Patrick Henry
distinguished statesman, lawyer, and orator

1736 - 1799

Patrick Henry was a distinguished statesman, lawyer, and orator at the time of the Revolutionary War in America. He is remembered most for the words, "Give me liberty or give me death," which, according to tradition, he spoke in 1775 before the Virginia Provincial Convention. Henry was urging that the Virginia militia be armed for defense of the colony against England. A man who heard many of Henry's speeches once said of the orator: "He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard. Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention." Henry was also an excellent politician and administrator. Henry served as the governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia. He attended public school for only a short time, but was taught by his father, who had a good education. As a young man, Henry was a storekeeper for a time. But he was a poor businessman and, as a result, he was soon hopelessly in debt. He then studied law and received his license to practice in 1760. Three years later, Henry's talent as an orator won him fame in Virginia in a noted lawsuit called the Parson's Cause.

In 1764, Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. He soon became a leader, supporting frontier interests against the old aristocracy. He upheld the rights which the colonies were guaranteed by their charters. His speech against the Stamp Act in 1765 is one of his greatest orations. In it, according to tradition, appear the often-quoted words: "Caesar had his Brutus -- Charles the First, his Cromwell -- and George the Third -- may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

In August 1774, the colony of Virginia elected Henry a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He was also a member of the Second Continental Congress for a short time in 1775. After that, he became commander in chief of Virginia's military forces. He resigned this post in February 1776. A few months later, he was chosen a member of the committee to draw up the first constitution of the commonwealth of Virginia.

Henry became governor of the new commonwealth of Virginia as soon as it was established in 1776. He moved into the palace at Williamsburg, where the English colonial governors had lived. He was a hard-working administrator. Henry showed his feeling of democracy when he became the first American politician to refer to the voters as "fellow citizens."

The Revolutionary War brought many problems to Virginia, and Henry worked hard to solve them. He recruited the state's quota of about 6,000 men for the Continental Army, plus the state militia of nearly 5,000 soldiers. The state supplied its soldiers with clothing and shoes, and sent cattle to feed the men at Valley Forge. Henry encouraged mining lead to provide ammunition, and imported and manufactured gunpowder. He set up shipyards and dockyards to protect the Virginia coast, and he arranged for loans.

Henry was criticized in spite of his hard work, especially when the forces under the British general Banastre Tarleton overran Virginia. But he was elected governor again in 1777, 1778, 1784, and 1785. During his second term, Henry provided supplies for the George Rogers Clark expedition, which conquered the Northwest Territory.

In 1788, Henry served in the Virginia state convention, that was called to ratify the United States Constitution. He opposed ratification because he believed that the Constitution endangered the rights of individuals and states. After he lost, however, he accepted the Constitution and joined the Federalist Party. Henry was largely responsible for the adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

Public service left Henry badly in debt, and in 1788 he returned to his law practice. His fame as a brilliant speaker gained him many clients, and he soon became a successful criminal lawyer.

His law fees helped him to buy land, and in 1794, he retired to his Red Hill estate, near Appomattox, Va.

During the next five years, Henry refused many requests to return to public life. He was offered a seat in the U.S. Senate, posts as minister to Spain and to France, a place in George Washington's Cabinet as secretary of state, and the position of chief justice of the United States. In 1796, Henry was elected governor of Virginia for the sixth time, but he refused the office.

Finally George Washington persuaded him to become a candidate for representative in the Virginia state legislature. Henry made his last great speech during this campaign. The speech was a denial of a state's right to decide the constitutionality of federal laws. Henry told the voters: "United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs." Henry won the election, but he died before he could take office. Henry was buried at Red Hill.

Contributor: William Morgan Fowler, Jr., Ph.D., Prof. of History, Northeastern Univ.; Editor, The New England Quarterly.

Additional resources

Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. 1986. Reprint. Univ. Pr. of Virginia, 1992.

McCants, David A. Patrick Henry, The Orator. Greenwood, 1990.


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