Patrick Henry

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A portrait of Patrick Henry.

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was a Patriot during the American Revolution, an active member of the Sons of Liberty, and an anti-Federalist who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution afterwards. A radical democrat, he supported combining the executive and the legislative into a single elected body. An attorney, he prevailed in the Parsons' Cause by defending the right of the Virginia colony to fix the price of the tobacco to be paid to the clergy in violation of a contrary ruling in England.[1] In the 1790s Henry was a leader of the Federalist Party in support of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and opposition to Thomas Jefferson.

Patrick Henry is best known today for the rousing speech that he gave on March 23, 1775 to the 2nd Virginia Convention at Richmond's St. John's Church:[2]

I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery ... 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 prostrated ourselves before the throne ... Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence. ...
There is a just God who presides over the destines of nations ... who will raise up friends to fight our battle for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave ... 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.[3]

Henry has this to say about the Bible: a book worth more than all of the other books that were every printed.[4]

Early Life

Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736 on the tobacco plantation of Mount Brilliant, along the South Anna River in Hanover County, Virginia. He was the second son of Colonel John Henry, who had immigrated to the colony from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and Sarah Winston Syme Henry, originally from Studley in Hanover County, Virginia. Not a great deal is known of John Henry, though he was, in spite of his foreign birth, a respected figure among the gentry of the Virginia Piedmont; in addition to being commander of the local militia, he served periodically as surveyor, vestryman of the local Anglican parish (of which his brother, also named Patrick, was rector), and Justice of the County Court. His mother, meanwhile, was of an established upper-class family and thus gave her children connections to the colonial elite.

Growing up at Mount Brilliant, young Patrick was fairly outgoing, learning how to dance and play the fiddle at an early age; and he was said to have taken part in many casual conversations and arguments among his peers over matters of politics and business. At the same time, he received a vigorous, if informal, education in Latin and the classics from his father. Two other figures of importance in Henry's youth were his uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry, Sr., and his mother's favorite minister, Reverend Samuel Davies, a notable Presbyterian leader who would later become the president of Princeton University in New Jersey. From them he received not only moral tutelage but lessons in rhetoric and oratory, which would be a major influence on his political career.

In 1751, Henry's father apprenticed the 15-year-old as a clerk in the store of a local Scottish merchant. This lasted about a year before Patrick became a junior partner in another store set up by his older brother William, though it soon failed. In 1754, Patrick Henry married Sarah Shelton, whose dowry included six slaves and a farm of about 300 acres. The land on the estate proved to be of poor quality, however, and promises of a land inheritance to the west from his father were not immediately realized. To make matters worse, the young couple's home was destroyed by fire in 1757. In debt and with a family to support (the union had already produced multiple children), Henry for a time operated a tavern for his father-in-law, Captain John Shelton, but eventually decided to take up the law as a profession. As was often the case then, his studies were less-than-formal, consisting of only a few months' review of the colony's laws and of the legal compendiums of Sir Edward Coke and other notable lawyers of the past;[5] nonetheless, he passed the bar exam at Williamsburg, and presented his law license at Goochland Court House on April 15, 1760.

Law Career

Henry soon proved himself a capable and popular young lawyer. During his first three years in the profession, he handled 1,185 suits, winning the majority of his cases; his earnings in 1763 were about ₤200, rising to over ₤400 by 1766. Beyond financial success, Henry also gained fame during the early 1760s for his involvement in the so-called "Parsons' Cause."

"The Parsons' Cause"

Due to the scarcity of hard cash in late colonial Virginia, it was common practice for portions of tobacco crop to be used as a means of exchange, even in the payment of debts. A recent "Two-Penny Act" passed by the House of Burgesses, while continuing this practice, fixed the price of tobacco at a low rate for such transactions, which had the effect of making it easier for debtors to pay off their obligations, but also reducing the value to creditors. This caused a backlash from those trying to collect debts, especially the Anglican clergy, who had traditionally received their tithes from parishioners in the form of tobacco. Several clergymen wrote to the Board of Trade in London, asking that the statute be repealed but also that it be declared null and void from the point of its passage, meaning those who had paid their tithes at the lower rate would have new debts to pay. While the Board of Trade agreed to overturn the Act itself, it declined to make a ruling on backdating the repeal, leaving it to the Virginia court system to sort things out.

Among the clergy who brought suit in the wake of the repeal was Reverend James Maury of Hanover County, who pressed for payment of the debts owed. In 1763, Henry took over the case for the defendants, replacing John Lewis, who had bungled the proceedings up to now. The only significant matter still to be resolved was the amount of restitution to be given the plaintiff. In his arguments, Henry made a passionate appeal to the plight of the average Virginia farmer and his cash-poor condition, leaving him at the mercy of a cold world; his speech was so persuasive that the jury voted to award Reverend Maury only one penny as redress. The courthouse audience carried Henry out on their shoulders in triumph, while his father, who had presided on the bench, was said to have wept with pride at his son's victory. Henry's achievement not only marked him as a defender of the common man, it also represented one of the first de facto challenges to Crown authority in the years before the Revolutionary War.

(Henry's actions should not be represented as a sign of hostility toward the Christian Church or even toward the Christian clergy as a group, as he was a lifelong defender of both; his stance in "the Parsons' Cause" had strictly to do with what he perceived as an unfair system of debt.)

Partly on the strength of his victory in "the Parsons' Cause," Henry's visibility within Virginia society and politics rose tremendously. In 1764 he was able to purchase a plantation in Louisa County, and the following spring was elected from that county to the House of Burgesses, taking his seat on May 21, 1765.

A depiction of Henry speaking in the Virginia House of Burgesses.


At the time Henry became a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia and the other colonies were already in turmoil over the controversial Stamp Act, which the British Parliament had passed a few months earlier, imposing a tax on the American colonies (by means of a revenue stamp) without the consent of the colonial legislatures: a measure generally considered contrary to both legal tradition and the colonial charters themselves. Not surprisingly, given his earlier stance in "the Parsons' Cause," Henry strongly identified with the Whig faction opposing the Stamp Act and similar transgressions, and immediately associated with other Whigs in the Burgesses who were writing the Virginia Resolves in response. These Stamp Act Resolves not only expressed disagreement with the Stamp Act but clearly stated that Parliament had no capacity to tax the American colonies, which made the controversy a constitutional, rather than a simply economic, issue.

Despite his youth and the fact that he had only just become a member of the legislature, Henry took the lead in presenting the Resolves to the House and calling for their adoption. On May 30, 1765, only nine days after being sworn in as a legislator, Henry made a dramatic speech in advocating for the Resolves. At the end of this speech, referencing past "tyrants" who had been assassinated by defenders of liberty, Henry proclaimed, "Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example." He could not doubt, he added, that "some American jealous of the liberties of his country would, in due course, appear." To many listeners, this sounded like an indirect call for assassination of the king, and some in the House shouted, "Treason!" to which Henry reportedly responded, "If this be treason, then make the most of it." It seems unlikely, though, that Henry was at this stage even advocating independence, much less an armed struggle or overthrow of the king. He affirmed his loyalty to the king, even saying he was ready to shed his last drop of blood for George III, but stressed that the monarch was similarly bound to adhere to the ancient constitutions of the realm and recognize the traditional privileges and liberties the colonists possessed as "free-born Englishmen."

The repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 was a vindication of the firm stance of Henry and other Whigs, and allowed them to solidify their political position in Virginia. The new Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph, was sympathetic to their views, and permitted them to take the lead in much of the legislature's business in the late 1760s. In response to the Townshend Acts, a series of new taxes on various imports, Henry and his allies organized the Association of 1769, a boycott of such British merchandise as tea, lead, paper, and other goods affected by the duties.

During the cooling-off period in the early 1770s, following the repeal of the Townshend Acts, Henry scaled back some of his public political activity, being preoccupied with his legal profession and increasing his estates; he bought the 1,000-acre Scotchtown Plantation in Hanover County, not far from his place of birth, and also speculated in western lands. He was also concerned over the state of his wife, Sarah, whose health was declining during these years. Nonetheless, he remained an active figure in the House of Burgesses, supporting a bill to guarantee a wide degree of religious liberty in the colony.


"Give me liberty, or give me death!" - Patrick Henry[6]

Though Henry had already been active in the efforts to extend the Committees of Correspondence to Virginia in 1772 and 1773, a step which laid the groundwork for future revolutionary activity, it was only following the Intolerable Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party that he again drew notice as a prominent opponent of British policy. After the House of Burgesses expressed solidarity with Massachusetts, the main target of the Acts, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the legislature. Henry then led the assembly members across the street to Raleigh Tavern, where, at his urging, they revived the Association, now aiming to embargo all imports from Britain, and called for all the colonies to send representatives to a general congress. This would become the First Continental Congress, to which Henry was selected as one of the Virginia delegates in August 1774, receiving more votes than anyone except House Speaker Randolph.

At the Congress in Philadelphia that fall, Henry distinguished himself by his forward-looking position on a number of issues. He called for the creation of a representative government for all the colonies, as a means of preserving American liberties and preparing for a contest with the British, and signaled his belief that war was now inevitable, despite the wishes for peace by many of his colleagues: "The present measures lead to war....Arms are a recourse to which we shall be forced, [one that is] afforded us by God & Nature." This was a stance he maintained after the Congress' adjournment and his return to Virginia, openly endorsing the formation of committees of public safety in the counties and the organization of the militia.

It was his agitation for military preparedness that led to the famous Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death speech to the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond on March 23, 1775. Faced with a reluctance among some convention members to actually sanction armed hostilities, Henry dramatically described the unfolding situation in Massachusetts and the need for the other colonies to come to her aid. The power of his remarks had as much to do with the manner in which he delivered them as the words themselves. At the peroration of his speech,

Henry got to his knees, in the posture of a manacled slave, intoning in a low but rising voice: 'Is life so dear, our peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!' He then bent to the earth with his hands still crossed, for a few seconds, and suddenly sprang to his feet, shouting, 'Give me liberty!' and flung wide his arms, paused, lowered his arms, clenched his right hand as if holding a dagger at his breast, and said in sepulchral tones: 'Or give me death!' He then beat his breast, with his hand holding the imagined dagger. There was silence, broken by a man listening at the open window, who shouted, 'Let me be buried on this spot!' Henry had made his point.[7]

Henry's speech was successful in persuading the Convention to adopt a more militant stance, and he was soon elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia that May. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he led a militia force during the Gunpowder Incident, and was among those who supported the formation of the Continental Army under George Washington, and laying the groundwork for total independence.

After returning from the Congress, Henry briefly served as commander of the Virginia militia. During this time, he also helped draft Virginia's declaration of an independent government in May 1776, and gave his support to its call for the Congress in Philadelphia to adopt a similar document. In June, he was elected as the first state governor of Virginia, serving three consecutive one-year terms. As governor, Henry was committed to upholding Virginia's leadership of the war effort, making regular contributions of men and material to the American armies, as well as launching the 1778 expedition under George Rogers Clark that liberated the western territory north of the Ohio, and Evan Shelby's 1779 expedition against the Cherokees.

After leaving office in 1779, Henry briefly retired to private life, moving with his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge (his first wife had died in February 1776), and the rest of his family to Henry County in the Dan River valley of southwest Virginia, establishing the plantation of Leatherwood. In 1780, however, he returned to the state legislature, partly at the behest of others who believed his leadership was necessary in the ongoing military crisis (especially in light of what they saw as the lax administration of Thomas Jefferson, who had succeeded Henry as governor). During the early 1780s, Henry was de facto leader of the legislature, helping to raise more troops, and later supporting an inquiry into the conduct of Jefferson and other public officials. Because of this, Jefferson and Henry became estranged, despite their common political principles, and Jefferson had much to do with downplaying Henry's achievements later.

Post-War Life

Henry was re-elected as Virginia governor in 1784, serving until 1786. Following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, he generally supported the form of government created by the Articles of Confederation; while favoring regular contributions to the national government by the states, and even a tariff on imports, he did not believe it should have any powers beyond the common defense. Though he acknowledged some imperfections with the Confederation, he firmly rejected proposals to significantly strengthen the government or expand its scope, reportedly saying that he preferred "a rope of sand" to "a rod of iron." For this reason, when Henry was elected by the Virginia legislature in February 1787 as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he declined, saying that he "smelt a rat."

Henry continued in opposition to the document produced by the Convention, joining with George Mason, James Monroe, and several others to lead the Antifederalist faction in the Virginia ratification convention in 1788. Dominating much of the convention debate, Henry argued that the Constitution would produce the same kind of remote and arbitrary power against which the Americans had been fighting during the Revolutionary War, because it was based too much on abstract principles and not enough on practical experience and political traditions. In this, he insisted, he was being entirely consistent with his positions as a pre-war Whig. Though the Constitution was eventually ratified by a narrow majority, Henry nonetheless won a partial victory, as James Madison and other Federalists secured passage chiefly by arguing that the Constitution was, in its essentials, an Antifederalist document, and by pledging the passage of a Bill of Rights.

Antifederalist position

Patrick Henry's Opening Speech, "A Wrong Step Now and the Republic Will Be Lost Forever," as made on June 4, 1788 before the Virginia Ratifying Convention held June 2-27, 1788:

But now when we have heard the definition of it, it is purely national. The honorable member James Madison was pleased to say, that the sword and purse included every thing of consequence. And shall we trust them out of our hands without checks and barriers? The sword and purse are essentially necessary for government every essential requisite must be in congress. Where are the purse and sword of Virginia? They must go to congress. What is become of our country? The Virginian government is but a name. It clearly results from his last argument that we are to be consolidated. We should be thought unwise indeed to keep 200 legislators in Virginia, when the government is in fact gone to Philadelphia or New York. We are as a state to form no part of the government. Where are your checks? The most essential objects of government are to be administered by congress. How then can the state governments be any check upon them? If we are to be a republican government it will be consolidated, not confederated.

Henry continued to serve in the Virginia legislature until 1791, in which capacity he maintained a strong Antifederalist presence in the state. Even after returning to private life, he continued to express his opposition to many Federalist policies, including Jay's Treaty and the economic innovations of Alexander Hamilton. To the surprise of many, though, he began to align with the Federalist Party by the late 1790s, and was even elected once more to the state legislature as a Federalist in 1799. There were several reasons for this seeming about-face, one being his personal animus toward Jefferson and Madison, now leaders of the Republican opposition. At least as important, though, was his opposition to the French Revolution. Henry was sharply critical of the revolutionary regime in France for its violence and its anti-Christian behavior. In revolutionary France, he wrote, "everything that ought to be dear to man is covertly but successfully assailed." Republican enthusiasm for the Revolution was instrumental in driving Henry into the arms of the Federalists.


Patrick Henry was unable to take his seat in the legislature following the 1799 election, as he was by that time dying of stomach cancer. He died at his Red Hill plantation in the Staunton River valley on June 6, 1799.

Christian faith

Henry was known during and after his lifetime for being a professing Christian, so much so that even liberal historians today have never been able to paint him as a Deist or rationalist. Some of his faith was instilled in him by his uncle, Rev. Patrick Henry, Sr., the local Anglican rector; however, he did not advocate for a single denomination in particular. In 1784 he pressed for a "plural establishment" scheme that would have given official recognition and tax support to multiple Christian faiths in Virginia, but was defeated by Madison and some others, who thought it likely to make the churches an arm of the government.

Henry upheld the truth of Christianity in private and public life, once having reprinted and distributed a pamphlet by Soames Jenyns arguing for the rational nature of Christian belief. On his deathbed, having gathered his friends and family around, he commended his soul to Jesus Christ and "asked his skeptical physician to observe that the Christian faith made it easier for a man to die."[8]


  • "The rising greatness of our country is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism, which with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of their number and indeed, that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics."
  • "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past." - Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death
  • “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government -- lest it come to dominate our lives and interests."
  • "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."
  • "Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our defense?"
  • "We are descended from a people whose government was founded on liberty; our glorious forefathers of Great Britain made liberty the foundation of everything. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their government is strong and energetic, but, sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation. We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty."
  • "A silence or a mere look from Henry could ruin the effect of a day's worth of careful exposition." -James Madison

See also

Patrick Henry College


  3. Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death" Speech
  4. Original Intent (2004), David Barton, page 168
  5. Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty, in particular, Coke's The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England. Or, a Commentarie upon Littleton
  6. Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death" Speech
  7. A History of the American People (1997), Paul Johnson, page 148-49
  8. Against the Barbarians (1992), M.E. Bradford, page 99

External links