally collected money and materials for the troops and encouraged other women to contribute to the war effort.
In August, when a desperate plea was made for linen to be used in shirts by Maryland’s Extraordinary Regiment, Mrs. Lee drew upon the combined resources of the Maryland women and ordered that 260 be delivered to the troops immediately.
With supply shortages the most immediate threat, General George Washington appealed to his friend, Governor Lee for assistance, stating “unless some extraordinary and immediate exertions are made by the States from which we draw supplies, there is every appearance that the army will infallibly disband by fortnight.”
Governor Lee in turn appealed to his wife Mary for support. Determined to come to the aid of her countrymen, Mary called for the support of Maryland’s women in collecting much needed supplies. Responding to the pleas for linen to be used to make shirts for the soldiers, Mary rallied the women together and ordered that 260 shirts be delivered at once. She received a letter of gratitude from the Council of Maryland.
On September 27th, 1780, Mary wrote to General Washington for input on how best to utilize the money and materials that she had collected. She proudly proclaimed that they had raised “a considerable sum for the relief of the American army.”
On October 11th, Washington replied with gratitude to Mary for the “patriotic exertions of the ladies of Maryland in favor of the army.” He praised her for her assistance and recognized the generosity of Maryland’s women. Also in his letter, the general directed that the money be dedicated to the purchase of shirts and black socks for the troops in the Southern army where the need was the most grave.
After completing his term as governor, Thomas Lee left office on November 22, 1782. He served in the Continental Congress in 1783, and was a member of the State convention that ratified the US Constitution in 1788.
Although he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the US Constitution, Thomas Lee was an important participant in the process of their creation. He worked closely with many of the Founding Fathers and played an important part in the birth of the nation and his state.
In 1792, Lee was again elected governor of Maryland. He was reelected to a fourth term in 1793, and to a fifth term in 1794. During his final tenure, the state militia was re-established and reorganized to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.
Thomas Lee left office on November 14, 1794. Later that same year, he declined a seat in the state senate, and didn’t seek the governorship in 1798. After he retired from political life, Governor Lee focused his attention on his Frederick County estate, Needwood, where he and Mary lived out their lives.
Mary Digges Lee acted in defense of her country at a time when women of her social status were expected to remain behind the scenes. While her aid to the war effort was very important, her actions hold a deeper significance for American women. Through her actions, she earned her title of First Lady of Maryland, as well as her place in American history. She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
Mary Digges Lee died on January 25, 1805 at the age of 60.
Thomas Sim Lee remained a widower until his death at Needwood on October 9, 1819, at the age of 74, and was buried at the family estate. He was reinterred at Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Cemetery near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1888.