The Life and Times of Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry was born at Studley in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, 1736. His father John Henry was a Scottish-born planter. His mother Sarah Winston Syme was a young widow from a prominent gentry family. Henry attended a local school for a few years and received the remainder of his formal education from his father, who had attended King’s College in Aberdeen.
At fifteen Henry began working as a clerk for a local merchant. A year later, in 1752, he and his older brother William opened their own store, which promptly failed.
At age eighteen, not yet having found his profession, Henry married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton, whose dowry was a 600-acre farm called Pine Slash, a house, and six enslaved people. Henry’s first attempt as a planter ended when fire destroyed his house in 1757. After a second attempt at storekeeping proved unsuccessful, Henry helped his father-in-law at Hanover Tavern, across the road from the county courthouse, and began reading law.
By 1760, nearing his twenty-fourth birthday, Henry decided to become a lawyer. Self-taught and barely prepared, Henry persuaded the panel of distinguished Virginia attorneys, Wythe and Randolph, that he had the intelligence to warrant admission to the bar. With his energy and talents, and some encouragement from his influential family, Patrick Henry established a thriving practice in the courts of Hanover and adjacent counties.
The Voice of the Revolution
Patrick Henry’s political career began in December 1763 with his rousing victory in the Parsons’ Cause, a controversy rooted in the peculiarities of colonial Virginia’s tobacco-based economy that also became an important precursor of the American Revolution. Clergymen of the established Anglican church and other public officials in colonial Virginia received their annual salaries in tobacco – 16,000 pounds per year for a clergyman. For decades the market price of tobacco had been about 2 cents a pound, but severe droughts in 1759 and 1760 drove the price of tobacco much higher. In response to this crisis, the colonial legislature passed a Two-Penny Act, which declared that contracts payable in tobacco should be valued according to the normal price rather than the higher “windfall” caused by the recent drought. Many of Virginia’s Anglican clergy, who already felt that their vestries paid them too little, protested the law. Eventually, the parsons appealed to colonial authorities in England, who overruled the Virginia statute and declared it void. This action aroused controversy over the nature of British authority within the colony.
The Parsons’ Cause came home to Hanover County when the Reverend James Maury brought suit against the vestry for his back pay and won. At that point, the novice attorney Patrick Henry was asked to argue the vestry’s side when the jury convened to determine how much Maury should be paid. In a fervent oration that criticized the established clergy and challenged British authority, Henry persuaded the jurors of Hanover County to grant token damages of only one penny. Henry’s victory in the Parsons’ Cause enhanced his legal practice and launched a political career marked by a similar moment of dramatic oratory.
Winning a seat in the House of Burgesses from Louisa County in 1765, Henry began his career in the lower house of Virginia’s colonial legislature shortly after news had reached the colony of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act. Henry and entrenched leadership of the House of Burgesses agreed on the constitutional grounds for opposing the Stamp Act, but Henry was more outspoken and direct in his opposition to the Parliamentary taxation. By narrow margins on May 29-30, 1765, the burgesses endorsed Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves, which attacked Parliament’s claim of authority to tax the colonies and seemed to advocate resistance if the imperial government persisted in its course.
Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves, which were published throughout the colonies and Great Britain, established Henry’s place among the leaders of the American Revolution. Their passage was the occasion for one of his most famous orations, the “Caesar-Brutus” speech in which he suggested that the British monarch risked a fate like Julius Caesar’s assassination by Brutus, or Charles I’s displacement by Cromwell if he permitted his government to disregard American liberty. Despite cries of treason from more cautious burgesses, his spirited remarks achieved their effect. With attendance at the session thinned by the early departure of many members, Henry introduced and carried five of an intended seven resolutions, finding it necessary to hold back two of the stronger ones that faced defeat. One was later rescinded, but the newspapers printed versions of six or all seven resolutions, quickly establishing Henry’s reputation as an uncompromising opponent of imperial policy.
As tensions between the colonists and the British government persisted during the next few years, Henry remained a member of the Burgesses, occasionally challenging the older leaders but always joining them in opposition to British policies. His public career was balanced by the needs of a growing family and his law practice. After scarcely a decade’s labor in the county courts, Henry in 1769 was admitted to practice before the General Court, the highest judicial body in the colony.
As the imperial crisis mounted after the Boston massacre of 1770, Henry in 1773 joined with other Virginians in the establishment of intercolonial committees of correspondence. Both the Boston Tea Party in December and Parliament’s subsequent enactment of the Coercive Acts and its closing of the port of Boston in 1774, drew the colonies closer together in their resistance.
Henry attended the first session of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1774 as one of Virginia’s seven delegates and initially received several important committee assignments. Early in the session, he demonstrated his powers as a speaker when he asserted that the old governments and colonial boundaries were swept away. “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more,” he declared. “I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Henry took his seat in the Second Continental Congress in May 1775 but did not play a major part in its cautious deliberations. When Congress adjourned on August 1, Henry set out for home, never again to hold a continental or national office.
Henry and Independence
For the few months between the First and Second sessions of the Continental Congress, Henry returned to Virginia and organized a volunteer militia company for Hanover County while also coping with the tragedy of Sarah Henry’s severe mental illness that required round-the-clock care. When Sarah Henry died sometime in early 1775, Henry resumed an active leadership role in the Revolution, particularly at the second Virginia Convention at Richmond in March 1775. The Virginia delegates were divided between those who wanted only a peaceful solution to the imperial dispute and those who also were ready to prepare for military resistance. Henry led the call for preparedness and introduced a resolution to that effect. He supported its passage with the legendary speech that closed with “Give me liberty or give me death!” Henry carried the day by no more than a half dozen votes.
Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, responded promptly to the threat of armed resistance. On April 20, 1775, he dispatched a small force of British marines to seize powder and guns stored in the Public Magazine in Williamsburg. The raiders were discovered, but the attempt aroused violent sentiments that threatened to explode into bloodshed. A few of Virginia’s more cautious leaders, who had often opposed Henry in the legislature, were able to quiet the citizens of Williamsburg and head off a march on the capital by several volunteer companies that gathered at Fredericksburg. Patrick Henry was not as easily turned aside. He led his Hanover militia company to the outskirts of Williamsburg and demanded payment to the colony for the cost of the seized powder and arms before he finally agreed to break camp.
During Henry’s brief absence from Virginia for the Second Continental Congress, the military preparations that he advocated had come to fruition. The Virginia Convention formed two provincial regiments, and by a narrow vote appointed the inexperienced Henry as commander of the first regiment and the senior officer of the entire force. “I think my countrymen made a capital mistake,” said George Washington, “when they took Henry out of the senate to place him in the field.”
Henry had little difficulty recruiting troops from his growing body of supporters, but in the end, his political opponents thwarted his military ambitions. They dominated the Committee of Safety and dispatched the second regiment to fight Dunmore’s forces at Great Bridge, in Norfolk County, in December 1775. Early in 1776, when the two regiments were incorporated into the newly organized Continental army, Henry remained a colonel in command of his regiment and was placed under the command of his former subordinates. He declined to serve, and his regiment threatened to resign in protest. Henry, however, in a little-known moment that many historians regard as one of his finest, refused to let personal disappointment hurt the American cause and persuaded his men to accept their new officers.
Patrick Henry’s short-lived military career was at an end but his political career was just beginning. As the colonies moved toward independence, Henry was elected to the last of Virginia’s revolutionary conventions, which met in Williamsburg on May 6, 1776. During the next two months, the Virginians instructed their delegates at the Continental Congress to declare independence; wrote a new constitution for the state, and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights – a precursor of America’s Bill of Rights. Without assurances of a strong union between the colonies and foreign support, such as an alliance with France, Henry was initially reluctant to support independence. Once reassured on these questions, however, he participated in drafting Virginia’s resolution calling upon Congress to declare the colonies “free and independent.”
Building a Nation
When Henry left the governor’s office in 1779, his political influence was strong. His social standing was confirmed by his marriage, on October 9, 1777, to Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, who was from an old and prominent Virginia family and with whom he had eleven children. Settling upon a 10,000-acre plantation in one of the newly created Southside counties that were named for him, he declined election to the Confederation Congress in favor of his 1780 election to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Henry promptly emerged as one of its most influential members, rivaled only by Richard Henry Lee and James Madison. Shifting factions, rather than clearly defined parties, were characteristic of the Virginia legislature in the 1780s. Henry opposed many of James Madison’s efforts to enact reforms that had been advocated by Thomas Jefferson, and he was always wary of fiscal policies that favored creditors over farmers and planters. Henry supported measures to provide the national government under the Articles of Confederation with adequate revenues but was wary of giving other states too much control over Virginia’s future.
Henry and his allies in the legislature passed only the occasional statute, often to provide relief to debtors, but they were generally successful in defeating or amending bills introduced by Madison and his allies. The major exception was Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which Madison steered to passage in 1786. Although strongly committed to religious freedom, Henry opposed Jefferson’s plan of total separation of church and state, favoring instead the continuation of public taxation for the support of all recognized religious groups.
Late in that same year, Henry declined reelection to the governorship, citing reasons of health and the need to look after his private affairs. A movement to strengthen the central government of the new nation was gaining force, culminating in the Philadelphia convention of 1787. Henry remained committed to augmenting the resources of the Confederation government but suspicious of those who sought to replace it with a stronger central government. Virginia’s emerging Federalists hoped that he might be won over to their viewpoint, and he was among those chosen to participate in the Philadelphia constitutional convention.
Henry declined the honor, citing a lack of funds. He was, however, clearly suspicious that the supporters of a stronger national government included many New Englanders who had favored a treaty with Spain in 1786 that, had it been ratified, would have sacrificed southern interests in the free use of the Mississippi River in favor of commercial advantages for northern merchants. When George Washington sent him a copy of the new constitution with a letter outlining its advantages in September 1787, just after the convention had adjourned, Henry composed a cryptic reply that made his deep reservations clear: “I have to lament that cannot bring my Mind to accord with the proposed Constitution. The Concern I feel on this account is really greater than I am able to express.” By the end of the year, James Madison regarded Patrick Henry as the greatest threat to ratification by Virginia.
Henry ran as a delegate to the state ratification convention from Prince Edward County, where he then resided. When the convention met in Richmond on June 2, 1788, its members were closely divided. As the foremost spokesman for the Anti-Federalists, Henry detailed his objections to the document with eloquent reminders of the liberties for which Virginians had fought and confidence in the state’s autonomy. The unifying theme of all Henry’s speeches in 1788 was the abiding fear of any powerful government that was too centralized and too far removed from its citizens. He denounced the constitution as “clearly a consolidated government” that would destroy the rightful powers of the states. Its principles, he continued, were “extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous.” The Philadelphia convention, he asserted, had proposed “a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain.” In the end, the Federalists outmaneuvered Henry with a strategy, which had already been successful in other states, of accepting ratification along with a slate of proposed amendments. This concession was enough to win over a small but critical group of moderate Anti-Federalists. Virginia ratified the Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79.
Convinced that individual liberties and Virginia’s interests remained at risk unless the Constitution was modified, Henry maintained unrelenting political pressure toward those goals. When the General Assembly convened on the heels of the ratifying convention, Henry commanded a strong majority of former Anti-Federalists that blocked Madison’s aspirations for a seat in the Senate and promoted a second convention to amend the Federal Constitution.
Once the new government went into operation, many Virginians who had supported the ratification suddenly found themselves opposed to the economic policies advanced by Alexander Hamilton. During the 1790s the commonwealth experienced a major political realignment in which many of Henry’s former Anti-Federalists joined forces with their former opponents to create the new Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson and Madison.
The Later Years
In declining health, Henry retired from the legislature at the end of 1790 and devoted himself to a busy law practice, winning cases in some of his most successful courtroom appearances. By the middle of the decade, however, his political allegiance took a surprising turn, shaped in part by the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, which Henry attributed to the deism of its leaders. Henry proved receptive to overtures from Virginia Federalists such as Washington, Henry Lee, and John Marshall who shared his increasing dissatisfaction with the Democratic-Republican opposition led by Jefferson and Madison. Henry declined appointments as secretary of state, attorney general, justice of the Supreme Court, and minister to Spain and France, but he reentered politics in 1799 in response to controversies over the repressive measures that Federalists in Congress had enacted against their Democratic-Republican rivals. Henry never endorsed the Federalist’s Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but he was equally alarmed by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1799 (written anonymously by Jefferson and Madison), which advocated state intervention against unconstitutional actions of the federal government. Disunion, he feared, would undo the revolution and lead to anarchy or tyranny. In the spring of 1799, Henry supported John Marshall, a moderate Federalist who had not voted for the Alien and Sedition Acts, for reelection to Congress. At the same time, in response to a direct request from his old friend George Washington, Henry ran again for a seat in the state legislature. He won easily after delivering his last public speech at Charlotte Court House, but he died in his home at Red Hill of intussusception on June 6, 1799, before the legislature convened.
On June 14, 1799, the Virginia Gazette announced the death of Patrick Henry. “As long as our rivers flow, or mountains stand,” said the Gazette, “Virginia . . . will say to rising generations, imitate my Henry.” Of the many Americans who were active in the American Revolution at the state level and who generally opposed ratification of the Federal Constitution, Patrick Henry was one of the few who rank among the truly major figures of American history. Unlike most of America’s political heroes, Henry never held high national office. By his oratorical prowess and his unfailing empathy with his constituents and their interests, Henry made the Revolution a more widely popular movement than it might otherwise have become. He explained the revolution to ordinary men and women in words they understood. As an eloquent spokesman for American liberty, Henry also expressed a distrust of centralized political authority that remains a persistent theme in American political culture. “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry,” said Thomas Jefferson. “He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”
Near his last will, Patrick Henry left a small envelope sealed with wax. Inside was a single sheet of paper on which he had copied his Resolutions against the Stamp Act. On the back, Patrick Henry left a message that he knew could only be read after his death. It began with a short history of his Resolutions against the Stamp Act, which had “spread throughout America with astonishing Quickness.” As a result, the colonies were united in their “Resistance to British Taxation,” and won “the War which finally separated the two Countries and gave Independence to ours.”
Whether America’s independence “will prove a Blessing or a Curse,” Henry continued in his message to posterity, “will depend on the Use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a Nation. Reader! whoever thou art, remember this, and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself, and encourage it in others. P. HENRY”