Who Was Patrick Henry?
Patrick Henry was an American Revolution-era orator best known for his quote "Give me liberty or give me death!" Henry was an influential leader in the radical opposition to the British government but only accepted the new federal government after the passage of the Bill of Rights, for which he was in great measure responsible. With his persuasive and passionate speeches, Henry helped kickstart the American Revolution.
Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia, on a plantation that belonged to his mother's family. Unlike his mother, who had strong roots in the region, his father immigrated to the colony from Scotland.
The second of nine children, Henry received much of his schooling from his father, who had attended university in Scotland, and his uncle, an Anglican minister. He was a musical child, playing both the fiddle and the flute. He may have modeled his great oratory style on the religious sermons by his uncle and others. Henry sometimes attended services with his mother which were held by Presbyterian preachers who visited the area.
At the age of 15, Henry ran a store for his father. The business didn't last, and Henry had his first taste of failure. He married Sarah Shelton, the daughter of a local innkeeper, in 1754. As part of his wife's dowry, Henry received some farm land. He tried growing tobacco there for three years, but he didn't fare well in this new venture. In 1757, Henry and his wife lost their farmhouse to a fire. He then managed a tavern for his father-in-law and studied to be a lawyer. In 1760, he secured his law license. He and Shelton had six children together.
Lawyer and Politician
As a lawyer, Henry developed a reputation as a powerful and persuasive speaker with the 1763 case known as "Parson's Cause." The Virginia Colony passed a law changing the way church ministers were paid, resulting in a monetary loss for the ministers. When King George III overturned the law, one Virginia clergyman sued for back pay and won his case. Henry spoke out against the minister when the case went to a jury to decide damages. Pointing out the greed and royal interference in colonial matters associated with this legal decision, he managed to convince the jury to grant the lowest possible award—one farthing, or one penny.
In 1765, Henry won the election to the House of Burgesses. He proved himself to be an early voice of dissent against Britain's colonial policies. During the debate over the Stamp Act of 1765, which effectively taxed every type of printed paper used by the colonists, Henry spoke out against the measure. He insisted that only the colony itself should be able to levy taxes on its citizens. Some in the assembly cried out that his comments were treason, but Henry was unfazed. His suggestions for handling the matter were printed and distributed to other colonies, helping to spur on the growing discontent with British rule.
An active force in the growing rebellion against Britain, Henry had the remarkable ability to translate his political ideology into the language of the common man. He was selected to serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. There, he met Samuel Adams and, together, they stoked the fires for revolution. During the proceedings, Henry called for the colonists to unite in their opposition to British rule: "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."
The following year, Henry gave perhaps the most famous speech of his career. He was one of the attendees of the Virginia Convention in March 1775. The group was debating how to resolve the crisis with Great Britain—through force or through peaceful ends. Henry sounded the call to arms, saying, "Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? ... 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!"
Only a short time later, the first shots were fired, and the American Revolution was underway. Henry became the commander in chief of Virginia's forces, but he resigned his post after six months. Focusing on statesmanship, he helped write the state's constitution in 1776. Henry won election as Virginia's first governor that same year.
As governor, Henry supported the revolution in numerous ways. He helped supply soldiers and equipment for George Washington. He also sent Virginia troops—commanded by George Rogers Clark—to drive out British forces in the northwest. After three terms as governor, Henry left the post in 1779. He remained active in politics as a member of the state assembly. In the mid-1780s, Henry served two more terms as governor.
Henry held strong anti-Federalist views, believing that a powerful federal government would lead to a similar type of tyranny the colonists had experienced under British rule. In 1787, he turned down an opportunity to attend the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia. His opposition to this famed document did not waver, even after receiving a draft of the Constitution from Washington after the convention. When it came time for Virginia to ratify the Constitution, Henry spoke out against the document, calling its principles "dangerous." He felt that it would negatively impact states' rights. Considering the strong support for Henry in Virginia, many Federalists, including James Madison, feared that Henry would be successful in his anti-Constitution efforts. But the majority of lawmakers were not swayed to Henry's side, and the document was ratified in an 89-to-79 vote.
Final Years and Legacy
In 1790, Henry left public service. He chose to return to being a lawyer and had a thriving practice. Over the years, Henry received numerous appointments to such positions as Supreme Court justice, Secretary of State and Attorney General, but he turned them all down. He preferred being with his second wife, Dorothea, and their many children, rather than navigating the world of politics. His first wife had died in 1775, after a battle with mental illness. Henry was the father of 17 children between his two marriages.
Henry spent his last years at his estate, called "Red Hill," in Charlotte County, Virginia. In 1799, Henry was finally persuaded to run for office. He had switched political parties by this time, becoming a part of the Federalists. At the urging of his friend, Washington, Henry fought for a seat in the Virginia legislature. He won the post, but he didn't live long enough to serve. He died on June 6, 1799, at his Red Hill home.
While he never held national office, Patrick Henry is remembered as one of the great revolutionary leaders. He has been called the "Trumpet" and "Voice" of the American Revolution. His powerful speeches served as a call for rebellion, and his political proposals offered suggestions for a new nation.
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