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Patrick Henry was a lawyer and statesman who used his rare ability for oratory to oppose English tyranny (real and imagined), to conduct a war for independence, and to proclaim and fight for the eternal and ”unalienable” rights of humankind.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Education Through Experience
As the second son of Colonel John and Sarah Henry, the future ”Trumpet of the Revolution” was born into an assured position among the gentry of colonial Virginia. From his Scottish-born and educated father, Patrick Henry inherited independence of mind and spirit; from his aristocratic mother, he not only gained acceptance from the slave-owning, plantation-owning Virginia provincial aristocracy, but also seemed to have inherited an easygoing and pleasant disposition and demeanor.
During his formative years, there was little to indicate future greatness. His academic training was spotty and brief. Up to the age of ten, Patrick Henry attended a ”common English school” where he learned to read and write. He also appeared to have acquired a basic knowledge of arithmetic. Thereafter he fell under the educational influence of his father from whom he acquired a limited knowledge of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and history (both modern and ancient). Unlike most of his com-patriots, the young man did not acquire a mastery of the classics. Rather, his education, both formal and informal, was practical and pragmatic, designed to be a preparation for managing plantations in rural, western Virginia.
The decision to forgo college was dictated as much by a perceived need to learn a practical trade as it was that the family could not afford to send young Henry to the College of William and Mary, Harvard College, Yale College, or to England. Given his alleged ”aversion to study,” it seems fair to surmise that the fifteen-year-old son acquiesced in his father’s decision to apprentice him out as a clerk in a nearby country store. During this year-long apprenticeship, he undoubtedly gained valuable knowledge regarding the real world away from a strict father and a well-connected, loving mother. In 1752, Colonel John Henry purchased the necessary goods to set up the young clerk and his older brother William in business for themselves. But the brothers’ initial foray into the business world was a notable failure. They were both too generous in granting credit to untrustworthy friends and neighbors.
Endings and Beginnings
In 1754, with few worldly possessions, Patrick Henry took a wife. Sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton brought to this marriage respectability, three hundred acres of hard-scrabble farmland, and six black slaves. But Patrick Henry’s career as a farmer lasted only a few years. in 1757, a fire destroyed his modest farm house and most of his tangible possessions, and the young couple was forced to move in with his wife’s family. After a second storekeeping attempt ended in bankruptcy, the now destitute Henrys took up residence in his father-in-law’s Hanover County tavern where Patrick earned his keep by working as a bartender.
In 1760, Henry took up the study of the law. Although seemingly ill-trained and ill-suited for a legal career, Henry would soon reveal those talents that would ensure success both at the bar and in the political arena of revolutionary Virginia. The 1760s were exciting years in which to be coming into manhood. The anti-British revolutionary movement in the thirteen mainland colonies provided ample opportunities for men of vision and ability to display their talents for legal advancement, political leadership, and, especially for Patrick Henry, effective oratory. Virginia in the 1760s was indeed the nursery of statesmen and distinguished barristers. George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson all gained experience in the tumultuous political arena that was pre-revolutionary Virginia. In such eminent company, Patrick Henry would soon emerge as a leader both at the bar and in the House of Burgesses.
The Parson’s Cause
It was the so-called ”Parson’s Cause” of 1763 that propelled Patrick Henry to legal and political prominence. This legal case resulted from a Virginia statute that regulated the salaries of Anglican ministers. By law, Anglican clerics were to be paid in tobacco. As a result of a crop-destroying drought in 1755, the colonial legislature commuted such pay into currency at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco. Acting on petitions received from the Virginia clergy, the king and Privy Council in England disallowed or vetoed the Virginia act. After the act was repealed, several Virginian clergymen sued for back salary, because they had been paid less under the terms of the act. On December 1, 1763, Patrick Henry entered public life with an impassioned speech in which he argued convincingly that in disallowing a law passed by the Virginia legislature, the British Crown had broken the compact between the ruler and the ruled and had therefore forfeited ”all rights to his subjects’ obedience.” Although the jury found in favor of the clergyman, they awarded him only one penny—a clear indication of the effectiveness of Henry’s message.
The Stamp Act and Speaking Out
In 1765, during what is called the Stamp Act crisis, Henry gained additional fame as a champion of colonial rights. Lord George Grenville introduced the Stamp Act resolution in Parliament on February 6, 1765. A revenue-raising measure, it imposed taxes on a whole range of official and unofficial documents such as court papers and newspapers (including the advertisements contained therein). Elected to the House of Burgesses to fill a vacant seat, Henry introduced seven resolutions in opposition to the hated Stamp Act in late May. Although five of the resolutions were relatively moderate, two of the resolves claimed virtual legislative independence for the colony. Since contemporary accounts of this oration, including a famous one written by Thomas Jefferson in 1814, differ significantly, it is not known with precision just what was said. However, what is known is that Henry’s speech acted as a catalyst for colonial opposition to the Stamp Act and thrust him into a leadership role in the anti-British agitation of the late 1760s and early 1770s.
In part because of his speaking and persuasive skills, Patrick Henry was elected Virginia’s first governor. His election appeared to represent a victory for the more radical faction. Under Henry’s prodding, the Virginia legislature in 1774 appointed a seven-man delegation to attend the Continental Congress. Meeting in Philadelphia in September, this gathering represented the first successful attempt at colonial union. For the first time, Henry, overwhelmingly elected as a member of the Virginia delegation, would be working at the national level. Among the fifty-plus delegates would be many of the leaders of the revolutionary movement. As a radical, Patrick Henry would be joined by ”a brace of Adamses” (John and Samuel) from Massachusetts, Christopher Gadsden from South Carolina, and fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee. Henry and his radical allies were able to issue a call for yet another congress to meet in May of 1775 if American grievances had not been resolved.
It was in Virginia that Patrick Henry was to achieve the fame and successes now associated with his name. In March of 1775, as a member of the second session of the Virginia Convention, Henry gave his most famous speech, in which he concluded: ”Give me liberty or give me death!” Everyone who heard his spirited defense of his three motions proposed to prepare the common-wealth for what he considered to be the inevitable armed conflict and who recorded their recollections all agreed that this oration was the most powerful, the most rousing, the most elegant ever heard among a learned gentry known for its forensic abilities. Interestingly, no copy of this well-known speech remains in existence.
While 1775 was full of opportunities for professional achievement, it was also fraught with personal conflicts. Henry’s first marriage in 1754 to Sarah Shelton tragically ended that year when the mother of his first six children died insane. The exact nature of Sarah’s malady is not known, but it is known that she was confined in a basement for her last few years, where she was cared for by a trusted female slave. Eventually, in 1778, the governor, then forty-two years old, married again, into the socially prominent Dandridge family. Dorothea Dandridge brought tranquility and respectability to the Henry household; she would ultimately be the mother of a family totaling eleven children.
The Bill of Rights
In 1787, long after the end of the American Revolution, Henry was a member of the Virginia convention considering ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He there led the anti-Federalist opposition to the Constitution because it created what he called a ”consolidated government.” Supported by such worthies as Benjamin Harrison, George Mason, and James Monroe, Henry adopted the strategy of delay and attrition. The convention almost turned into a political battle between the flamboyant Patrick Henry for the anti-Federalists and the scholarly, self-effacing James Madison for the Federalists. Although the Constitution was finally ratified by a vote of 89 to 79, Henry and his followers (most notably George Mason) were responsible for securing assurances that a clear exposition of individual rights would be added after ratification. Thus, along with Mason (author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights) and Madison (who pushed the first ten amendments through the First Congress), Patrick Henry became one of the “fathers” of the Bill of Rights. All along, his opposition had been based primarily on the fact he deemed the lack of such a bill was dangerous to the liberties of the people. Although not a member of the First U.S. Congress, Henry greatly helped Madison’s sponsorship of the first ten amendments.
The last few years of Henry’s public career were an enigma. He openly opposed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s proposals for federal funding as being overly ambitious, nationalistic, and detrimental to his Virginia constituency. However, by the late 1790s, Henry had become a Federalist philosophically and a firm supporter of Federalist policies. His swing toward conservatism could have been either the natural tendency of politicians to become less radical in old age or the result of being openly courted by President Washington. In the space of a little over one year, the president offered the positions of secretary of state, envoy to Spain, and chief justice of the United States to the now retired former governor. In refusing these honors, Patrick claimed ill health and disinterest. As if to substantiate his high standing even in retirement, Henry was elected governor for the sixth time in 1796, but he refused to take office. In 1799, shortly before his own death, Washington was successful in persuading Henry to become a candidate for the state legislature. During this campaign, Patrick Henry in his last great speech forcefully denied a state’s right to decide the constitutionality of national laws.
In a public career that spanned some twenty-five years, Henry exhibited extraordinary ability as an orator. But public service left Henry heavily in debt. Although he practiced law intermittently from 1760 to 1794, the first demand on his time was always his political career. In 1788, he resumed an active legal career prospering to such an extent that by his retirement in 1794, he had largely discharged his debts and built up a landed estate of some 22,000 acres. Interestingly, for the last few years of his life, this longtime champion of the downtrodden was among the largest landowners in all of Virginia.
Patrick Henry died on June 6, 1799, from what was probably stomach or intestinal cancer. His passing was greatly lamented and widely noted. In his obituary in the Virginia Gazette, Virginians bade goodbye with these simple, but heartfelt words: ”Farewell, first-rate patriot, farewell!”
Works in Literary Context
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that began in Europe and spread to America in time for the Revolutionary War. Enlightenment ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humankind were synthesized into a world view that gained wide assent and that instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy, and politics. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which the individual understands the universe and improves the human condition. The goals of the rational individual were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
The Power of the Colonial Press
More than any other group in eighteenth-century America, printers were capable of having their opinions heard near and far. They controlled the volume and intensity of news coverage, and by working in conjunction with the Sons of Liberty, newspaper editors and pamphleteers instigated opposition to the Stamp Act and contributed to its repeal in 1766. Although the assembly endorsed only four of Henry’s seven resolutions, local newspapers conveyed the impression it had passed all seven by printing Henry’s proposals. Moreover, they reported Henry as making a fiery speech, including the statement, ”In former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favour of his Country.”
Works in Critical Context
The Parson’s Cause
Henry argued to the jury about natural rights and said that there was a conditional covenant between the King and his subjects. He told the jury that the 1758 act was a good law, enacted by the provincial assembly for a valid purpose. The compact between the king and the people, providing protection in exchange for obedience, did not allow such a law to be annulled. In fact, Henry said that the King, by annulling such an act ”from being the Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ Obedience ….” Henry went on to attack the clergy in general and Maury in particular in an inflammatory appeal to anticlerical prejudice. Clergymen were ”rapacious harpies who would snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milch cow, the last blanket, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman.” Then tying together the two threads of his argument, he urged the jurors to ”make such an example of the plaintiff, as might hereafter be a warning . . . not to dispute the validity of such laws, authenticated by the only authority which . . . would give force to laws for the government of the colony.” Henry spoke for more than an hour. The jury retired and returned almost immediately with a verdict for the plaintiff of one penny; at that moment Henry became a leader in the struggle that led to the Revolution.
- Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
- Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775. New York: Harper, 1954.
- Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
- Meade, Robert Douthat. Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957.
- Tyler, Moses Coit. Patrick Henry. Boston: Houghton, 1887.
- Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Mack, Andrus, 1817.
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