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Patrick Henry


"Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" were the burning words which fell from the lips of Patrick Henry, at the beginning of the War for Independence, and aroused the Continent to more vigorous and united action.1 He was the son of a Virginia planter in Hanover county, and was born on the 29th of May, 1736. At the age of ten years he was taken from school, and commenced the study of Latin in his father's house. He had some taste for mathematics, but a love of idleness, as manifested by his frequent hunting and fishing excursions, for sport, and utter aversion to mental labor, gave prophecies of a useless life. At twenty-one years of age, he engaged in trade, but neglect of business soon brought bankruptcy. He had married at eighteen, and passed most of his time in idleness at the tavern of his father-in-law, in Hanover, where he often served customers at the bar. As a last resort, he studied law diligently for six weeks, obtained a license to practice, but he was twenty-seven years of age before he was known to himself or others, except as a lazy pettifogger. Then he, was employed in the celebrated Parsons' cause,2 and in the old Hanover court house, with his father on the bench as judge, and more than twenty of the most learned men in the colony before him, his genius as an orator and advocate beamed forth in that awful splendor, so eloquently described by Wirt.. From that period he rose rapidly to the head of his profession. In 1764, he made Louisa county his residence, and his fame was greatly heightened by a noble defence of the right of suffrage, which, as a lawyer, he made before the House of Burgesses, that year. In 1765; he was elected to a seat in that house, and during that memorable session, he made his great speech against the Stamp Act.3 In 1769, he was admitted to the bar of the general court, and was recognized as a leader, in legal and political matters, until the Revolution broke out. He was a member of the first Continental Congress, in 1774, and gave the first impulse to its business;4 and when, in 1775, Governor Dunmore attempted to rob I lie colony of gunpowder, by having it conveyed on board a British war-vessel, Patrick Henry, at the head of resolute armed patriots, compelled him to pay its value in money. In 1776, Henry was elected the first republican governor of Virginia, and was reelected three successive years, when he was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. During the whole struggle, he was one of the most efficient public officers of the State; and in 1784, he was again chosen governor.

Patrick Henry was a consistent advocate of State Rights, and was ever jealous of any infringement upon them. For that reason, he was opposed to the Federal Constitution, and in the Virginia convention, called in 1788, to consider it, he opposed its ratification with all the power of his great eloquence. He finally acquiesced, when it became the organic law of the Republic, and used all his efforts to give it a fair trial and make it successful. Washington nominated him for the office of Secretary of State, in 1795, but Mr. Henry declined it. In 1799 President Adams appointed him an envoy to France, with Ellsworth and Murray, but feeble health and advanced age compelled him to decline an office he would have been pleased to accept. A few weeks afterward, his disease became alarmingly active, and he expired at his seat, at Red Hill, in Charlotte county, on the 6th of June, 1799, at the age of almost sixty-three years. Governor Henry was twice married. By his first wife he had six children, and nine by the second. His widow married the late Judge Winston, and died in Halifax county, Virginia, in February, 1831.

1 In the Virginia convention, held in St. John's church at Richmond, in March, 1775. It was one of the most powerful speeches ever made by the great orator, and ended with the words quoted above. They were afterward placed on flags, and adopted as a motto under many circumstances.

2 This was a contest between the clergy and the State legislature, on the question of an annual stipend claimed by the former. A decision of the court had left nothing undetermined but the amount of damage. Berry's eloquence electrified ,judge, jury, and people. The jury brought in a verdict of ors penny damages, and the people took Henry upon their shoulders, and carried him in triumph about the court-house yard.

3 He had introduced a series of resolutions, highly tinctured with rebellions doctrines, and supported them with his wonderful eloquence. The house was greatly excited; and when, at length, he alluded to tyrants, and said, "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third-" there was a cry of "Treason! Treason!" He paused a moment, and then said, "may profit by their example. If that be Treason, make the most of it."

4 When all was doubt and hesitation at the opening of the session, and no one seemed ready to take the first step, a plain man, dressed in ministers' grey, arose and proposed action. "Who is it? who is it?" asked several members. "Patrick Henry," replied the soft voice of his colleague, Peyton Randolph.

Source: Lossing, Benson J. Eminent Americans: Comprising Brief Biographies of Leading Statesmen, Patriots, Orators and others, Men and Women, Who Have Made American History. New York: John B. Alden, 1883. Pages 126-128.


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Last modified December 24, 2004