Accession number(s): 76.18
Object: Paper Cutter
Country: United States
Provenance: Patrick Henry (1736-1799) to Elizabeth Henry Aylett (1769-1842) to Sarah Shelton Aylett (1811-1876) to William Winston Fontaine II (1834-1917) to Elizabeth Henry Fontaine (1873-1916) to Charles Spurgeon Borum (1902-1976) to Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation
Description: This paper cutter, sometimes incorrectly referred to as a letter opener, was held by Patrick Henry when he delivered his “Liberty or Death” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775. It was first mentioned by Henry biographer Robert Douthat Meade’s, Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary, published in 1969. He writes, “As Henry exclaimed ‘Give me liberty…’ he held aloft an ivory letter opener, letting it sink slowly into his breast at the word ‘death.’” He adds, “Henry’s use of the paper cutter was not overly dramatic; it did not disturb his tone of burning simplicity.” In the book’s endnotes, Meade says that Charles Borum, then of Arlington, Virginia, showed him the paper cutter in 1952, and shared with him the story of how Patrick Henry used the object during “Liberty or Death.” The story which Borum shared had been passed down through the family, and convincingly documented as early as 1859.
Col. William Winston Fontaine II is the primary source for the written provenance of this artifact. His maternal grandmother was Elizabeth Henry (Aylett), the fifth child of Patrick and his first wife, Sarah Shelton Henry. His paternal great-grandmother was Elizabeth’s sister, Martha Henry (Fontaine), the oldest of Patrick and Sarah’s six children. It passed down to Mr. Charles Borum, great-grandson of the same William Winston Fontaine. Mr. Borum is descended from Patrick Henry on both sides of his family from Patrick Henry’s oldest daughter Martha Henry Fontaine and his younger daughter Elizabeth Henry Aylett.
Saturday, February 19, 1859, according to Fontaine’s diary, was his second day visiting Williamsburg, Virginia. After breakfast he met an old friend of his father, Hugh Blair Grigsby, who is best known to historians as the author of several books, including ‘The Virginia Convention of 1776’ and ‘The History of the Virginia Federal Convention of 1788’. Grigsby in turn, introduced the twenty-six-year-old Fontaine to former President John Tyler, whose father was a friend and colleague of Patrick Henry’s. President Tyler, at this time 14 years removed from office, “invited me to call at his room, as he wished to tell me something about Colonel Henry, which, perhaps, I had never heard.” After leaving his friends, Fontaine accompanied Mr. Tyler to the house where he was staying.
The former president shared an account of Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech as he had no doubt heard from his own father, Judge John Tyler. The senior Tyler was a fellow delegate to the 2nd Virginia Convention where Henry delivered his now famous remarks on March 23, 1775. The vivid description recorded in Fontaine’s diary, contained a detailed explanation Henry’s remarks as well as his use of the “paper cutter” as a dagger. Fontaine was very appreciative of the story and how it confirmed what he had heard from his own grandmother, Elizabeth, as well as his father, who had heard the story from Virginia Senator, William H. Roane, whose mother Anne was a sister of Martha and Elizabeth Henry.
William Fontaine then shared with Mr. Tyler that he was in possession of the paper cutter that was being talked about, as well as an army-desk that the Marquis de Lafayette had given Patrick Henry in 1784, while visiting Richmond. Henry was the chairman of the committee appointed to host the Marquis during his visit. A year later, in 1861, as a member of the Cecession (sic) Convention in Richmond, Tyler visited Fontaine to see the paper cutter, as well as the Lafayette desk. During the visit, with Patrick Henry’s paper cutter in his hand, the former president recited the latter part of the famous speech for those present.
In December of 1906, Col. Fontaine wrote a letter of response to his daughter Elizabeth Henry Fontaine, who lived in Galveston, Texas. Elizabeth had written and inquired of her father about the famous speech of Patrick Henry. In reply, he relayed the account of the speech, and re-tells the story of meeting President Tyler, focusing on Patrick Henry, “Liberty or Death,” and specifically, the story of the paper cutter, which was now in Elizabeth’s possession.
The paper cutter was only first mentioned by a biographer in 1969, but the story has been passed down through different sources, all confirming one another. President Tyler remarked to William Winston Fontaine, “You own a great historic treasure my boy.”