Born May 29, 1736
Died June 6, 1799
Charlotte County, Virginia
Politician, lawyer, public speaker
During Revolutionary times most Americans got their information by the spoken word. Patrick Henry's fiery speeches inspired the American colonies to turn their dreams of freedom from England into reality. His ability to relate to the common man as well as lawmakers allowed him to capture the loyalty of a wide audience and become one of the major heroes of the American Revolution.
Patrick Henry was the son of John Henry, a wealthy planter, and his wife, Sarah Winston Syme Henry. He was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. For a few years he attended the local schools, but he was mostly taught by his father, who had attended college in his Scottish homeland.
At sixteen he and his older brother, William, opened their own store. Despite their hard work, the store soon failed. In 1754, young Patrick Henry married Sarah Shelton, the daughter of a prosperous family who lived nearby. In time the Henrys had six children.
Henry's father-in-law gave the young couple a three-hundred-acre farm and slaves to work the land. In those days, most large farms were worked by slaves. Henry ran the farm until a fire destroyed his house. Then he went to work again as a storekeeper, also working for a time in his father-in-law's tavern.
Begins practicing law
In 1760 at age twenty-three, Henry decided to become a lawyer. Over the next several years, the intelligent young man built a successful law practice. Henry first gained a reputation as a champion of the common man in December 1763. He was defending some local churchgoers in a lawsuit over money matters filed by the church's minister. During the case, the eloquent Henry displayed deep concern about injustices done to common people.
Early political involvement
Henry began his political career in 1765 when he won a seat in the House of Burgesses (pronounced BER-juss-es), the lower house of the Virginia legislature (its lawmaking body). The red-headed young man brought an outspoken, direct style to the House that impressed his listeners.
Henry's reputation spread beyond Virginia when he took part in protests against taxes the British imposed on the colonies. One such tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, required that Americans purchase stamps and specially stamped paper to be used for all documents. As a lawyer, Henry would be affected by such a tax on legal documents; so would his clients.
In May 1765 the House of Burgesses passed Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolves. The document branded the Stamp Act unfair and illegal. It also included a resolution claiming the colony of Virginia had the legal right to make laws on its own, without England's approval. To openly make such claims was an act that took courage; Henry could be severely punished by Great Britain for this kind of talk. He soon became known around America as a strong opponent of the policies of the British Empire.
During the 1760s Henry was kept busy raising his young family and furthering his legal career. In 1769 he received official approval to practice law before the General Court, Virginia's highest court.
As tensions mounted between the colonists and the British government, Henry remained a member of the House of Burgesses. Opinion was divided on the question of how to handle the quarrel with England. Henry joined other members of the House who spoke out early in favor of a complete break with England. He also favored the establishment of a new type of government in the colonies that would give more power to the average citizen. Among Henry's allies were Thomas Jefferson see entry, who later became a U.S. president, and Virginia patriot Richard Henry Lee (see box).
Supports development of American political organizations
In 1773 Henry helped establish committees of correspondence in the colonies. These were groups that aroused public opinion and organized acts of defiance against Great Britain. Soon England began punishing the colonies for their acts of resistance. Harsher laws and restrictions on trade were put in place by British authorities. But as a result of this crack-down, the colonies drew closer together in their opposition to Great Britain.
In 1775 Royal Governor John Dunmore of Virginia (he was appointed by the king of England) dissolved the meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses because lawmakers there proposed a day of mourning over unfair British taxation policies.
In response to Dunmore's actions, Henry held illegal and informal sessions of the House at a tavern in Richmond, Virginia. He called for members to support a constitutional convention for Virginia to organize a new system of government. He also called for a continental congress, a meeting where representatives of all the colonies would gather to decide what to do about America's political future.
Delivers stirring speech in Congress
The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 1774. Representatives of twelve of the thirteen colonies met there to express grievances against British taxation policies. Henry served as one of the seven delegates from Virginia.
The members of the First Continental Congress could basically be divided into two groups: conservatives, who hoped to patch up the quarrel with England, and radicals—like Henry—who were determined to resist.
Henry was well known among those in attendance and he received several important committee assignments. He gave a speech that impressed his listeners when he declared, "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."
According to historian George F. Willison, at this time Henry was "some six feet tall, [and] trim… [He] was not ahandsome man, but personable and engaging. His manner toward all men, from the humblest to the highest, was quiet, friendly, and unaffected… Henry when speaking publicly wasoften something of an actor… Even so, his words and his posturing [often] carried the day."
The First Continental Congress prepared several petitions, which they sent to King George III see entry in 1774. The petitions included complaints about British oppression and objections to the Intolerable Acts, measures put in place by the British to punish the colonists for acts of rebellion. The Congress then adjourned, agreeing to meet again in May 1775 if King George had not responded satisfactorily to their petitions.
Calls for an army kept ready for action
By the winter of 1774–75, Henry saw a war as unavoidable. He organized a militia (pronounced ma-LISH-a; a volunteer group of citizen-soldiers) to defend his home county of Hanover against the British. Tragedy struck the Henry family early in 1775 when Sarah, who had shown signs of serious mental illness, died from unknown causes. Henry was left to raise their children on his own.
In 1775 Henry assumed a leadership role in Virginia's Revolutionary government, called the Convention of Virginia. It replaced the lawmaking body approved by the British government, the Virginia House of Burgesses. At the first meeting of the Convention in March 1775, there was much disagreement as to whether the Virginia colonists should seek a peaceful solution to their problems with England.
This meeting marked the high point of Henry's fame. It was here that he uttered his legendary remarks in support of preparing for war. He was reported to have said, "Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God! I know not what course oth ers may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" Virginians decided to arm themselves in preparation for a pos sible war of independence.
When Governor Dunmore heard what had taken place at the Virginia Convention, he sent a small group of British soldiers to seize arms and ammunition the revolutionaries had stored in Williamsburg, Virginia. The soldiers were only partly successful; their mission was discovered before they could complete it.
The colonists protested the governor's actions and threatened him with violence. An angry Henry planned to set out from Hanover to Williamsburg with his local militia unit to demand payment for the seized guns and gunpowder. It took several men to persuade Henry and his troops not to march forward and carry out their plan.
Henry attends Second Continental Congress
On May 18, 1775, Henry attended the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Just one month before, the Concord, Massachusetts, militia had exchanged gunfire with British troops, then forced them back to Boston. In part because of this event, Henry urged that local militias be formed, equipped, and trained to defend the colonies if it became necessary.
While Henry was away in Philadelphia, the Virginia Convention formed two military units. By a slim vote, the convention elected Henry to command one of the units and act as senior officer to both divisions, even though he had little military experience. Henry was quite successful at getting recruits for the unit he commanded. But there were people in power who did not care for him. On December 9, 1775, those people sent Henry's second unit out to fight against Governor Dunmore without Henry as senior officer. Then, in early 1776, both militia units were combined and made part of the newly formed Continental army. Henry was to serve as a colonel (pronounced KER-nuhl) in his old regiment, under the command of men he had formerly led.
Enraged at the insults, Henry declined to serve. To protest this poor treatment of their commander, his entire unit nearly quit. But Henry displayed real character when, despite his personal disappointment, he urged his men to stay and serve under the new officers.
Serves as governor
His military career went nowhere, but Patrick Henry's political career flourished. On May 6, 1776, Henry once again was elected to the Virginia Convention. He successfully urged his fellow delegates there to adopt Richard Henry Lee's resolutions to be presented at the next session of the Second Continental Congress. The resolutions were a bold call for independence from England and the creation of a declaration of independence. At the Virginia Convention, Henry also drafted and had adopted a constitution for the new Commonwealth of Virginia. (Some states prefer to call themselves commonwealths rather than states.)
Virginia voters elected Henry as their first governor and he began serving his term in July 1776. Henry found that the Virginia governorship was a largely ceremonial office with very little power. He had problems raising and equipping an army to serve in the Revolutionary War (1775–83), but he did the best he could. He did manage to set up a court system and get some government offices up and running.
In October 1777 Henry married Dorothea Dandridge, a woman from an old and wealthy Virginia family. The couple went on to have ten children. Henry would find it a struggle trying to support the many children from his two marriages. In time the Henrys relocated to a ten-thousand-acre plantation in faraway Henry County, named for Patrick Henry.
Opposes Jefferson-Madison group
In 1779 Henry left the Virginia governorship. In 1780 he won a seat to the House of Delegates, the lower house of the Virginia legislature known as the General Assembly. The Assembly had been established by the new Virginia Constitution four years earlier. He served there until 1784. Even though his attendance was irregular, he soon became one of its most important members.
Henry was always looking out for the common man. He supported tax reduction and financial relief for people in debt. Other men in the legislature had different ideas about government. Henry's chief opponent in the house was James Madison see entry, a supporter of then-Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson. Henry and his followers managed to block almost every bill proposed by the Jefferson-Madison group.
In 1784 Virginia voters once again elected Henry governor. With his family he returned to Richmond, where he served as governor until his resignation in 1786. He then bought a farm in Prince Edward County, where he and his family lived for the next six years. He represented the county in the Virginia legislature.
Opposes U.S. Constitution
The Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War was signed in 1783. It soon became obvious that the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777, were not adequate to govern an independent and expanding United States. A new constitution was needed. A Federal Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May 1787 to draft a new U.S. Constitution. Conventions were then held in each of the states to vote on whether to accept the document.
When representatives from Virginia met at their state constitutional convention in 1788, Henry opposed the adoption of the proposed Constitution of the United States. His chief objection was that it had no bill of rights to safeguard individual citizens. He also complained that the proposed Constitution made the federal government too strong and took away states' rights. Henry wanted the United States to remain a loose union of states allied with one another. He feared that the adoption of the Constitution would turn it into "one great consolidated national government of the people of all the States."
Despite his opposition, the Constitution met with overwhelming support. But thanks in part to Henry, the final version of the Constitution did contain a Bill of Rights (the name given to the first ten amendments to the Constitution). The Bill of Rights protects the basic rights of individuals against the power of a strong federal government.
In the 1780s and 1790s, Henry turned down all offers to run for state or national government posts. He preferred to engage in his own law work. In 1790, now sixty-four and in declining health, Henry retired to Red Hill, a plantation near Brookneal, Virginia, part of his expanding real estate holdings. He worked hard at his law practice and earned huge fees as he won case after case. He also became one of the largest landholders in Virginia and surrounding states.
In the early 1790s, Henry surprised everyone when he abruptly left the Republican Party. The fiery young revolutionary had grown into a man who supported order in government. He believed the Republican Party had become too disruptive under the leadership of his old opponents, Jefferson and Madison. At the invitation of George Washington see entry and Richard Henry Lee, Henry joined the Federalist Party (see box in John Adams entry).
Henry ran for the state legislature in 1799 as a Federalist and easily won. But he was never to serve again. He died of cancer on June 6, 1799, at his Red Hill home in Charlotte County, Virginia. The enormous Henry family attended his funeral and he was laid to rest under a plain stone. The epitaph (a short composition written in memory of a person who has died) read: "His fame his best epitaph."
Thomas Jefferson remembered Henry as "the idol of his country beyond any man who ever lived." He later added, "It is not now easy to say what we [Americans] should have done without Patrick Henry."
For More Information
Allison, Robert J. "Patrick Henry" in American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, 1754–1783. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 221–22.
Boatner, Mark M. "Henry, Patrick" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 500–501.
Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula K. Byers. "Henry, Patrick" in Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998, vol. 7, pp. 309–11.
Meade, Robert Douthat. Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1969.
Risjord, Norman K. "Henry, Patrick" in Encyclopedia of American Biography. John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, eds. New York: Harper-Collins, 1996, pp. 538–39.
Willison, George F. Patrick Henry and His World. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1969.
Richard Henry Lee, Henry's Rebellious Companion
Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794) was a member of the distinguished Lee family of Virginia. From 1758 to 1775, Lee served in the House of Burgesses until that body was dissolved by the British.
Along with Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, Lee became widely known as an early defender of the rights of the colonies against England. In 1773 Lee and others proposed founding committees of correspondence, bodies that organized resistance in the colonies to British policies they saw as unfair. In 1773 Lee joined the newly formed Virginia Committee of Correspondence.
Lee served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1780. In June of 1776 he offered a famous resolution there that gave rise to the Declaration of Independence, which he later signed. His stirring resolution stated: "Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
Lee again served in Congress from 1784 to 1787, acting as its president from 1784 to 1785. Like Henry, Lee was an opponent of the early version of the U.S. Constitution, which he believed infringed on the rights of the individual states. He proposed a change in the document that was adopted, almost in his exact words, as the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. It states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." He served as a U.S. senator from Virginia from 1789 to 1792. Lee died on June 19, 1794, on his plantation near Stratford, Virginia.
"Give me liberty, or give me death!"
Speech given March 23, 1775; excerpted from Patrick Henry, 1966
"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
On December 16, 1773, a group of patriots from Boston, Massachusetts, disguised as Indians, dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to show their disgust over British taxes. The act became known as the Boston Tea Party. In early 1774, Great Britain passed the Intolerable Acts to punish Boston and Massachusetts for the Tea Party. One of the Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston. To show their sympathy for the citizens of Boston, who were suffering from having the port closed, members of the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colony's lawmaking body) declared a day of mourning. In response, the British-appointed governor of Virginia, John Murray (1732–1809), known as Lord Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses was still dissolved in early 1775, but its members continued to meet in secret.
Six months earlier, on September 5, 1774, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies met at the First Continental Congress to decide what to do about colonial relations with Great Britain. Congress asked that the delegates go home and meet with their fellow lawmakers to discuss the issue. Members of the Virginia House of Burgesses were assembled on March 20, 1775,
when Representative Patrick Henry (1736–1799) gave his famous "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech.
By March 1775, American colonists were very angry over British taxation policies, but outright war with Great Britain was not a certainty. There was much discussion, in fact, about how war could be avoided. Henry, who had long been in favor of a break with Great Britain, disagreed with those who wished to avoid a war. Instead, he rose and made a motion regarding military matters. Some delegates objected, saying he was being premature and that his motion closed the door on any chances for peace. Henry then proceeded to give his speech in support of his motion, insisting that war was coming, and it was time to get ready for it.
Henry began by pointing out that every effort toward a peaceful resolution had been met with insults and violence in the form of punishments (like the closing of the port of Boston). As a result, he believed there was no longer any hope of peace. He answered the fears of those who said America was too weak to prevail against Great Britain by saying they would never be any stronger than now. Furthermore, Americans would gain strength from the knowledge that their cause was "holy" and God was on their side. He concluded by saying that not to fight now meant slavery.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech:
- Patrick Henry's biographer, educator Moses Coit Tyler (1835–1900), questioned the motives of the delegates who objected to Henry's military proposals and caused him to make this famous speech. Tyler pointed out that the Virginia convention was not a legal meeting of the Virginia legislature; it was a gathering of revolutionaries. "Not a man, probably, was sent to that convention, not a man surely would have gone to it, who was not in substantial sympathy with the prevailing revolutionary spirit," wrote Tyler. Henry's proposals were not unusual; similar measures had been passed in other colonies.
- Tyler suggested that Virginia lawmakers objected "to Patrick Henry himself, and as far as possible to any measure of which he should be the leading champion."
- Henry was thought by many to be too extreme. He was proposing a headlong rush into the unknown, possibly a bloody war. Many of Virginia's lawmakers were wealthy planters who feared that a war with Great Britain would have devastating consequences to their way of life. As Tyler put it:
"Down to that day, no public body in America, and no public man, had openly spoken of a war with Great Britain in any more decisive way than as a thing highly probable, indeed, but still not inevitable." Patrick Henry's famous speech stepped over the line dividing private grumbling about Great Britain from public declarations of war. "The war is coming," he boldly declared; "it has come already."
Excerpt from "Give me liberty, or give me death!"
Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which isnow coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.
In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained,—we must fight! I repeat it sir,—we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us.
[Those who observed Henry's speech say that up to this point he was fairly calm. In the next part of the speech, according to Tyler, "his manner gradually deepened into an intensity of passion and a dramatic power which were overwhelming."]
They tell us, sir, that we are weak,—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?
Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.
Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone: it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on theplains of Boston. The war is inevitable. And let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! (Tyler, pp. 142–45)
What happened next …
Following Henry's speech, his fellow delegates sat in stunned silence for several minutes. They had expected a speech about military preparations, and what they had gotten instead was fiery talk about God, Heaven, slavery, and death. To hold back from war, Henry had grandly said, would be "an act of disloyalty to the majesty of Heaven." Finally, his fellow delegates pulled themselves together and passed Henry's motion, which proposed that Virginia "be immediately put into a posture of defense." Henry was put in charge of the committee to draw up a plan for arming and training Virginia's army of citizen-soldiers.
When Governor Dunmore heard what had taken place at the Virginia Convention, he sent a small group of British soldiers to seize the gunpowder that the revolutionaries had already stored in Williamsburg, Virginia. When hundreds of armed and angry Virginians threatened to take back the powder, Dunmore agreed to pay for the gunpowder but to show who was boss, he declared Patrick Henry an outlaw just as Henry was about to set off for the Second Continental Congress. Unfortunately for Dunmore, he had too few soldiers to pose any real threat to Henry, who appeared and served as a delegate at the Congress in May 1775.
Did you know …
- Patrick Henry's reputation as a forceful speaker on behalf of liberty was made on the day he gave this speech. To this day, Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech continues to be memorized and recited by American schoolchildren. But the speech was never written down by Henry. Different versions were reported by spectators. Historians have debated whether the preceding excerpt contains Henry's actual words, or are only more or less his actual words.
- In his speech, Henry made his own declaration of war against Great Britain. He went on to serve briefly as a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. During the war and after, he served five terms as governor of Virginia. After the war, he argued for the return of property and rights to Americans who had remained loyal to King George III (1738–1820), saying they would make good citizens of the new country.
Where to Learn More
Crompton, Samuel Willard. 100 Colonial Leaders Who Shaped North America. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, 1999.
Grote, Joann A. Patrick Henry: American Statesman and Speaker. New York: Chelsea House, 1999.
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Sabin, Louis. Patrick Henry, Voice of American Revolution. New York: Troll Communications, 1990.
Tyler, Moses Coit. Patrick Henry. New York: Ungar, 1966.
Patrick Henry, Orator and Statesman
Patrick Henry (1736–1799) was born in Hanover County, Virginia, which at that time was considered frontier territory. It was some distance away from the stately mansions of other notable Virginia families, such as the Washingtons and the Lees. Henry's father, John, was an educated and intelligent man, who was born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland. He worked at various times as county surveyor, soldier, and judge. Henry's mother was a cheerful and charming woman named Sarah Syme, whose Welsh (from Wales) relatives were famous for their musical and speechmaking abilities. About the young Patrick Henry, biographer Moses Coit Taylor wrote: "He and education never took kindly to each other." Henry was mostly taught at home by his father; his favorite subject was mathematics. In spite of John Henry's lack of money, the lively Henry home was a magnet for visitors, as the senior Henrys entertained often.
At age fifteen, Patrick Henry began his work training at a country store; a year later, he and his brother William opened their own store. William was lazier and more undisciplined than Patrick, and the store lasted only a year. At age eighteen, Henry fell in love with a young lady named Sarah Shelton, who was as poor as he was, and soon they married. Their parents set them up on a small farm, from which they managed to earn a meager living for two years. After a fire destroyed his home, Henry tried storekeeping again, but was no more successful than he had been before. By age twenty-three, with three children to feed and hopelessly in debt, Henry turned to the study of law and began practicing law in 1760. As a lawyer, he finally found an outlet for his speechmaking abilities, and over the next three years he won most of his cases.
Henry's reputation spread throughout Virginia. In 1765, he became a member of the colonial legislature. By age thirty-five, he had six children and was earning barely enough to support them.
resistance against the British. Henry was very popular with the general public, but his calls for military action were seen as too extreme among his more cautious fellow lawmakers, and he made political enemies. When Virginia lawmakers finally decided to take military action against the British, they gave the military post Henry wanted to another man. Henry was so angry that he quit his unit in 1776 and went home. He spent most of the remaining years of the war involved in Virginia politics, serving five times as governor.
In 1775, Henry's wife Sarah died. Two years later, he married Dorothea Dandridge, who was half his age and the daughter of a prominent Virginia family (she was the granddaughter of a former governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood [1676–1740]; her brother held an important position on the staff of General George Washington [1732–1799]). Henry and his second wife had eleven children together.
By 1786, when he ended his last term as governor, Henry was in poor health, although he was only fifty years old. He stayed active in politics and law for another thirteen years. He finally began to earn large fees from winning lawsuits in front of juries who were impressed by his powerful speaking skills. In his last days, he turned to religion and immersed himself in reading the Bible. He died of cancer in 1799.
Born: May 25, 1736
Died: June 6, 1799
Red Hill, Virginia
American revolutionary, orator, and lawyer
Patrick Henry, American orator (public speaker) and lawyer, was a leader in Virginia politics for thirty years. He became famous for the forceful and intelligent way he spoke that persuaded people to believe in, and act upon, his beliefs. He used this gift to help bring about the American Revolution (1775–83).
A slow start
Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia. He was the second son of John Henry, a successful Scottish-born planter, and Sarah Wynston Syme. He received most of his education from his father and his uncle. After his failed attempt as a storekeeper, he married Sarah Shelton and began a career as a farmer on land provided by his father-in-law.
Henry's farm days were cut short by a fire that destroyed his home. He and his growing family were forced to live above a tavern owned by his father-in-law. He earned money by working in the tavern. By 1760 Henry had decided to become a lawyer. He educated himself for about a year and then was admitted to the bar, an association for lawyers.
By 1763 Henry had realized two things: he wanted to help the common people, and he had a gift for public speaking. While defending the members of a church from a lawsuit filed against them by church officials, Henry criticized the church for pushing its members around. He also criticized the British government, claiming that it encouraged the church in its disrespectful behavior. These arguments made Henry very popular, and his supporters carried him victoriously out of the courtroom.
Two years later, as a member of the House of Burgesses (the elective lawmaking body in the British colony of Virginia), he made a powerful speech against the Stamp Act. This law, passed by Britain in 1765, placed a tax on printed materials and business transactions in the American colonies. Henry also supported statements against the Stamp Act that were published throughout the Colonies and made him even more popular. For ten years Henry used his voice and wide support to lead the anti-British movement in the Virginia legislature.
During the crisis caused by the Boston Tea Party (a 1773 protest against Britain in which Boston colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped three shiploads of British tea into the harbor), Henry was at the peak of his career. He traveled with George Washington (1732–1799) and others to Philadelphia as representatives from Virginia to the First Continental Congress. The First Continental Congress was a group of colonial representatives that met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1774 to discuss their dissatisfaction with British rule. Henry urged the colonists to write in firm resistance toward Britain. "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more," Henry said. "I am not a Virginian, but an American."
Elected to the first Virginia Revolutionary Convention in March 1775, Henry made one of the most famous speeches in American history. Trying to gain support for measures to arm the colony, Henry declared that Britain, by passing dozens of overly strict measures, had proved that it was hostile toward the colonies. "We must fight!" Henry proclaimed. "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The representatives were greatly affected by Henry's powerful speech and Virginia rushed down the road to independence.
In 1775 Henry led a group of soldiers that forced the British to pay for gunpowder taken by British marines from an arsenal (a place where military weapons and equipment are made or stored) in Williamsburg, Virginia. He commanded the state's regular forces in Virginia for six months, but he eventually decided that he was not suited for a military role. At the Virginia Convention of May–July 1776, Henry supported the call for independence that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 4, 1776. In that same year, Henry was elected as the first governor of Virginia.
Devoted to Virginia
In three terms as wartime governor (1776–79), Henry worked effectively to use Virginia's resources to support Congress and George Washington's army. He also promoted the expedition of George Rogers Clark (1752–1818); the expedition drove the British from the Northwest Territory. During the years Henry served as governor, the legislature passed reforms that changed Virginia from a royal colony into a self-governing republic.
Henry left his post as governor in 1778 after serving two one-year terms to focus on family matters. His first wife had died in 1775, leaving him six children. Two years later he married Dorothea Dandridge, who was half his age and came from a well-known family of Tidewater, Virginia. Beginning in 1778, Henry had eleven children by his second wife, and family life kept him distracted from public life.
Still, Henry continued to serve in the Virginia assembly, engaging in verbal battles with other public speakers and focusing on efforts to expand Virginia's trade, boundaries, and power. Henry also served two more terms as governor of Virginia (1784–86). He grew more and more opposed to a stronger central government and refused to be a representative to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He did not trust men like James Madison (1751–1836) from Virginia and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) from New York, fearing that they were too ambitious and too focused on the nation as a whole, overlooking the needs of individual states.
At the Virginia Convention of 1788, Henry began a dramatic debate with Madison and his supporters. He called upon all his powers of speech to warn the representatives of the dangers that he felt would be created by the new Constitution. He feared that federal tax collectors would threaten men working peacefully on their own farms and that the president would prove to be a worse tyrant (a ruler who has absolute control) than even King George III (1738–1820) of Britain. Henry also insisted that the new federal government would favor British creditors (persons to whom money or goods are owed) and bargain away American rights to use the Mississippi River. Despite Henry's arguments, the Federalists (a political party that believed in a strong central government) managed to win a narrow victory. Henry accepted their victory by announcing that he would be "a peaceable citizen." He had enough power in the legislature, however, to make sure that Virginia sent anti-Federalist senators to the first Congress.
Once Henry's influence over Virginia politics began to weaken, he retired from public life. He returned to his profitable law practice, earning huge fees from winning case after case before juries that were impressed by his powerful pleas. He also increased his real estate holdings, which made him one of the largest landowners in Virginia. Although he was offered many appointments—as senator, as minister to Spain and to France, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and as secretary of state—he refused them all. He was in poor health and preferred to stay home with his family. On June 6, 1799, Patrick Henry died of cancer at his plantation in Red Hill, Virginia.
For More Information
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: F. Watts, 1986.
Meade, Robert D. Patrick Henry. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1957–1969.
Sabin, Louis. Patrick Henry: Voice of the American Revolution. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1982.
Tyler, Moses Coit. Patrick Henry. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887. Reprint, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
Vaughan, David J. Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Pub., 1997.
Patrick Henry (1736-1799), American orator and revolutionary, was a leader in Virginia politics for 30 years and a supremely eloquent voice during the American Revolution.
Patrick Henry was born into a family of lesser gentry in Hanover County, Va. He received a good education from his father and his uncle, an Anglican clergyman. He largely failed at attempts to become a storekeeper and a farmer, and his early marriage to Sarah Shelton made him at 35 the father of six children, whom he was always hard-pressed to support. A cursory training in law at Williamsburg about 1760, admission to the bar, and a modest beginning in a crowded profession did not at first improve his standing.
In 1763, defending a Louisa County parish against claims by its Anglican rector, Henry discovered the twin foundations of his public career—a deep empathy for injustice to the plain people and an eloquent voice that could overwhelm a jury. After he had scorned ecclesiastical arrogance and the British power supporting it, Henry's listeners carried him triumphantly from the courtroom. Two years later, as a member of the House of Burgesses, he made his stirring speech denouncing the Stamp Act. Henry also sponsored resolves against the Stamp Act, denying the power of Parliament to tax Virginians, which, published throughout the Colonies, marked him as an early radical leader. For 10 years Henry used his powerful voice and popular support to lead the anti-British movement in the Virginia Legislature.
During the crisis precipitated by the Boston Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, Henry was at the pinnacle of his career. He spurred the House of Burgesses to repeated defiances of the stubborn royal governor, Lord Dunmore. In August 1774 Henry, George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, and others traveled to Philadelphia as the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress. Henry stood with the Adamses of Massachusetts and other radicals, urging firm resistance to Britain, and union among the Colonies. "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more," Henry said. "I am not a Virginian, but an American." John Adams referred to Henry as the "Demosthenes of America." Back home in Virginia, Henry resumed his leadership of the radical party, "encouraging disobedience and exciting a spirit of revolt among the people," reported Lord Dunmore, who, as a result of Henry's exertions, was soon driven from the colony.
Elected to the first Virginia Revolutionary Convention, of March 1775, Henry made one of the most famous orations in American history. Attempting to gain support for measures to arm the colony of Virginia, Henry declared that Britain, by dozens of rash and oppressive measures, had proved its hostility. "We must fight!" Henry proclaimed. "An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! … Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The delegates were entranced by Henry's eloquence and swept away by his fervor. Virginia rushed down the road to independence.
Henry capped his seditious activities during the spring of 1775 by leading a contingent of militia that forced reparations for gunpowder stolen by British marines from the Williamsburg arsenal. In the Second Continental Congress, of May-September 1775, Henry again spoke boldly for the radicals. In Virginia for 6 months he commanded the state's regular forces, but exhibiting no particular military talent, he resigned to resume civilian leadership. At the Virginia Convention of May-July 1776, Henry sponsored resolves calling for independence that eventuated in the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 4, 1776. "His eloquence," wrote a young listener, "unlocked the secret springs of the human heart, robbed danger of all its terror, and broke the key-stone in the arch of royal power." Henry was elected first governor of Virginia under its constitution as an independent commonwealth.
In three terms as wartime governor (1776-1779), Henry worked effectively to marshal Virginia's resources to support Congress and George Washington's army. He also promoted George Rogers Clark's expedition, which drove the British from the Northwest Territory. During the years of Henry's governorship, the legislature, led by Thomas Jefferson, passed reforms transforming Virginia from a royal colony into a self-governing republic.
Henry's retirement from the governorship gave him time to attend to pressing family concerns. His first wife had died in 1775, leaving him six children, aged 4 to 20. Two years later he married Dorothea Dandridge, who was half his age and came from a prominent Tidewater family. Beginning in 1778, Henry had 11 children by his second wife, thus giving him family responsibilities that taxed his resources and provided abundant distraction from public life.
Meanwhile, Henry continued to serve in the Virginia Assembly, engaging in oratorical battles with Richard Henry Lee and sharing leadership during the breakdown in government after the British invasion of Virginia in 1780-1781. Though Henry backed some measures for strengthening the Continental Congress, his concern increasingly centered on Virginia and on efforts to expand its trade, boundaries, and power.
After the Revolution, Henry served two further terms as governor of Virginia (1784-1786). Increasingly opposed to a stronger federation, he refused to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As an old revolutionary, he distrusted the ambitions of men like Virginia's James Madison and New York's Alexander Hamilton, fearing that they would sacrifice simple, republican virtues to the alleged needs of a grandiose nation.
"Peaceable Citizen" Henry
At the Virginia Convention of 1788, Henry engaged Madison and his colleagues in a dramatic debate. He called upon all his oratorical powers to parade before the delegates the tyrannies that would result under the new Constitution: Federal tax gatherers would harass men working peacefully in their own vineyards, citizens would be hauled off for trial in distant courts before unknown judges, and the president would prove to be a worse tyrant than even George III. Furthermore, in his most telling practical arguments, Henry insisted the new Federal government would favor British and Tory creditors and negotiate away American rights to use the Mississippi River. The Federalists nevertheless managed to win a narrow victory, which Henry accepted by announcing that he would be "a peaceable citizen." He had enough power in the legislature, however, to see that Virginia sent Antifederalist senators to the first Congress, and he almost succeeded in excluding Madison from a seat in the House of Representatives.
Finally, shorn of his domination of Virginia politics, Henry largely retired from public life. He resumed his lucrative law practice, earning huge fees from winning case after case before juries overwhelmed by his powerful pleas. He also extended his real estate interests, which, through skillful speculations, made him at his death one of the largest landowners in Virginia, with huge tracts in Kentucky, Georgia, and the Carolinas as well. His continuing national fame, and his switch by 1793 to support of President Washington and the Federalists, led to a series of proffered appointments: as senator, as minister to Spain and to France, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and as secretary of state. In poor health and content to stay amid his huge progeny, Henry refused them all. Only one final cause—repeal of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798—prompted his return to politics. In 1799 Henry won election to the Assembly, causing the Jeffersonians to fear that he would carry the state back under the Federalist banner. Henry was mortally ill, however. On June 6, 1799, he died of cancer at his Red Hill plantation and was laid to rest under a plain slab containing the words "His fame his best epitaph."
Two early accounts of Henry, often inaccurate but filled with the drama of his life and containing extracts from the small surviving body of his earlier papers, reminiscences of his associates, and "reconstructions" of his speeches, are William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817; 15th ed. 1852), and William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (3 vols., 1891). The standard biography of Henry is Robert D. Meade, Patrick Henry (2 vols., 1957-1969). A hostile view of Henry's career is given in Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols., 1941-1961). □
Henry, Patrick (1736-1799)
Patrick Henry (1736-1799)
Lawyer and orator
Family. Patrick Henry, probably the most eloquent orator of the Revolution, was born on 29 May 1736, the second son of John and Sarah Henry. John had emigrated from Scotland in 1727 and befriended a countryman who had become a successful farmer and gentleman. Upon the friend’s death John married his widow. Patrick and his brother were schooled at home, and when they came of age their father set them up as shopkeepers, but they quickly failed.
Alternate Vocation. When he was eighteen Henry married Sarah Shelton, and together they had six children. He tried unsuccessfully to farm the three hundred acres that were his wife’s dowry. He opened another shop and then an inn and tavern. His establishments were located near the courthouse, and Henry decided to become a lawyer. He had to pass oral examinations given by two lawyers who had been appointed by the colony’s Privy Court. Henry spent about six weeks immersed in the study of the laws of Virginia and Sir Edward Coke’s A Commentary upon Littleton (1628-1644), an enormous treatise on the common law. (Most prospective lawyers spent a year or more mastering this material.) In April 1760 Henry passed several hours of rigorous oral examination and was admitted to the bar. For the next three years Henry rode the circuit, from county seat to county seat, handling the small cases that came the way of a country lawyer—enough to keep him busy and to support his family, but no more.
The Parsons’ Cause. Henry won fame in 1761 for his argument on behalf of a church treasurer sued by a clergyman. Colonial law had set clergy salaries at sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco per year. When the tobacco crop failed in 1758, Virginia’s assembly passed the Twopenny Act providing that debts payable in tobacco could be paid in paper currency at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco. Since tobacco sold for six pence per pound at the time, creditors such as clergymen objected. Britain’s Privy Council declared the law void. Several clergymen sued their churches for the difference due them. Henry, representing one church treasurer, held the jurors and the courtroom audience spellbound for an hour. The real issue, he argued, was the power of the colonial assembly to pass laws for the benefit of the people of the colony. The British constitution put limits on the King’s power, and Henry questioned the power of the Privy Council to nullify a law passed by the colonial legislature. He described the compact that existed between a king and his subjects and suggested that the king could not violate that compact by nullifying an act by the people’s assembly. Henry also argued that the clergy were not concerned with the welfare of all the people of Virginia, who would benefit from the Twopenny Act, but were concerned only with their own salaries. He denounced as “rapacious harpies” those clergy who were enemies of the people they were supposed to serve. Henry acknowledged that the jury had to find for the clergyman in this case because the Privy Council had nullified the Twopenny Act. However, he urged the jurors to teach the clergy a lesson for opposing an act of the colonial assembly. As soon as Henry finished his argument, the jurors returned a verdict. They upheld the clergyman and awarded him only one penny. Henry immediately became famous and was shortly afterward elected to the House of Burgesses.
“Treason!” Henry became a member of the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the Virginia assembly, in the spring of 1765, just as it was reacting to Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act. In 1764, when the Stamp Act was first proposed, the House of Burgesses petitioned Parliament, begging that the tax not be imposed. Henry joined a small group of members who urged the House to file a briefer, more forceful statement that would stir popular opinion against the Stamp Act. Henry proposed a resolution specifically denying Parliament’s power to tax the colonies. More-cautious members argued against including such bold assertions in the resolution, as they thought it bordered on treason. Henry reportedly warned: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III. . . .,” at which point the Speaker, horrified, shouted “Treason!” Henry paused, then finished his sentence: “... may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act, but as the issue of Parliament’s power over the colonies recurred during the next nine years, Henry became increasingly bold. He was among the first members of the House of Burgesses to talk about separation from, instead of reconciliation with, England. His political fame boosted his law practice. He was one of the colony’s leading political voices and one of its most successful trial attorneys.
Virginia Convention. In March 1775 Virginians convened to choose and instruct their delegates to the Second Continental Congress, to be held in August. Henry urged the formation, equipping, and training of a local militia for the purpose of defending the colony if needed. In his view the convention was now acting as the governing body and was preparing for war. Some delegates suggested reconciliation with Britain was still possible, but others argued that separation was inevitable. It was in the course of this debate, on the subject of forming a militia, that Henry made one of his most famous speeches. He reviewed the developing dispute with Britain, especially Parliament’s tightening of restrictions as it sought to exert its control. This showed, Henry said:
There is no longer any room for hope. . . . If we wish to be free we must fight. . . . An appeal to arms . . .is all that is left . . . . Gentlemen may cry “peace, peace” but there is no peace. [If war is coming, he said] let it come! Let it come!... Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me—give me liberty or give me death.
Governorship. In May 1776, at the next colonial convention, Henry proposed a resolution that Virginia’s delegates to the next session of the Second Continental Congress move for independence. His resolution also called for Virginia to draft a declaration of rights and to prepare a plan for its own government. In June he drafted a constitution for the new Commonwealth of Virginia, and by the end of that month the convention adopted a constitution and elected Henry the Commonwealth’s first governor. He served for three years, creating an administrative and judicial system while simultaneously supporting the war effort. In 1777, two years after his first wife’s death, Henry married Dorothea Dandridge, and he fathered eleven more children. By 1779 he was ready to retire from public life. After only one year he returned to the assembly, where he served for four years. In 1784 he was elected governor again and served three more years. During this period Henry helped pass a religious freedom law in Virginia. When the Constitution was presented to the states for ratification, Henry opposed it because of the lack of a bill of rights. He devoted his final years to his law practice and to western land speculations until his death in 1799.
Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York: Harper, 1954);
Henry Mayer, A Son of Thunder (New York: Franklin Watts, 1986).
Patrick Henry was a Virginian who advocated colonial rebellion against Great Britain. He had a successful law practice and served in public office as both a legislator and as governor of Virginia . Remembered for the phrase “Give me liberty or give me death,” Henry had a talent for oratory that inspired the birth of a nation.
Henry was born in Studley, Virginia, in a western county of the colony on May 29, 1736. He was the second son of Colonel John Henry and Sarah Winston. John Henry was from Scotland and had an education from Aberdeen University that served him in educating his own children.
Henry learned to read and write in school. From his father, he learned some Latin and Greek as well as mathematics and history. Growing up in rural Virginia, inland from the coastal tidewater region, Henry spent much of his time hunting.
Henry's family could not afford to send him to college. Many middle-class children in Virginia were expected to learn a practical trade instead. When Henry was fifteen, he began a yearlong apprenticeship as a clerk in a country store. In 1752, John Henry bought goods so Patrick and his older brother William could open their own store, but the business failed.
Marriage and law
Patrick Henry married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton in 1754. Together they would have six children. Sarah's father gave the Henrys a 300-acre farm and six slaves. Henry tried tobacco farming for a couple years until a fire destroyed their house. After that Henry opened another shop and, when that failed, worked as a bartender in his father-in-law's tavern in Hanover County.
In 1760, Henry decided to study law to improve his earning power. Within a year, he passed oral examinations in Williamsburg, the provincial capital, and received a license to practice law.
Henry handled a case in 1763 that helped make his career as a lawyer and politician. The Privy Council in Great Britain, which reviewed colonial laws, had struck down a Virginia law regarding the salaries of Anglican ministers. In a case involving the application of that law, Henry argued that by striking down a duly passed law of the colony, the crown in England had violated the rights of the colonists to govern themselves concerning local matters. Great Britain's refusal to approve local laws later became the first in the list of complaints against King George III (1738–1820) in the Declaration of Independence .
Henry became a legislator in the House of Burgesses , the colonial legislature in Virginia, in 1765. Great Britain had recently passed the Stamp Act for the colonies. The Stamp Act imposed business taxes that were normally regulated by local laws and was very unpopular among colonial merchants.
In late May, just weeks after entering the House of Burgesses, Henry introduced a series of resolutions against the Stamp Act. The resolutions condemned taxation without representation. Henry said that people have a natural right to govern themselves and a right to disobey laws imposed on them without their consent. Four of the seven resolves passed, and Henry became known throughout the colonies an a spokesman for American freedom.
As the American colonies began to organize against Great Britain, Henry served on the First and Second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775. (See Continental Congress, First and Continental Congress, Second .) Most of his public service, however, was at the state level in Virginia. When Virginia wrote a constitution in 1776, Henry became the first governor of the state, a position he held until 1779 and again from 1784 to 1786.
In 1787, the American states sent delegates to a federal convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . Its task was to rewrite the Articles of Confederation , but instead it wrote a whole new document, the Constitution of the United States of America. Henry declined to serve at the convention because he disapproved of the plan to form a strong
Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolves
Resolves of the House of Burgesses in Virginia, June 1765.
That the first Adventurers & Settlers of this his Majesty's Colony and Dominion of Virginia, brought with them, and transmitted to their Posterity, and all other his Majesty's Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majesty's Colony, all the Liberties, Privileges, Franchises, and Immunities, that at any Time have been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the People of Great Britain.
That by Two Royal Charters, granted by King James the First, the Colonies aforesaid are Declared Entitled, to all Liberties, Privileges and Immunities, of Denizens and Natural Subjects (to all Intents and Purposes) as if they had been Abiding and Born within the Realm of England.
That the Taxation of the People by Themselves, or by Persons Chosen by Themselves to Represent them, who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest Method of Raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid upon the People, is the only Security against a Burthensome Taxation; and the Distinguishing Characteristic of British freedom; and, without which, the ancient Constitution cannot exist.
That his Majesty's Liege People of this his most Ancient and Loyal Colony, have, without Interruption, the inestimable Right of being Governed by such Laws, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation, as are derived from their own Consent, with the Approbation of their Sovereign, or his Substitute; which Right hath never been Forfeited, or Yielded up; but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings and People of Great Britain.
Resolved therefore, That the General Assembly of this Colony, with the Consent of his Majesty, or his Substitute, Have the Sole Right and Authority to lay Taxes and Impositions upon It's [sic] Inhabitants: And, That every Attempt to vest such Authority in any other Person or Persons whatsoever, has a Manifest Tendency to Destroy American Freedom.
That his Majesty's Liege People, Inhabitants of this Colony, are not bound to yield Obedience to any Law or Ordinance whatsoever, designed to impose any Taxation upon them, other than the Laws or Ordinances of the General Assembly as aforesaid.
That any Person who shall, by Speaking, or Writing, assert or maintain, That any Person or Persons, other than the General Assembly of this Colony, with such Consent as aforesaid, have any Right or Authority to lay or impose any Tax whatever on the Inhabitants thereof, shall be Deemed, an Enemy to this his Majesty's Colony.
federal government. He did serve, however, in the Virginia convention that had to decide whether to approve the Constitution. Henry was a leading spokesman against approval because he thought the federal government would be too strong and that the Constitution did not contain enough protection for individual liberty. Henry worked to make James Madison (1751–1836), who became known as the Father of the Constitution, and others agree to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution in exchange for approval.
Public service had been financially costly to Henry, so he resumed his law practice in 1788. By his death, he had amassed a small fortune in land holdings. He was elected to a sixth term as governor of Virginia in 1796, but he declined to serve. In 1799, former president George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) convinced Henry to serve again in the state legislature. This time Henry agreed, but he died on June 6, 1799, before his term began.
HENRY, PATRICK. (1736–1799). Revolutionary orator and statesman. Virginia. Born at Studley, Virginia, on 29 May 1736, Henry failed twice as a storekeeper and once as a planter by the time he was 23. Deciding to try his luck at law, Henry passed the bar in 1760 without either formal education or even private study with a lawyer. He enjoyed impressive success in his new profession, and his sparkling performance in the Parson's Cause of 1763 established his reputation throughout Virginia. Two years later he became a member of the House of Burgesses, grabbing attention at his first session with his opposition to the Stamp Act. Proposing seven resolutions (29 May 1765), the last of which claimed that Virginia enjoyed complete legislative autonomy, Henry pressed his resolutions in a speech closing with the famous lines: "Caesar had his Brutus—Charles the first, his Cromwell—and George the third—may profit by their example…." Interrupted at this point by cries of treason, Henry supposedly said, "If this be treason, make the most of it." There was some confusion over how many resolutions passed, but Henry saw that the entire list was rushed off in unrevised form to the other colonies. Henry thus became a major political figure throughout the colonies, and for the next five years he dominated public life in Virginia.
Under Henry's leadership, the legislators met at Raleigh Tavern on 27 May 1774 after Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore dissolved the Assembly. On 23 March 1775 he urged armed resistance in a speech that declared: "Give me liberty, or give me death!" He had been a delegate to the first Continental Congress and was preparing to attend the second when he learned that Dunmore had seized the ammunition in the arsenal at Williamsburg. On 2 May 1775, Henry marched on Williamsburg with the militia of Hanover County, and two days later Dunmore reimbursed the colony for the powder. On 6 May, Dunmore outlawed "a certain Patrick Henry" for disturbing the peace. On 18 May the outlaw took his seat in Congress, but early in August he returned to Virginia to assist in military preparations. He was appointed colonel of the first regiment formed in Virginia, which made him the commander in chief of all state militia, but Henry's political enemies chose a Committee of Safety and put it under the control of Edmund Pendleton. William Woodford was given command of the force that ran Dunmore out of the colony. Henry was infuriated by this cavalier treatment and he also resented the attitude of the military committee of the Continental Congress, so on 28 February 1776 he resigned his commission and went home.
Henry promptly came back into the political arena when he was elected to the third revolutionary convention. In May he had a decisive part in drafting the Virginia constitution, and on 29 June he was elected governor. In this post he authorized the western operations of George Rogers Clark. Shortly before the end of his tenure, in the summer of 1779, Virginia was hit by the first of the raids against which it was to show itself virtually helpless. In this initial operation, Admiral George Collier and General Edward Mathew did an estimated £2,000,000 worth of damage without losing a man.
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson, his close friend and political lieutenant, Patrick Henry retired to a huge tract of land in Henry County, Virginia. In 1780 Henry returned to the state legislature, where he led the opposition to James Madison's efforts to reform the state's constitution. In 1781 he joined those who demanded an investigation of Jefferson's conduct as governor, initiating a feud that lasted the rest of Henry's life. Even though he opposed Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, Henry again became governor, serving from 1784 to 1786. He opposed the Constitution on the grounds of states' rights, almost blocking its ratification in Virginia until Madison outmaneuvered him. Back in the legislature as a convinced antifederalist, Henry blocked Madison's election to the U.S. Senate and led the demand for a second Constitutional Convention.
In declining health, Henry left the assembly and returned to the practice of law. In January 1799 he consented to George Washington's request that he campaign for election as a Federalist to the Virginia House of Delegates, completely reversing political direction. He defeated young John Randolph in this last campaign, but died on 6 June 1799, before he could take his seat.
Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
Patrick Henry was a leading statesman and orator at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Several of Henry's speeches have remained vivid documents of the revolutionary period, with "Give me liberty or give me death" his most remembered statement.
Henry was born May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. Though Henry attended public school for a short time, he was largely taught by his father, who had a good education. From 1751 to 1760, Henry was a storekeeper and farmer. When his business and farming ventures failed, he turned to the study of law, and received his license to practice in 1760.
Within three years, Henry had become a prominent attorney, owing in great measure to his oratorical skills. He was drawn to politics, and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765. In this colonial legislature, Henry became an outspoken critic of British policies toward the thirteen colonies. He introduced seven resolutions against the stamp act, which levied a tax by requiring that stamps be affixed to documents and other papers. In one speech opposing the act, he stated, "If this be treason, make the most of it."
Henry's efforts led the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass five of the seven resolutions he introduced. All seven resolutions were reprinted in newspapers as the Virginia Resolves. Colonial businesspeople, in support of the resolves, agreed not to import British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. Trade diminished, and business owners refused to use the stamps on business documents. Faced with organized resistance in the colonies, and the displeasure of British businesses that had lost trade, the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on March 4, 1766.
"The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave."
Henry grew more radical after the repeal of the act, arguing that the colonies should break away from Great Britain. In 1773, he joined with thomas jefferson and Richard Henry Lee to form the Committee of Correspondence to transmit messages throughout the colonies. When the House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1774, he became a member of the Virginia Provincial Convention, which advocated revolution. Before this convention, he made his most famous remarks, words that became the clarion call that led the colonies into revolution: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."
During 1774 and 1775, Henry attended the First continental congress as a member of the Virginia delegation, advocating military mobilization. When the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, he helped draft the legislation that organized the Continental Army. In 1776 he also helped draft the Virginia Constitution.
In 1776 Henry was elected governor of the newly independent commonwealth of Virginia. A tireless administrator, Henry worked vigorously to meet the demands of the Revolutionary War. As commander in chief, he recruited the state's quota of six thousand men for the Continental Army, plus the state militia's allotment of five thousand soldiers.
After the war, Henry continued as governor, eventually serving five terms. During his second term, Henry provided supplies to George Rogers Clark for his expedition to the Northwest Territory. Clark rid the territory of British control.
In 1788, Henry attended the Virginia convention for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Henry opposed ratification, fearing that it imperiled the rights of states and individuals, but Virginia ratified it. Henry successfully advocated the addition of the bill of rights to the document. This first ten amendments to the Constitution protect the rights of states and individuals, allowing Henry to support the Constitution.
Following ratification, Henry was offered many government posts, but was forced to resume his Virginia law practice to rescue himself from personal debt. He quickly became a wealthy man, since his fame attracted many clients. In 1794, he retired to his estate at Red Hill, near Appomattox, Virginia. Despite his new wealth, Henry refused pleas to resume public service, turning down President george washington's request to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington finally persuaded Henry to seek election to the Virginia legislature. Henry won election in 1799. He died June 6, 1799, before he could take office.
Mayer, Henry. 2001. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Grove.
Rivkin, Victoria. 1998. "Patrick Henry." New York Law Journal 220 (August 24): 4.
Wirt, William. 2002. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Birmingham, Ala.: Palladium Press.
Patrick Henry, 1736–99, political leader in the American Revolution, b. Hanover co., Va. Largely self-educated, he became a prominent trial lawyer. Henry bitterly denounced (1765) the Stamp Act and in the years that followed helped fan the fires of revolt in the South. As an orator he knew no equal. Several phrases attributed to him—e.g.,
"If this be treason, make the most of it"
"Give me liberty or give me death"
—are familiar to all Americans. Henry became a leader among the so-called radicals and spoke clearly for individual liberties. He was a delegate to the house of burgesses (1765–74), the Continental Congress (1774–76), and the Virginia provincial convention (1775). His hopes for a military career in the American Revolution were frustrated, but as governor of Virginia (1776–79) he sent George Rogers Clark to the Illinois country. He was (1784–86) again governor and led the fight for the Virginia Religious Freedom Act of 1785. Although he later became a Federalist, Henry opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution, believing that it endangered state sovereignty, and he worked successfully to have the first 10 amendments (Bill of Rights) added to the Constitution.
See W. W. Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (3 vol., 1891; repr. 1970); biographies by M. C. Tyler (1898, repr. 1972), R. D. Meade (2 vol., 1957–69), R. R. Beeman (1974), and H. Mayer (1986).
HENRY, Patrick. American, b. 1940. Genres: Literary criticism and history. Career: Rice University, Houston, TX, instructor in French, 1968-69; Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA, instructor in French, 1969-70; University of Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France, Fulbright lecturer in American literature, 1971-72; Willamette University, Salem, OR, assistant professor of French, 1973-76; Whitman College, assistant professor, 1976-79, associate professor, 1979-88, professor of French, 1988-, head of department of foreign languages and literatures, 1979-82. Has taught three National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) seminars on Montaigne to high school teachers, 1990, 1993, 1994. Publications: Voltaire and Camus: The Limits of Reason and the Awareness of Absurdity, 1975; Montaigne in Dialogue: Censorship and Defensive Writing, Architecture and Friendship, the Self and the Other, 1987. EDITOR: (and contrib.) An Inimitable Example: The Case for the Princesse de Cleves, 1992; Approaches to Teaching Montaigne's "Essays," 1993. Contributor of articles, stories, and reviews to language and literature journals and newspapers. Address: Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA 99362, U.S.A. Online address: [email protected]