Barnard E. Bee, attorney, soldier, and statesman, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1787, the son of Thomas B. Bee, member of the Royal Privy Council in colonial South Carolina and of the Continental Congress, lieutenant governor of South Carolina, and justice of the United States Circuit Court of South Carolina during the administration of George Washington. Barnard Bee studied law in Charleston, served on the staff of his brother-in-law and Governor James Hamilton of South Carolina, and became a primary influence upon Hamilton's interest in Texas. As Hamilton's aide, Bee was a prominent advocate of nullification in South Carolina in 1832. In 1836, however, shortly after the battle of San Jacinto, he moved to Texas and settled near Houston. He joined the Army of the Republic of Texas but resigned to serve first as secretary of the treasury and later as secretary of state in David G. Burnet's ad interim government. When Antonio López de Santa Anna was sent to Washington after the battle of San Jacinto, George W. Hockley, Reuben M. Potter, and Bee accompanied him. Bee lent Santa Anna $3,000 in return for a draft on the Mexican general's Mexico City bank. When Bee attempted to cash the draft, however, Santa Anna refused to honor it, insisting that he had signed the draft under duress as a prisoner of war. Bee served as secretary of war under Sam Houston and later as secretary of state in the first administration of Mirabeau B. Lamar.
When the Mexican Federalists seemed friendly to the idea of Texas independence, Bee resigned as secretary of state in order to enter diplomatic service. On February 20, 1839, the new republic dispatched him to Mexico City as minister and agent to the government of Mexico. Texas officials did not believe that he would be recognized as minister, since recognition would constitute a de facto recognition of Texas independence. Nevertheless, as agent Bee hoped to negotiate a peace and secure that recognition. He was authorized to offer Mexico $5 million for the recognition of Texas independence, with the Rio Grande as the republic's southern boundary. Finally, if his other proposals failed, he was authorized to "propose a compromise by negotiating for the purchase of all that portion of [Texas] which is not within the original boundaries."
Bee arrived at Veracruz on the French frigate La Gloire in early May but remained on board until he received permission to come ashore. He was eventually allowed to land despite avidly unfavorable public sentiment. He stated his government's proposals to Gen. Guadalupe Victoria, who forwarded them to the Mexican Council of State, which rejected them unanimously. At the same time Bee was privately threatened with imprisonment. Santa Anna was by then back in control of the Mexican government and refused to meet with Bee. The mission came to naught. On May 24, 1839, Bee informed Texas authorities of Mexico's rejection and sailed for the United States by way of Havana.
On April 20, 1840, Bee, who was already in the United States, replaced Richard G. Dunlap as Texas minister plenipotentiary in Washington. Soon after assuming his duties, however, in ill health, he went to visit his family in South Carolina, and he did not return to Washington until the following December. On February 21, 1841, he accepted his government's instructions to attempt to negotiate a general treaty of amity and commerce with Spain and its West Indies possession, Cuba. In a letter to the Chevalier d'Argaiz, the Spanish minister at Washington, Bee observed that "a natural bond of Union and sympathy between Texas and Cuba is found in the great dependence of both countries upon slave labor, both regarding with extreme regret, the spirit of fanaticism abroad in certain portions of the world ready to despoil by the manumission of slaves, without indemnity to the holder, honest citizens of the right guaranteed to them by the laws under which they live." Although Spain declined to enter into open treaty negotiations with Texas, it did allow free trade between Texas and Cuba. Bee also took up the question of Indian raids out of the United States into the Republic of Texas. The administration of Martin Van Buren proved hostile to Texas interests, however, and Bee decided after suffering several rebuffs to curtail his business until William Henry Harrison was inaugurated. Harrison's untimely death further delayed Bee's mission, but on April 12, 1841, after the inauguration of John Tyler, the Texas minister reopened the questions of Indian depredations, a treaty of commerce, and the extradition of criminals. After initial positive meetings with United States secretary of state Daniel Webster, Bee again stalled negotiations by departing for South Carolina. He returned to Washington in June, however, and formalized the treaty with the United States. On July 27, 1841, he submitted it to Webster, but not until January 16, 1843, was the treaty ratified. By that time, however, Bee was no longer minister. Sam Houston had been inaugurated president of the Republic of Texas on December 13, 1841, and, thinking that Bee's many absences from his Washington post were "injurious to the interests of this Government and disrespectful to that of the United States," recalled him on December 27 and replaced him with James Riley. Bee retorted lamely that his actions had been in the best interests of Texas.
On March 15, 1842, after Rafael Vásquez captured San Antonio, Bee was elected chairman of a meeting of Harris County citizens that advocated war against Mexico. A unit was raised under Bee, Moseley Baker, and A. C. Allen to report to Alexander Somervell, but was never called to active service. Bee was opposed to annexation and returned to South Carolina in 1846. He died there in 1854. He was the father of Confederate generals Hamilton P. Bee and Barnard E. Bee, Jr. Bee County was named in his honor in 1857. His papers are in the Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.