Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia on May 29, 1736. Even though his father had a college education, Henry never attended formal school. He was home taught by his father and uncle. He was also self-taught and a voracious reader. His uncle, whom young Patrick was named after, was a Reverend in the Scottish Episcopal, yet Henry attended the local Presbyterian church with his mother.
It was while attending the Presbyterian church with his mother that Henry was exposed to the preaching of Samuel Davies, one of the Presbyterian evangelists that helped changed the lives of thousands during the Great Awakening. Listening to Davies preach, Henry learned that Christianity had the power to make people take action and he learned the importance of great and powerful public speaking. Both of these would greatly impact his future.
While working in a store across from the county courthouse in Hanover, Henry studied law and passed the Virginia Bar and set up his own law practice.
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In 1763, he took a case which was called the ‘Parson’s Cause Trial.’ At the time, ministers were paid a salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco, which at the time was a legal tender. Due to tobacco shortages over the past decade, minister’s salaries were supplemented with paper currency which greatly fluctuated in value and were unacceptable to some creditors. Due to a series of legislative acts, by 1763 ministers were receiving about one-third of their promised salaries.
Reverend James Maury filed a lawsuit against the tax collectors of Louisa County, Virginia. Patrick Henry agreed to serve as the defense counsel for the tax collectors even though his father John Henry, was the judge at the trial. During his defense, Patrick Henry spoke out against the King of England, saying that if he were to go against any ruling passed by the people of Virginia then the King was ‘a tyrant who forfeits the allegiance of his subjects.’ Henry’s arguments were so persuasive that the judge ended up awarding Rev. Maury one penny instead of the 300 pounds of back pay he sued for. Speaking out against the King of England brought Henry much acclaim.
In 1765, Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses which he soon made a speech condemning the Stamp Act. After comparing himself as Brutus and the King of England as Caesar, Henry left the House silent when he told them:
“If this be treason, make the most of it.”
In 1774, Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress which was held in Philadelphia. He openly pushed for the Congress to take action to stop the importation of British goods in response to all of their tariffs and taxes.
By this time, Patrick Henry had a reputation for making impassioned speeches. He spoke with fervor on the topics of the day. Yet some of his speeches were contradictory to his own life. On more than one occasion he spoke out against slavery, yet he owned slaves and never considered setting them free. This led some to question the sincerity of his speeches.
In 1775, tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain were heating up. On March 20, 1775, the Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond to avoid any possible interruption by British Lieutenant General Dunmore and his troops. Henry proposed to pass resolutions authorizing the creation of a militia to help defend Virginia from British tyranny. Opponents wanted to wait to hear the reactions of the British to the latest demands of the Continental Congress.
On this day, March 23, 1775, Henry again proposed the raising of a cavalry and/or infantry. He did so in an impassioned speech addressed to the president of the Convention:
No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”
Henry concluded his address with the words that became one of the foremost battle cries of the American Revolution:
“It is in 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!” [Emphasis mine]
Henry’s words echoed throughout parts of the colonies, helping many others to make a decision to stand up against the British. The Second Virginia Convention responded to Henry’s words and sent out notices to the other colonies urging them to form militias with which they could stand up to the increased British tyranny. Among those in attendance at the time of Henry’s speech was George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Less than a month later, British Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage ordered troops to Concord. On April 19, 1775, British troops were confronted by Patriots at Lexington. As the Patriot militiamen, Henry’s words rang loud, helping to launch the Revolutionary War.
Henry’s words were not just empty ramblings as he lived up them. On May 2, 1775, Henry helped lead a militia group to Williamsburg where they demanded that Gov. Dunmore return all of the gun powder and munitions that he had confiscated from the colonists. Dunmore labeled Henry’s actions as traitorous but before he could do anything to stop Henry and his forces, Dunmore escaped to a British ship and eventually reimbursed the Patriots for the stolen munitions. In the end, Dunmore surrendered Virginia to the Patriot forces.
Patrick Henry then concentrated his efforts to helping form an independent government as a member of the Fifth Virginia Revolutionary Convention who declared Virginia to be a free and independent Commonwealth. As the Convention worked on drafting a constitution, Henry pushed for individual rights which were later used to help draft the Bill of Rights.
In 1776, Henry was elected as the first Governor of Virginia. He served as governor until 1779 when he left the office. In the mid-1780s, Henry served two more terms as governor.
Patrick Henry strongly believed in state rule instead of a federal government. He said that the formation of a central government would eventually lead to the same kind of tyrannical rule as the colonies had under the British. In 1787, he was asked to take part in the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia and help draft a federal constitution, but his anti-federal views were so strong that he declines.
When the Convention had drafted the Constitution, George Washington sent a copy to Henry and asked for his help in getting Virginia to ratify it. However, Henry openly spoke against ratifying the federal Constitution. Henry lobbied hard to stop his fellow Virginia lawmakers from ratifying a federal constitution but in the end, an 89-79 vote for ratification prevailed.
Henry returned to practicing law in the 1790s, turning down Washington’s appointments to the Supreme Court, Secretary of State and Attorney General. Instead, Henry chose to spend his time with his family until in 1799 he was persuaded to run for the Virginia legislature. Although he won the election, he died on June 6, 1799 before being sworn into office.
Between his two wives, Patrick Henry fathered 17 children and left a legacy of being one of the voices of the American Revolution and playing an important role in our nation’s early history.
Sources for the above includes: A Short Biography of Patrick Henry; “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death!”; Patrick Henry voices American opposition to British policy; Patrick Henry Biography; A Picture Essay of Patrick Henry’s Famous Speech; ‘Lion Of Liberty’: Patrick Henry’s Fiery Life; The Parsons’ Cause Trial: 1763 – The Suit, Suggestions For Further Reading.