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Patrick Henry

By Rob Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #22, 1998.

A sketch of the remarkable career of Patrick Henry.
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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

"Give me liberty, or give me death!"

Most Americans could tell you the author of those stirring words - Patrick Henry of Virginia. But who was Patrick Henry? What did he do, other than make a certain famous fiery speech?

It comes as something of a surprise to students when they discover the other details of Henry's career. He was 39 years old when he delivered that speech and had already served in the Virginia colonial legislature for nearly ten years.

Largely self-educated, Henry had made something of a reputation for himself as a principled lawyer (a rarity in those days as in ours) and a gifted orator. At the tender age of 27, he won a very high-profile legal case called "The Parson's Cause." In his summation of the arguments in that case, he stated very forcefully the principle that only the colonial legislatures could enact binding law for the colonies and that King George's annulment of statutes bearing on the case was an instance of misrule. The King, he continued, had degenerated into a tyrant. The opposing lawyer leapt to his feet with a cry of "Treason!" but Henry ignored him and continued his remarks to the jury. The jury ruled against Henry's clients, but awarded damages of only one penny. Patrick Henry technically lost the case, but in fact accomplished all that he had desired.

Two years later, in 1765, he was elected to the colonial legislature. Nine days after taking his seat, on the day of his twenty-ninth birthday, he stood to address the burning issue of the day, the infamous Stamp Acts. Recently passed by Parliament in London, the Stamp Acts required the payment of various fees and the purchase of official "stamps" for a variety of legal transactions ranging from wills and marriages to the registration of debts, sale of property, or the filing of any legal proceedings.

The colonies were furious because the tax had been imposed unilaterally by Parliament without consultation or consent by the colonial legislatures. Henry, the most junior member of the Virginia colonial legislature, rose to introduce "Resolutions on the Stamp Act." In it, he asserted, "the General Assembly of this colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions of this colony. . . ." As Henry was defending his Resolutions and urging their passage, his speech became more and more passionate. At the climax of his speech, he exclaimed, "Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third - " At this point his speech was interrupted by shouts of "Treason!" from the Speaker and other members. Without pausing, Henry finished his sentence, "may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it."

The Resolutions passed, and Henry was transformed from the most junior member of the assembly into its leader. All eyes were now on the 29-year-old Henry.

Fast forward ten years. Tensions between colonial assemblies and Parliament have deteriorated even further. In the late summer of 1774, for the first time, representatives from all 13 colonies had met together in the First Continental Congress to consult on the best way to resist the growing tyranny of King George III. Henry, age 38, was one of the delegates from the colony of Virginia. At the Continental Congress, Henry became fast friends with John and Samuel Adams. Together they agreed that there was little prospect of reconciliation with England. Quietly, they began to plan the steps that should be taken to prepare for the coming conflict.

Patrick Henry returned to his home in Hanover County, Virginia and called a meeting to organize a militia company of all able-bodied men over the age of 18. He was unanimously elected Colonel. At almost the same time, in October of 1774, King George III, by order in council, prohibited the import of gunpowder, or any sort of arms or ammunition, into the several colonies. Secret plans were made by the royal governors to disarm all of the colonial militias and seize their arms and powder stores.

The Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony had dissolved the colonial General Assembly. In defiance of his ban, the representatives assembled under the name of the Virginia Convention in Richmond in March of 1775. Patrick Henry introduced resolutions to organize militia companies throughout the colony. "Resolved, therefore, that this colony be immediately put into a state of defense, and that there shall be a committee to prepare a plan for embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men, as may be sufficient for that purpose." As this resolution was being hotly debated, and certain conservative legislators were advising caution and patience, Henry rose to address the convention.

His remarks are worth quoting at length:

Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find, which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned - we have remonstrated - we have supplicated - we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free - if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending - if we mean not to basely abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained - we must fight! I repeat it sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak - unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those mans which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged, their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable - and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. 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!"

One month later, on April 18, British troops in Massachusetts moved to seize the arms of the militia stored in Lexington and Concord. Two days later, on April 20, the Royal Governor in Virginia did seize the powder stored by the militia in Williamsburg. Patrick Henry immediately backed up his words with action. He summoned the Hanover militia to assemble at New Castle, Virginia. Word came from Massachusetts of the fighting there. On May 2, Henry addressed the volunteers in the militia, and led 150 of them in a march towards Williamsburg. Along the way, the militia of other counties joined up. As they approached Williamsburg, the forces led by Patrick Henry swelled to several thousand. The governor panicked and sent messengers to Henry agreeing to pay 330 pounds as compensation for the seized gunpowder. Patrick Henry accepted the promise of the governor and turned his militia troops around and returned home.

Four days later, on May 6, 1775, the Royal Governor of the Virginia colony issued a proclamation charging that the money had been extorted, and branded Henry a traitor and ordered his arrest.

In May of 1776, after working with George Mason to draft a constitution for the newly declared independent Commonwealth of Virginia, Patrick Henry was elected by the legislature as Virginia's first governor. He was re-elected without opposition in 1777 and 1779. The Constitution limited a governor to no more than three consecutive terms, so in 1780, Henry returned to his seat in the legislature.

In January of 1781, British troops under Benedict Arnold were poised for invasion. Arnold's small raiding party was joined by a larger British forces commanded by General Cornwallis. But Cornwallis was trapped by French and American troops (and Virginia militia units) at Yorktown and was forced to surrender on October 19, 1781.

The independence of the colonies was secured, and after six years of war, everyone was relieved at the prospect of peace. Patrick Henry was elected governor for a fourth term in 1784 and re-elected in 1785. In 1786 he wrote the legislature, saying he had no wish to run again. Though he was only 50 years old, his health was failing and he wished to return to his home and spend more time with his wife and children. The legislature named him as their delegate to the Constitutional Convention scheduled to meet in Philadelphia to deal with the defects in the Articles of Confederation which governed the relations between the thirteen colonies. Henry declined the appointment.

In March of 1788, Patrick Henry was elected a delegate to the Virginia convention which was to consider ratification of the Constitution. Henry led the opposition to ratification, assisted by George Mason and James Monroe. In Patrick Henry's opinion, the Constitution created a central national government that was far too strong and which would inevitably usurp the powers of the separate states. (Not a bad prediction for 1788!)

It was soon clear that the Constitution would be ratified, but that the price of ratification would be the immediate consideration and addition to the Constitution of certain amendments. Patrick Henry was one of the most prominent voices insisting that the rights of the people must be secured and the powers of the new government strictly limited. Along with the familiar "Bill of Rights" adopted by the Virginia Convention at Henry and George Mason's urging, Henry also strongly urged other amendments, not adopted, such as a two-term limit on the presidency!

In October 1788, Henry was re-elected for the last time to the Virginia legislature. He was now 52. In 1789, he returned to his home in Prince Edward County and the private practice of law. The Virginia legislature elected him as governor several times in the following years, but due to his frail health, he declined the office.

He died on June 6, 1799.

Thus passed the man called the Demosthenes of his age.

There is one other facet of his character which must also be mentioned. Unlike Franklin and Jefferson, there is no doubt about Patrick Henry's Christian faith. He was no Deist or Unitarian. He trusted Christ, the Son of God, for the salvation of his soul and looked to the Scriptures as the only trustworthy guide for all of life.

There are several excellent resources for further study of Patrick Henry's life. Sprinkle Publications has re-published the three-volume biography published in 1891 by Patrick Henry's direct descendant, William Wirt Henry. Holly Hall has published an excellent character sketch of Patrick Henry by David J. Vaughn called Give Me Liberty. Either of these will give the reader much richer account of this great man's life.

Rob Shearer is the publisher at Greenleaf Press, the author of Famous Men of the Renaissance & Reformation, and a direct descendant of Judge George Johnston of Fairfax County, Virginia, who seconded Patrick Henry's "Resolutions on the Stamp Act" in 1765.

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