Most of us know the famous Patrick Henry quote “give me liberty or give me death” but know little about the man. He was known as the “Trumpet” and “Voice” of the American Revolution because of his fiery, passionate, and persuasive speaking style. Patrick Henry was the Winston Churchill of his time. He held national office for only a short time but was one of the great Revolutionary leaders. Patrick Henry was a complex and driven man who called for “rebellion” early and was a true patriot and hero.
Patrick Henry, the second of nine children, was born 29 May 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia on a plantation owned by his mother’s family. His father was a university educated immigrant from Scotland. Patrick was educated by his father and an uncle.
Religion was key to Patrick’s life. The religious revival, the “Great Awakening” reached Virginia when he was a child. His father and uncle were Anglican, but his mother often took him to hear Presbyterian preachers. He learned his oratorical style from “fire-breathing” preachers who taught him to reach people by speaking at their level and appealing to their hearts. He was uncomfortable with the Anglican Church being the established religion of Colonial Virginia and fought for religious liberty his entire life.
At age 15, Henry ran a store for his father, but the business failed. He married Sarah Shelton, the daughter of a local innkeeper, in 1754. Sarah’s dowry included 300 acres of farmland where Henry tried growing tobacco. The land was already exhausted, so this endeavor also failed. Adding to their problems, fire destroyed their house in 1757. Henry then managed Hanover Tavern for his father-in-law and studied law securing his law license in 1760. Seventeen-year-old Thomas Jefferson stayed at this tavern en-route to the College of William and Mary and became friends with Henry.
Henry earned a reputation as a powerful and persuasive speaker with the 1763 “Parson’s Cause.” The Virginia House of Burgesses had passed an economic relief law that reduced the pay of church ministers. King George III overturned the law and five ministers sued for back pay. Only one (Reverend James Maury) won his case and on 1 December 1763, a hearing to establish damages began in Hanover County.
Maury’s counsel praised the clergy, but Henry responded with a one-hour speech that ignored the question of damages. He argued that the King’s action was illegal, that the King was a “tyrant” who did not deserve obedience, and that the clergy had proven themselves to be “enemies of the community” by opposing an act providing economic relief to the people. He was accused of treason against the Crown but continued without being challenged by the presiding judge. The judge was Colonel John Henry, Patrick’s father.
Patrick Henry urged the jury to make an example of Maury by awarding damages of “one farthing.” After only a few minutes, the jury awarded damages of “one penny.” Because of this victory, Henry’s popularity skyrocketed in backwoods Virginia. He added 164 clients in the year following the “Parson’s Cause.”
Henry’s next big trial involved voter fraud and he made an impassioned speech supporting the rights of voters. He lost the case, but his popularity again skyrocketed because he had eloquently defended the common man. He also met some influential people including Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe.
When a position became vacant, Patrick Henry rode his popularity to being elected Burgess for Louisa County in May 1765. He at once left for Williamsburg to join the session that had already begun. He joined just in time to consider a response to the hated Stamp Act.
Patrick Henry reacted to the Stamp Act by introducing the “Virginia Stamp Act Resolves.” He saw the Stamp Act to be a threat to Virginian’s rights. However, many in the House of Burgesses felt Henry also saw a chance to advance himself politically, and resistance to this “upstart” developed.
There are no transcriptions of Henry’s remarks, but we know that he spoke often. Thomas Jefferson, still a student, recalled the “splendor of Henry’s oratory.” According to one source he referred to killing the King and was again accused of treason. Unrepentant, he reportedly responded: “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
The Burgesses adopted five resolutions that were similar to petitions they had sent to London in 1764. On 31 May 1765, the Royal Governor blocked publication of the resolutions. A more radical version than was passed was published in newspapers and touted as the resolves of the Colony of Virginia. This radical version reached Britain by mid-August, the first colonial reaction to the act. The byproduct was that this radical version galvanized opposition to the Stamp Act. It also firmly established Patrick Henry as an uncompromising opponent of the Crown throughout the colonies.
The Royal Governor dissolved the House of Burgesses on 1 June 1765 hoping the radicals would be voted out, but it backfired, and conservatives lost instead. The Burgesses met again in November 1766 after the British Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act. Henry was active, but apparently more subdued during this session. His standing within the Burgesses improved and he served on some powerful committees.
During the late 1760s and early 1770s, Henry mostly concentrated on personal affairs. The Henry family moved to a new house in Louisa County in late 1765 and in 1769 they moved back to Hanover County. His law practice was strong and in 1769 he was admitted to practice before the General Court of Virginia in Williamsburg, a more prestigious venue.
Henry also speculated in frontier land in what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, and in the Ohio Valley. His profits allowed him to buy Scotchtown, a large plantation in Hanover County in 1771. He bought Scotchtown from John Payne, the father of Dolly Madison.
After the birth of their sixth child in 1771, Sarah began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness. The main reason for the move to Scotchtown was so Sarah could be near family.
By the early 1770’s, the American colonies were moving rapidly toward complete rebellion. Henry believed war with Britain was inevitable and would lead to independence. Beginning in 1773, Virginians had open conflicts with British officials including the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore.
When the British closed the port of Boston, Massachusetts some Burgesses, including Henry, met to draft a Virginia response. It was here that Henry and George Mason developed a friendship that lasted until Mason’s death in 1792.
Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses to block the response. The Virginians then met in a tavern “in convention” to complete their work and called for a boycott of British goods. The ensuing “Five Virginia Conventions” would guide Virginia to independence as royal authority gradually came to an end.
There was still a divide between Virginians who wanted independence and those who wanted to reach an accommodation, but the rebels were gaining ground every day. One major decision was to send a seven-man delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Patrick Henry was one of the Virginia delegates. Henry, George Washington, and Edmund Pendleton travelled together to Philadelphia.
The Congressional session began on 5 September 1774. Delegates from other colonies had heard of Henry and knew him as the man who had taken the lead in Virginia’s resistance to the Crown. They were not disappointed because Henry spoke often and his eloquence, logic, and powers of persuasion were commented on by many. His presentations “electrified” the house. He did not win every debate but became an “especially influential member” of the body.
Henry believed that Congress should mobilize public opinion in favor of war. In this he found common cause with John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. A petition of grievances was drafted by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania in consultation with Henry and Richard Henry Lee and was passed on 26 October. Henry had departed Philadelphia, so Lee signed the resolution on his behalf. This petition was of course rejected by London.
Sarah Henry died in February 1775, which was a terrible emotional blow for Patrick. He could not abide anything that reminded him of her, which led to the sale of Scotchtown in 1777.
Henry was elected a Hanover County delegate to the Second Virginia Convention, which convened on 20 March 1775. This meeting was held in Richmond to protect it from Royal interference. The delegates discussed a petition from the Jamaica Colony, which included complaints against the Crown. It also stated that ultimate power belonged to the Crown.
Virginia had very strong ties to Britain and many favored the Jamaican document. Henry did not favor it. He offered amendments to raise a militia independent of royal authority, recognizing that war with Britain was inevitable. The moderates were incensed by Henry’s positions, but he strongly defended his amendments. This is when Patrick Henry made the famous speech that contained the seven words he is best known for.
Again, we have no contemporary text. The text was reconstructed from several sources 18 years after Henry’s death. That version has been challenged by some historians but is the most widely accepted. The last paragraph was:
“Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!”
In conclusion Henry plunged a letter opener towards his chest. His stirring words and passion carried the day, and the convention adopted his amendments, but by a narrow margin. Many delegates were still worried about where resistance would lead, and few counties actually formed the proposed militia units.
On 21 April 1775, Lord Governor Dunmore had Royal Marines seize gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine and move it to a British ship. The gunpowder belonged to the colonists and resulted in the short-lived “Gunpowder Incident.”
Henry was on his way to Philadelphia when he learned of the “incident.” He diverted to take command of a militia force that marched toward Williamsburg. He had sufficient troops to defeat Dunmore, but moderates intervened and convinced Henry to halt before reaching his target.
The moderates were frightened by Patrick Henry’s words and actions. They were fearful that his radicalism would result in war against Britain’s might and would put their “property” in jeopardy. However, many county committees officially approved of him and common men supported him. When Henry resumed his journey to Philadelphia, he was escorted to the Potomac River by militia who lined the shore and cheered as his ferry pulled away.
Henry arrived at the congress on 18 May 1775 and according to Jefferson, played only a supporting role. There is no complete record, but what there is seems to support Jefferson’s statement. This congress appointed George Washington to be commander of all the American forces and Henry supported this appointment. When the congressional session ended in August, Henry returned to Virginia. He would never again hold office outside Virginia.
The Third Virginia Convention commissioned Henry as colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment, and he took command in August 1775. He attracted many recruits, but Washington opposed the commission because he correctly believed Henry was more valuable in the political arena. Henry’s military position was manipulated by the moderates until in February 1776 he resigned his commission. His troops were outraged and considered leaving the army, but Henry defused the situation.
Henry was ineligible to serve in the Fourth Virginia Convention, but he was elected to the Fifth Convention in April 1776. Most delegates favored independence but were divided on how to declare it and on timing. Henry introduced a resolution declaring Virginia independent and urging Congress to declare all colonies free. When he spoke, clergyman Edmund Randolph, said that Patrick Henry “was in an element for which he was born.” The final resolution passed on 15 May 1776. It declared Virginia’s independence and instructed their congressional delegates to press for American independence. This was very effectively carried out by delegates Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson.
The Virginia convention then went to work drafting a state constitution and many momentous decisions were made. George Mason drafted a “Declaration of Rights” which was used by Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence and by authors of many other state constitutions. At the request of James Madison, Henry proposed changing Mason’s call for religious tolerance to full freedom of worship, but the Anglicans defeated it. Madison reworked the proposal and it passed later.
Despite the early reluctance of many to cut their close ties with Britain, Virginia became an American political leader. Virginia produced many national leaders at all levels and later became known as the “State of Presidents.”
Henry was elected the first governor of Virginia, but this was originally a figurehead position with virtually no power. He was sworn in on 5 July 1776 but became ill and recuperated at Scotchtown. He returned to Williamsburg in September. He tried to aid Washington’s army by recruiting troops and supplies with limited success. Virginians were willing to serve in local militias, but many balked at being deployed outside the state.
When the British forced Washington to retreat from Philadelphia, the Virginia legislature granted Henry temporary expanded powers. Thomas Jefferson believed Henry was trying to become a dictator and was still upset by this decision and angry with Henry years later.
Henry was reelected to another term as governor being sworn in on 2 July 1777. On 9 October he married Dorothea Dandridge, daughter of Nathaniel West Dandridge who was an uncle of Martha Washington. Henry had six children from his first marriage and would add eleven more with Dorothea. Two of the eleven died young. After selling Scotchtown in 1777 the Henry family moved to Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County. This county was named after Patrick.
During Valley Forge, Henry sent cattle and other food to help the army. However, his most important action was that he had received a letter about the “Conway Cabal,” a plot to remove General Washington from command. Henry forwarded the letter to Washington. Being tipped off, Washington was able to thwart the conspiracy, and he felt gratitude to Henry for the rest of his life.
Henry sent an expedition commanded by George Rogers Clark to the western frontier in December 1777 to secure Virginia’s claim to that vast area. Clark captured the main British and French settlement and remained north of the Ohio River until the end of Henry’s term. This expedition was touted by Henry as successful, but in reality, it achieved little.
On 29 May 1778 Henry was elected to a third term as governor. In December he petitioned the Continental Congress for naval forces to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but Congress did not act. On 8 May 1779, a British fleet entered the bay and landed troops in Virginia. They captured Portsmouth and Suffolk, destroying critical supplies. The British withdrew on 24 May.
Being legally limited to three consecutive terms Henry left office in June 1779 and was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. Henry and his family returned to Leatherwood Plantation where he devoted himself to local affairs. He refused to be a delegate to Congress again but was elected to the Virgina House of Delegates. Illness soon caused him to return to Leatherwood, but while in Richmond (the new capital of Virginia) he had temporarily defeated a plan to revalue Continental currency and raise taxes.
At home, Henry became involved in recruiting volunteers to defeat bands of Loyalists who were conducting raids in the frontier. Henry did not command the troops but rode with them. They succeeded in suppressing the Loyalists and disbanded in September 1780.
In 1781 the war moved into Virginia. The American traitor, Benedict Arnold led a British force that captured Richmond forcing the government to abandon the city. Arnold soon withdrew to Portsmouth and Lord Cornwallis’ army entered Virginia from North Carolina. General Washington was near New York City, so Henry began recruiting defenders. In March he helped draft an angry complaint to Congress demanding help which did not come. In May, British forces under Colonel Banastre Tarleton raided Charlottesville, nearly capturing the Virginia government.
Governor Jefferson had taken refuge at his farm. His term had expired but the legislature could not meet to hold an election. Virginia was without a governor for ten days, which caused a call for an inquiry into Jefferson’s conduct. Henry was one who got the inquiry resolution passed. Jefferson held a grudge about this even after Henry’s death.
The Revolutionary War essentially ended with the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia on 19 October 1781. Peace brought many changes. Henry sponsored legislation to reform Virginia’s currency and to adjust payments for contracts still outstanding from periods of high inflation. Jefferson and others wanted to reopen settled contracts, but because of his influence, Henry was able defeat this effort.
In May 1783, Henry successfully proposed legislation to repeal the trade embargo against Britain. He also proposed, against strong opposition, that Loyalists be allowed to return to Virginia. During the debate Henry said: “shall we, who have laid the proud British lion at our feet, be frightened of its whelps?” An amended version of his bill passed in November.
Patrick Henry and James Madison cooperated on several issues but differed on state support of Virginia’s Protestant churches. Madison, like Jefferson, wanted a separation of church and state that meant no public financing. Henry believed that all Christian churches should receive public funds. Washington and Lee also supported such a plan. The General Assembly did not act on Henry’s bill, because on 17 November 1784, he was again elected governor.
Madison got Henry’s bill postponed and eventually defeated. Madison then proposed Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom.” In 1786 the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill requiring separation of state and church.
Henry had a peaceful term as governor with some notable exceptions. Most militia units balked at serving outside Virginia, so he and the legislature tried to bring them under state control. This resulted in a near revolt in the counties and the laws were quickly repealed. He also proposed, and the legislature passed, a “Treason Act” forbidding the establishment of a rival government within Virginia.
Governor Henry worked to advance Virginia’s economic development through government action and his own investments. He supported a few bizarre schemes and devoted so much time to them that he failed to notify Virginia delegates of their appointment with Maryland to discuss navigation on the Potomac. Only two were able to attend. He did get delegates to the Annapolis Conference, which pushed for a Constitutional Convention.
Patrick Henry stepped down at the end of his term to devote time to his family and his law practice. He bought property in Prince Edward County, and enrolled his sons in Hampden-Sydney College, which he had helped found in 1775. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1787 and served until the end of 1790. Governor Randolph offered to send Henry to the Constitutional Convention, but he declined.
Henry had always urged unity among the states and as late as the end of 1786, James Madison had hoped Henry would ally with him on a Constitution. However, Henry had become very suspicious of the intentions of the northern states. He felt congress failed to protect Virginia settlers in the Ohio Valley. He was particularly outraged by the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty which had granted exclusive navigation rights on the Mississippi River to Spain. That treaty was an exchange for commercial concessions that would have benefitted New England. Luckily, there were enough southern votes to block the treaty’s ratification. These and other events caused Virginians and other southerners to have little trust in the north.
When the Constitutional Convention adjourned in September 1787, its president, George Washington sent a copy of the new Constitution to Henry suggesting that he support ratification. Henry replied that he could not support the Constitution as written. George Mason and Edmund Randolph had been delegates to the convention and also opposed the Constitution. Madison, who became known as the “Father of the Constitution” was ill and could not attend to defend the document.
Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution because he believed it gave too much power to the federal government, particularly the President. He had not fought to free Virginia from King George to surrender power to another “despot.” He wanted a bill of rights to defend individual rights, and more protection for “state’s rights.”
Henry’s oratory dominated consideration of the new Constitution. According to one observer, Henry’s “personality blazed in all its power and glory.” He realized he was fighting a losing battle, however, and joined Mason proposing a bill of rights and other amendments to reduce federal power. Henry did not prevail, and Virginia ratified the Constitution on 26 June 1788, the 10th state to do so. Ratification was, however, accompanied by recommendations that a bill of rights and other amendments be adopted. The Virginia session was then adjourned.
Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and made some minor changes to the text. This did not allay Henry’s fear of a too-powerful government but once passed and ratified he worked to implement the Constitution.
When Henry returned to the House of Delegates, he successfully defeated Madison’s campaign to become a federal senator. (The Constitution originally had senators selected by state legislatures rather than by popular vote.). Henry served as a Virginia presidential elector voting for George Washington for President and John Adams for Vice President, who became the first executives of the United States.
He opposed the Funding Act of 1790 by which the federal government took over the debts of the states, much of which was a result of the Revolutionary War. The House of Delegates passed his resolution that declared it “exercised a power not granted to the general (federal) government.” This was the first of many decades of resolutions by southern legislatures defending states’ rights. The question of States’ rights was the major contributing factor leading to the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Patrick Henry left the House of Delegates after 1790 and like many of our founders found himself in debt. He began to speculate in land and returned to his law practice.
When the new federal court was opened in Virginia in 1790, British creditors filed over 100 cases seeking to recover claims from the Revolutionary War. Henry was part of the defense team in one case in 1791. His co-counsel included John Marshall who became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1801. During this hearing Marshall prepared written pleadings and Henry did most of the oral presentations. Later Marshall called Henry “a great orator…..and much more a learned lawyer, a most accurate thinker and a profound reasoner.”
After an inconclusive ending the case was argued before another three-judge panel. Henry’s oral argument prompted Justice James Iredell to exclaim, “Gracious God! He is an orator indeed.” The British eventually won the case.
Despite having strained relations with several powerful people, including Washington and Jefferson, Henry was offered many important federal and state positions during the 1790’s. He was also encouraged to run for elected office, but he turned them all down often citing age and health. These refusals increased his popularity as he was, like Washington seen as “Cincinnatus” giving up power to return to his farm and plow.
Henry sold his Prince Edward County property in 1792 and purchased Long Island plantation in Campbell County. In 1794 he also purchased Red Hill Plantation in Charlotte County where they lived most of the year.
In early 1799, Washington convinced Henry to run for the Virginia legislature. He was elected and returned to Red Hill Plantation to await the next session. He never left Red Hill again dying of stomach cancer on 6 June 1799. He and his wife Dorothea (died 1831) are both buried at Red Hill.
Patrick Henry has been honored in many ways by his contemporaries, news media, government, and historians. Even modern political groups, both right and left, claim Henry, and he is often cited by them. In actuality, Henry did not write much of anything down so the details of most of his oratory are lost completely or have been reconstructed by those that heard him speak. This absence of basic material limits historians who know little of his actual words or reasoning.
No matter: what we do know is that his words explained the Revolution to ordinary people and inspired them to fight for liberty. He espoused a political belief that led away from the elitism of the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century populist politics of Andrew Jackson. Both sides in the Civil War claimed Henry as inspiration.
I don’t know anything about Henry’s reasoning, but I do know he was a patriot who contributed much to our Revolution and early development. His oratory was dynamic and stirring. He inspired most and irritated some. He never shrank from speaking the truth as he saw it, which was demonstrated by his unpopular opposition to the Constitution. He trusted the common men and women of our Republic and gave them a voice. My personal opinion is that Patrick Henry was the Winston Churchill of his day and was a true American hero.