Lawyer, Orator, and Statesman
Patrick Henry was perhaps the greatest orator of the Virginia House of Burgesses in the colonial era, employing his formidable rhetorical skills as a leading opponent of the Stamp Act and other parliamentary taxation measures in the 1760s. In the 1770s, Henry was one of the early Virginian proponents of complete independence from Great Britain. He later served as governor of Virginia during the Revolution. Patrick Henry's career spanned the entire period of the American founding—from the early criticism of British authority in the 1760s through the 1790s.
Recognized by Virginian contemporaries as "the man who gave the first impulse to the ball of revolution," Patrick Henry was born at Studley, in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, l736. His father, John Henry, was a Scots immigrant educated at the University of Aberdeen, a prosperous planter, and justice of the peace; his mother, Sarah Winston Syme, was a well-connected widow.
Henry received most of his education from his father, and perhaps some from his Anglican uncle, the Rev. Patrick Henry. By 1760, after unsuccessful ventures as a store owner and planter, the young man found his calling as a lawyer. Henry won admission to the bar in 1760 and began a successful practice in the county courts, where his political career began on December 1, l763, with the lawsuit at the heart of a controversy known as the Parson's Cause.
At issue in the Parson's Cause was a Two Penny Act passed by the colonial legislature that adjusted salaries of public officials in response to recent droughts and crop failures. The usual market price of tobacco, two cents a pound, provided annual salaries of about £144 to Virginia clergymen of the established Anglican church. By tripling the market price of tobacco, the droughts that dogged Henry's efforts as a storekeeper and planter threatened to raise both public expenditures and taxes. Virginia's temporary law returned public salaries to customary rates, but it outraged many Virginian clergymen. When they sought royal intervention, the British Privy Council in 1759 disallowed Virginia's Two Penny Act as an affront to royal authority. The Parson's Cause suddenly became a challenge to the king's authority that eventually pushed Great Britain's oldest, largest, and most populous North American colony toward revolution and independence.
In 1763, the Rev. James Maury successfully sued his vestry for back pay, hoping for nearly £300. Patrick Henry joined the case in December, when a jury was summoned to determine how much the vestry owed Maury. Invoking the principles of John Locke, Henry challenged the British claim of authority over Virginia's laws. By disallowing the Two Penny Act, Henry declared, the king violated the "compact between King and people," he thereby "degenerated into a Tyrant," and he forfeited "all right to his subjects' obedience." The jury accepted Henry's arguments and awarded Maury only one penny in damages. At their next opportunity, Henry's neighbors elected him to the House of Burgesses, where he arrived as news of the Stamp Act reached the colonial capital in May 1765.
Leaders in Virginia objected to the Stamp Act, but disagreed about how best to oppose it. Henry introduced seven resolutions attacking Parliament's claim of authority to tax America and threatening resistance. Henry suggested that King George III risked the fate of Julius Caesar if he disregarded American liberty. The assembly passed only four of Henry's resolutions, but newspapers throughout the colonies printed all seven, each more radical than the next. Henry's resolutions established Virginia's reputation as an uncompromising opponent of British imperial policy and helped define the basic constitutional arguments of the American Revolution. Had Henry done nothing else, the historian Thad Tate has aptly remarked, the passage of the Stamp Act Resolves was certainly enough to position him among the leaders of the American Revolution.
In 1774, Virginia sent Henry and six others to the First Continental Congress, where John Adams felt that "there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared … sensible of the Precipice or rather the Pinnacle on which [w]e stood." Henry also attended the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Asked to prepare America's final petition to the king, he carefully reflected his colleagues' instructions in a draft that recognized the necessity of armed resistance and was considered too radical by some of the other delegates. Richard Henry Lee tried a second draft, but, in the end, Congress could agree only upon the conciliatory rhetoric of Pennsylvania's conservative John Dickinson, who drafted the so-called Olive Branch Petition, asserting the rights of the colonists to self-government while professing their loyalty to the king. Returning to Virginia between sessions of Congress, Henry organized the Hanover County militia.
Delegates arriving in Richmond for the Virginia Convention of March 1775 were torn between hopes for peace and the reality of war. On March 23, Henry introduced a plan of military preparedness and supported it with his famous speech: "Give me liberty or give me death!" Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, responded quickly by dispatching marines to seize the colony's munitions from the Public Magazine in Williamsburg (just days after redcoats marched on a similar mission toward Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts). The raid aroused anger throughout Virginia. More cautious men urged calm, but Henry led his Hanover militia company toward Williamsburg—demanding payment for the stolen powder before agreeing to disperse his troops. Then he was off to the Second Continental Congress.
While Henry was in Philadelphia, the Virginia Convention created two provincial regiments and elected him as their senior commander. Henry did much to recruit and organize troops, but in December 1775 his political rivals dispatched William Woodford and the Second Regiment to challenge Lord Dunmore near Norfolk. Passed over for active command, Henry resigned his commission when Virginia's regiments were brought into the Continental line that spring. Many soldiers he had recruited threatened to leave in protest until Henry persuaded them put the American cause first and accept their new officers.
While bivouacked with the First Virginia Regiment at Williamsburg, Henry was ideally situated to portray the January 1776 destruction of Norfolk as proof of George III's malevolence and the necessity of independence. Henry's previously unknown newspaper essays marked the beginning of a return to civilian politics. Attending the final Virginia convention in May, Henry helped write Virginia's new constitution, Declaration of Rights (an antecedent to the federal Bill of Rights), and resolution to Congress proposing independence. On June 29, 1776, Henry was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Twice reelected as limited by law, Henry served as governor until June 1779, working closely with George Washington to raise and equip forces for the Revolutionary War. In 1778, Henry also sent troops commanded by George Rogers Clark to hold the Ohio Country against the British and their Indian allies. He served again as governor from November 1784 to November 1786.
Patrick Henry stands before the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765. Elected to the Burgesses just as the Stamp Act was passed by Parliament that same year, Henry, in introducing seven resolutions attacking Parliament's claim of authority to tax America, proved himself a passionate and uncompromising opponent of the act and of British imperial policy and outlined the basic constitutional arguments of the American Revolution. (Library of Congress).
After the war, Henry emerged as one of the most influential members of the Virginia legislature. Although committed to religious freedom, Henry in 1785 opposed complete separation of church and state, favoring instead some taxation for the support of teachers of all Christian religious groups. Although James Madison steered Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom to passage early in 1786 without Henry's active support, Henry later embraced the provisions of Jefferson's statute in the recommendations for a federal Bill of Rights that he supported in 1788.
Delegates elected to decide the fate of the proposed U.S. Constitution at the Virginia Convention of 1788 were closely divided over its merits. Henry led the Antifederalists in debate, marshaling a wide array of arguments against the plan—all rooted in his conviction that it created a government too powerful, too centralized, and too distant from its citizens. The document drawn at Philadelphia, Henry contended, created "a consolidated government" that would destroy the states in "a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain." By welcoming proposed amendments after ratification, however, Henry's opponents won enough votes from a few moderate Antifederalists to ratify the Constitution 89 to 79.
In a public career of more than three tumultuous decades (1763-1799), Patrick Henry held no national office except a seat in the Continental Congress. Yet he ranks high among the major figures of the American Revolution. His influence gave the American Revolution a more populist character than it might otherwise have had, and his persistent distrust of centralized authority remains a major chord in American political culture. "It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry," Jefferson admitted to Daniel Webster. "He was far before all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution."
- Patrick Henry: A Biography New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
- Patrick Henry in His Speeches and Writings and in the Words of His Contemporaries Lynchburg, VA: Warwick House, 2007. , comp.
- The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
- Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, 3 vols. New York: Scribner, 1891. , ed.
- A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic New York: F. Watts, 1986. .
- Patrick Henry, The Orator Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990.
- Patrick Henry." In American National Biography, 24 vols., edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Vol. 10, 616-619. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. . "
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