Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

Henry, Patrick

Patrick Henry was one of the most important and recognizable Patriot leaders in the American Revolution. He was born on May 29, 1739, in Hanover County, Virginia, the son of a prosperous Scottish-born planter, John Henry, and Sarah Winston Syme. Henry married twice, first to Sarah Shelton (who died in 1775) and then, in 1777, to Dorothea Dandridge. They would altogether have 16 children.

After attending a local school until he was ten, Henry was ably educated at home by his father, who had stood out as a scholar at King's College, Aberdeen, in the 1720s. He told John Adams in 1774 that he read Virgil and Livy when he was 15 and "has not looked into a Latin Book since." That was the year "his father left him" and "he has been struggling thro Life ever since." John Henry was a committed adherent to the Church of England (his brother, an Anglican minister, accompanied him to Virginia) and, by all accounts, a patriotic North Briton.

Patrick Henry tried a number of livelihoods, including managing a tavern, without success, which led him to turn to the law. Educating himself sufficiently enough about British law and the colonial courts to pass examination by George Wythe and John Randolph, Henry was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1760 and quickly became well-known for his oratory. A contemporary, Edmund Randolph, would later recall that Henry's eloquence "blazed so as to warm the coldest hearts." In December 1763 he made a name for himself with an especially impressive performance in the damages hearing of what became known as the Parson's Cause, a dispute between the provincial government and the colony's clergy. Laying out themes that would come to characterize his political life and style, Henry first avoided gentlemen as jurors, instead having the sheriff impanel smaller farmers. He then based his arguments on a defense of representative government in the British constitution and portrayed the clergy as pitted against the best interests of the common people of Virginia. The jury subsequently awarded the clergymen damages of one penny.

Although Henry maintained an active legal practice (he argued more than 1,000 cases in his first three years), he entered politics in 1765 with his election to the House of Burgesses. During his first session, Henry impressed a young Thomas Jefferson with a speech that defended the interests of smaller farmers in western Virginia against a plan to refinance the debt of wealthy Tidewater planters. Several days later, on May 29, Henry introduced his seven Stamp Act Resolves, which strongly denied Parliament's authority to tax the colonies but used language that the rather less well-educated majority of Virginians could understand and support. More moderate members of the House such as Peyton Randolph and Landon Carter opposed the resolves as ineffectual for accomplishing their aims. Henry's fifth resolve was the most disconcerting, declaring that "every Attempt to vest" the power of taxation anywhere but the Virginia assembly "has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom." His emotional speech in support of the resolves, which invoked Caesar and Brutus as an example from which George III might benefit, brought understandable cries of treason from several of his fellow legislators, yet five of the seven resolves narrowly passed on May 30 (although the most virulent of them — the fifth — was expunged from the House's journal the next day, after Henry's departure, so that it could not be used as a precedent).

It is important to note that the other colonies experienced Henry's resolves rather differently than his fellow burgesses did, without regard to which ones actually passed the House and remained on its records. In Rhode Island, the Newport Mercury printed six of the resolves on June 24, 1765. All seven were printed by the Boston Gazette (on July 1) and the Maryland Gazette (on July 7), and in other colonial papers, which gave the false impression that Virginia's actions were more radical than in fact they were. Francis Fauquier, Virginia's lieutenant governor, described them, with somewhat more accuracy, to his London superiors as "violent Resolutions" that were only "the effect of heat in the few Members of the Assembly present." In Massachusetts Bay, on the other hand, its governor, Sir Francis Bernard, wrote that they sounded "an alarm bell to the disaffected." Either way, Henry's resolves placed Virginia, for so long respected for its political moderation, at the forefront of the revolutionary movement.

As the constitutional crisis deepened in the 1770s, Henry's role as the acknowledged leader of the radical Whig opposition in Virginia became more pronounced. In March 1773 he worked with Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and others in establishing the first intercolonial committee of correspondence. Appointed to the First Continental Congress, there he memorably proclaimed that the "distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American." Silas Deane, one of Henry's fellow delegates, at the time proclaimed him "the completest Speaker I ever heard." Back in Virginia at the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775, he strenuously supported placing the province "into a posture of defense" with yet another memorable speech (although whether he actually said "give me liberty or give me death" is a matter of some debate because the evidence for it is meager). The following month he led the Hanover County militia against the royal governor, the Earl of Dunmore, demanding that Dunmore return more than 15 barrels of gunpowder the governor had clandestinely removed from the Public Magazine on April 21. Satisfied with being paid £330 for the value of the gunpowder, he dismissed his troops on May 4 and rode to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Dunmore declared him an outlaw on May 6, causing numerous Virginia counties to pledge to protect him from arrest and three companies of volunteers to escort him to the Maryland border.

Henry left Congress in the summer of 1775 to accept command of the 1st Virginia Regiment, one of two raised by the Third Virginia Convention for the colony's defense, with Henry as senior officer of the entire force. Subsequent difficulties between Henry and revolutionary Virginia's chief executive body, the Committee of Safety, combined with the failure of Congress to commission him a brigadier general, led to his resignation on February 28, 1776. Thereafter he devoted himself to politics as a member of the Virginia Convention that declared independence and drafted a constitution for the state, serving twice as Virginia's governor (from 1776 to 1779 and again from 1784 to 1786) and continuing in the Virginia legislature from 1786 to 1790.

On constitutional questions, Henry was active on a number of fronts, from questions concerning religion (promoting a plan for public support for all religious persuasions rather than Jefferson's strict separation of church and state), to active opposition of the federal constitution of 1787 (primarily because it lacked a Bill of Rights). The violence of the French Revolution and the radicalism of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1799 pushed Henry into the Federalist Party, under which affiliation he successfully ran for another term in legislature. He died on June 6, 1799, before he could take his seat.

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