A Short Biography of Patrick Henry
Private businessman, fiery rhetorician, public servant, radical agitator; all these descriptions can be justly attributed to our Founding Father, Patrick Henry. Above all, he can be best described with two titles—Patriot, and American. Throughout his life, he gave new clarity to the definition of the former while essentially inventing the template for the latter. We owe to Henry our nation’s strong foundation of individual liberty, sound moral values, freedom of speech, and political courage.
Henry was born May 29, 1736 in Hanover County in the colony of Virginia. He would see that colony’s transition to an independent Commonwealth as part of the United States and call the area home for his entire life.
Home-schooled and self taught, he was well-read and well-tutored under the guidance of his college-educated father and uncle. His uncle, also his namesake, was a Reverend in the Scottish Episcopal Church, instilling in him from an early age the Christian virtue that would inform his policy for the balance of his days.
While officially baptized in the Church of England, Patrick Henry actually attended a Presbyterian Church with his mother. As a child, he witnessed the fiery Great Awakening preaching of Samuel Davies. Here, he would learn of Christianity’s power to move men to great deeds, as well as the impact of strong oration.
Henry began his professional life in the private sector as an apprentice to a storekeeper. He married Sarah Shelton and continued his path in private business by managing a 600 acre tobacco farm in Hanover County, called Pine Slash. When a fire destroyed the farmhouse in 1757, Henry left farming to help his father-in-law manage the popular Hanover Tavern.
It was while working at the tavern that the seeds of his public career took root. The tavern was located directly across the street from the county courthouse. He began to read law and observe trials held at the court. By April 15 of 1760, he had passed the Virginia bar exam and began to practice law.
In 1763, Henry rose to prominence because of a case known as the Parson’s Cause. The government of the King of England had negated the Two-Penny Act passed by the Virginia General Assembly. Essentially, the issue was whether the crown or the people of Virginia could set the price of tobacco paid to clergy. Henry argued that if the King would go against a ruling made by the people in their own best interest, then he was “a tyrant who forfeits the allegiance of his subjects.” Thus, Henry’s radical nature came to the fore, and was met with wide public acceptance, and respect from his legal associates.
On May 1765, Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Here, he would make a speech against the infamous Stamp Act, which was already stoking the seminal sparks of revolution across the country. Some would later call Henry’s speech America’s first honest rhetorical salvo against the crown. He starkly compared the king to Caesar and himself to Brutus, and then made the same analogy with Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell. Henry then shocked the House by stating, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” The Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions passed on the strength of his speech, an act of legislature pro-British forces labeled as treasonous.
With the colonies on the verge of revolution and his fame rising as the emerging rebellion’s supreme agitator, Henry’s personal life would soon be turned upside down. Soon after his purchase of the tranquil Scotchtown Plantation, his wife Sarah was stricken with a debilitating mental illness. As a loving and devoted husband and a dedicated father that did not wish to separate his children from their mother, Henry faced an unthinkable dilemma in deciding on the care for his wife. In the end, rather than subject her to the notoriously harsh institutional conditions of the day, she was cared for by family and servants, at Scotchtown.
In response to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Henry and the House of Burgesses held a day of fasting and prayer in solidarity with the rebels. The next year, he was elected to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia where he would lead the call for the non-importation of British goods.
Just as these acts brought the revolutionary fervor to a head, Sarah died having never recovered from her bouts with dementia. A short time later, on March 23, 1775, Henry made a speech that would change the course of not only his life and the lives of those in the colony, but of the entire world’s history. To the Second Virginia Convention, Henry made an impassioned plea with no notes in hand for the colonies to form an organized militia to take action against the advancing British troops. Amongst such luminaries of the Revolution as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others, Henry held the floor with a commanding presence, and won the day with his words.
Despite having not composed the speech before hand, Henry spoke with clear reasoning, arguing that it was the British who had already begun the war. Even with his well-reasoned logic, Henry’s speech was a vociferous call-to-arms, culminating in a line that would define the revolution, “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!”
On May 2, Henry put his revolutionary words into practice when he led hundreds of armed Virginians to march on Williamsburg to demand that Royal Governor Dunmore return gunpowder he had confiscated from the armory to hamper the gathering militia. Though Dunmore would officially denounce Henry and his men as dangerous and treasonous, he soon fled to the safety of a British warship. Dunmore would eventually concede total victory to Henry and reimburse the colonists the value of the munitions taken from them. By August, Patrick Henry had become a Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment and Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia Militia.
By February 1776, he abdicated his military role to focus on the governmental aspects of the war and the creation of a new nation. In April, he represented Hanover County in Virginia’s Fifth Revolutionary Convention. They declared the Commonwealth independent, and drafted its constitution. In pushing for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he made a strong stance for individual liberty and paved the way for the eventual inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States years later.
Later in that year, he was elected to the first of five terms as Virginia’s Governor—the first independently-elected holder of the position. He also remarried, taking the lovely and prestigious Dorothea Dandridge’s hand. Devoted family man that he was, Henry and Dorothea would add eleven children to the six he had already fathered with Sarah.
In his first three consecutive terms as Governor, Henry was instrumental in securing and providing supplies to the Revolutionary Army. Most importantly, he provided aid to General Washington’s beleaguered forces at Valley Forge. Moving to the countryside of Virginia in 1776, Henry became a legislator in the General Assembly.
Following the 1781 surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Henry continued his public service and helped to shape the newborn union as both a legislator and Governor of Virginia. In all, he served five times as governor.
In these capacities he made a strong stand for the education of the American people, helping found Hampden Sydney College in 1783 and leading a call for greater government support to teachers. This bill would be denied on the grounds that most of the teachers were associated with a specific church, leading to the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
In 1787, Henry declined appointment to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia due to his ideological stance against federalism and his misgivings about the convention’s secret nature. Along with fellow Virginian George Mason, Henry felt the Constitution was fundamentally flawed in its lack of a clearly delineated Bill of Rights. Without such written guarantees of rights, they believed the country could easily fall into the trappings of monarchy. As the Constitution called for the creation of a federal government, those in favor of its published form (such as George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson) were called the Federalists and were pitted against those wary of the exclusion of a Bill of Rights (such as Henry and Mason) called the Anti-Federalists.
In the subsequent national debate over the published Constitution, Henry would be the most effective orator of the Anti-Federalists just as he had been to the entire Revolution. When our nation’s founding document was barely and contentiously adopted by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Henry had forced a promise to adopt certain amendments which would become the Bill of Rights when passed one year later. Henceforth, he would be a supporter of our nation’s Constitution, but remain ever-vigilant to federal encroachments on individual liberty.
This battle in the war for individual liberty won, Patrick Henry returned to private law practice and divided his time between his two holdings, Long Island and Red Hill, both on the Staunton River in Virginia. He would argue many prestigious cases while denying a bevy of offered governmental positions from Senator to Chief Justice to Secretary of State (the latter from our nation’s first president, George Washington) due to his failing health and pressures at home.
Convinced to run for the Virginia legislature once more by Washington, Henry made his final public speech to voters on March 4, 1799. This was a moving plea for national unity, during which he declared, “United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” The speech has been heralded as a fitting final word from Henry the statesman by many historians.
Patrick Henry died on June 6, 1799, just before his final term as a legislator could begin. He was buried at Red Hill, which has since become recognized as the National Memorial to Henry. His gravestone reads, “His Fame His Best Epitaph.”
His moving words are still etched in the hearts and minds of lovers of freedom across the nation he helped found to this day. And his last will and testament (as quoted in Michael Jesse Bennett’s Patrick Henry’s Comments on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness) leaves our great nation with a moving prescription for the insurance of the liberty he fought so hard to win:
“Whether this (independence) will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God had bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable.”