Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry (1736-1799), American orator and revolutionary, was a leader in Virginia politics for 30 years and a supremely eloquent voice during the American Revolution.

Patrick Henry was born into a family of lesser gentry in Hanover County, Va. He received a good education from his father and his uncle, an Anglican clergyman. He largely failed at attempts to become a storekeeper and a farmer, and his early marriage to Sarah Shelton made him at 35 the father of six children, whom he was always hard-pressed to support. A cursory training in law at Williamsburg about 1760, admission to the bar, and a modest beginning in a crowded profession did not at first improve his standing.

Eloquent Patriot

In 1763, defending a Louisa County parish against claims by its Anglican rector, Henry discovered the twin foundations of his public career—a deep empathy for injustice to the plain people and an eloquent voice that could overwhelm a jury. After he had scorned ecclesiastical arrogance and the British power supporting it, Henry's listeners carried him triumphantly from the courtroom. Two years later, as a member of the House of Burgesses, he made his stirring speech denouncing the Stamp Act. Henry also sponsored resolves against the Stamp Act, denying the power of Parliament to tax Virginians, which, published throughout the Colonies, marked him as an early radical leader. For 10 years Henry used his powerful voice and popular support to lead the anti-British movement in the Virginia Legislature.

During the crisis precipitated by the Boston Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, Henry was at the pinnacle of his career. He spurred the House of Burgesses to repeated defiances of the stubborn royal governor, Lord Dunmore. In August 1774 Henry, George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, and others traveled to Philadelphia as the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress. Henry stood with the Adamses of Massachusetts and other radicals, urging firm resistance to Britain, and union among the Colonies. "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more," Henry said. "I am not a Virginian, but an American." John Adams referred to Henry as the "Demosthenes of America." Back home in Virginia, Henry resumed his leadership of the radical party, "encouraging disobedience and exciting a spirit of revolt among the people," reported Lord Dunmore, who, as a result of Henry's exertions, was soon driven from the colony.

Elected to the first Virginia Revolutionary Convention, of March 1775, Henry made one of the most famous orations in American history. Attempting to gain support for measures to arm the colony of Virginia, Henry declared that Britain, by dozens of rash and oppressive measures, had proved its hostility. "We must fight!" Henry proclaimed. "An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! … 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!" The delegates were entranced by Henry's eloquence and swept away by his fervor. Virginia rushed down the road to independence.

Henry capped his seditious activities during the spring of 1775 by leading a contingent of militia that forced reparations for gunpowder stolen by British marines from the Williamsburg arsenal. In the Second Continental Congress, of May-September 1775, Henry again spoke boldly for the radicals. In Virginia for 6 months he commanded the state's regular forces, but exhibiting no particular military talent, he resigned to resume civilian leadership. At the Virginia Convention of May-July 1776, Henry sponsored resolves calling for independence that eventuated in the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 4, 1776. "His eloquence," wrote a young listener, "unlocked the secret springs of the human heart, robbed danger of all its terror, and broke the key-stone in the arch of royal power." Henry was elected first governor of Virginia under its constitution as an independent commonwealth.


Revolutionary Governor

In three terms as wartime governor (1776-1779), Henry worked effectively to marshal Virginia's resources to support Congress and George Washington's army. He also promoted George Rogers Clark's expedition, which drove the British from the Northwest Territory. During the years of Henry's governorship, the legislature, led by Thomas Jefferson, passed reforms transforming Virginia from a royal colony into a self-governing republic.

Henry's retirement from the governorship gave him time to attend to pressing family concerns. His first wife had died in 1775, leaving him six children, aged 4 to 20. Two years later he married Dorothea Dandridge, who was half his age and came from a prominent Tidewater family. Beginning in 1778, Henry had 11 children by his second wife, thus giving him family responsibilities that taxed his resources and provided abundant distraction from public life.

Meanwhile, Henry continued to serve in the Virginia Assembly, engaging in oratorical battles with Richard Henry Lee and sharing leadership during the breakdown in government after the British invasion of Virginia in 1780-1781. Though Henry backed some measures for strengthening the Continental Congress, his concern increasingly centered on Virginia and on efforts to expand its trade, boundaries, and power.

After the Revolution, Henry served two further terms as governor of Virginia (1784-1786). Increasingly opposed to a stronger federation, he refused to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As an old revolutionary, he distrusted the ambitions of men like Virginia's James Madison and New York's Alexander Hamilton, fearing that they would sacrifice simple, republican virtues to the alleged needs of a grandiose nation.


"Peaceable Citizen" Henry

At the Virginia Convention of 1788, Henry engaged Madison and his colleagues in a dramatic debate. He called upon all his oratorical powers to parade before the delegates the tyrannies that would result under the new Constitution: Federal tax gatherers would harass men working peacefully in their own vineyards, citizens would be hauled off for trial in distant courts before unknown judges, and the president would prove to be a worse tyrant than even George III. Furthermore, in his most telling practical arguments, Henry insisted the new Federal government would favor British and Tory creditors and negotiate away American rights to use the Mississippi River. The Federalists nevertheless managed to win a narrow victory, which Henry accepted by announcing that he would be "a peaceable citizen." He had enough power in the legislature, however, to see that Virginia sent Antifederalist senators to the first Congress, and he almost succeeded in excluding Madison from a seat in the House of Representatives.

Finally, shorn of his domination of Virginia politics, Henry largely retired from public life. He resumed his lucrative law practice, earning huge fees from winning case after case before juries overwhelmed by his powerful pleas. He also extended his real estate interests, which, through skillful speculations, made him at his death one of the largest landowners in Virginia, with huge tracts in Kentucky, Georgia, and the Carolinas as well. His continuing national fame, and his switch by 1793 to support of President Washington and the Federalists, led to a series of proffered appointments: as senator, as minister to Spain and to France, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and as secretary of state. In poor health and content to stay amid his huge progeny, Henry refused them all. Only one final cause—repeal of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798—prompted his return to politics. In 1799 Henry won election to the Assembly, causing the Jeffersonians to fear that he would carry the state back under the Federalist banner. Henry was mortally ill, however. On June 6, 1799, he died of cancer at his Red Hill plantation and was laid to rest under a plain slab containing the words "His fame his best epitaph."


Further Reading on Patrick Henry

Two early accounts of Henry, often inaccurate but filled with the drama of his life and containing extracts from the small surviving body of his earlier papers, reminiscences of his associates, and "reconstructions" of his speeches, are William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817; 15th ed. 1852), and William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (3 vols., 1891). The standard biography of Henry is Robert D. Meade, Patrick Henry (2 vols., 1957-1969). A hostile view of Henry's career is given in Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols., 1941-1961).