Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 June 6, 1799) was a prominent figure in the American Revolution, known and remembered for his "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" speech. Along with Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, he is remembered as one of the most influential (and radical) advocates of the American Revolution and republicanism, especially in his denunciations of corruption in government officials and his defense of historic rights.
Henry was born in Studley
, Hanover County, Virginia
. His father was John Henry, an immigrant from Aberdeenshire
, who had attended King's College, Aberdeen
before emigrating to the Virginia colony
in the 1720s. Settling in Hanover County, about 1732 he married Sarah Winston Syme, a wealthy widow from a prominent Hanover County family of English ancestry. Patrick Henry was once thought to have been of humble origins, but he was actually born into the middle rank of the Virginia gentry
. Henry attended local schools for a few years, and then was tutored by his father. After failing in business, in 1754 he married Sarah Shelton, with whom he would have six children. Provided with land and slaves by his father-in-law, Henry began a career as a planter until his home was destroyed by fire. Henry made another attempt at business, which also failed, before deciding to become a lawyer in 1760.
Henry first made a name for himself in a case dubbed the "Parson's Cause" (1763), which was an argument about whether the price of tobacco paid to clergy for their services should be set by the colonial government or by the Crown. After the British Parliament overruled Virginia's Two Penny Act that had limited the clergy's salaries, the Reverend James Maury filed suit against the vestry of Louisa County for payment of back wages. When Maury won the suit, a jury was called in Hanover County to determine how much Maury should be paid. Henry was brought in at the last minute to argue on behalf of Louisa County. Ignoring legal niceties, Henry delivered an impassioned speech that denounced clerics who challenged Virginia's laws as "enemies of the community" and any king who annulled good laws like the Two Penny Act as a "tyrant" who "forfeits all right to his subject's obedience. Henry urged the jury to make an example of Maury. After less than five minutes of deliberation, they awarded Maury one penny.
Henry was elected from Louisa County to the House of Burgesses
, the legislative body of the Virginia colony, in 1765. That same year, he proposed the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions
. The freshman representative waited for an opportunity where the mostly conservative members of the House were away (only 24% was considered sufficient for a quorum). In this atmosphere, he succeeded, through much debate and persuasion, in getting his proposal passed. It was possibly the most anti-British (many called it "treasonous") American political action to that point, and some credit the Resolutions with being one of the main catalysts of the Revolution. The proposals were based on principles that were well established British rights, such as the right to be taxed by one's own representatives. They went further, however, to assert that the colonial assemblies had the exclusive right to impose taxes on the colonies and could not assign that right. The imputation of treason is due to his inflammatory words, "Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third—" [Cries of "Treason! Treason!"] "George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."
According to biographer Richard Beeman, the legend of this speech grew more dramatic over the years. Henry probably did not say the famous last line of the above quote, i.e. "If this be treason, make the most of it." The only account of the speech written down at the time by an eyewitness (which came to light many years later) records that Henry actually apologized after being accused of uttering treasonable words, assuring the House that he was still loyal to the king. Nevertheless, Henry's passionate, radical speech caused quite a stir at the time, even if we cannot be certain of his exact words.
Patrick Henry is perhaps best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23
, urging legislature to take military action against the encroaching British military force. The House was undecided as to whether to send troops or not, but was leaning toward not committing troops. As Henry stood in Saint John's Church
in Richmond, Virginia
, he ended his speech with his most famous words:
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!
The crowd jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". Problematically, the text of this speech did not appear in print until 1817, in the biography Life and Character of Patrick Henry by William Wirt. Although Wirt assembled his book from recollections by persons close to the events, some historians have since speculated that the speech, or at least the form with which we are familiar, was essentially written by Wirt decades after the fact.
Early in the Revolutionary War, Henry led militia against Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in defense of some disputed gunpowder, an event known as the Gunpowder Incident. During the war, he served as the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776-79, an office he held again from 1784-86.
Henry lived during part of the War at his 10,000-acre Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County, Virginia, where he his first cousin Ann Winston Carr and her husband Col. George Waller had settled. During the five years Henry lived at Leatherwood, from 1779 to 1784, Henry owned 75 slaves, whom he put to work planting tobacco.
On 25 October, 1777, Patrick Henry married his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge (1755–1831). From his marriage there were 11 children.
After the Revolution, Henry was an outspoken critic of the United States Constitution
and urged against its adoption, arguing it gave the federal government too much power. As a leading Antifederalist
, he was instrumental in forcing the adoption of the Bill of Rights
to amend the new Constitution. He became a strong opponent of James Madison
. By the late 1790s he was a prominent Federalist in support of Washington and Adams. The irony is that most of his followers became Republicans who supported Jefferson's party. President George Washington
offered him the post of Secretary of State in 1795, which he declined. In 1798 President John Adams
nominated him special emissary to France, which he had to decline because of failing health. He strongly supported John Marshall
and at the urging of Washington stood for the House of Delegates in 1799 as a staunch Federalist. He especially denounced the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
, which had been secretly written by Jefferson and Madison, and approved by the legislatures of those two states. He warned that civil war was threatened because Virginia, "had quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution, and, in daring to pronounce upon the validity of federal laws, had gone out of her jurisdiction in a manner not warranted by any authority, and in the highest degree alarming to every considerate man; that such opposition, on the part of Virginia, to the acts of the general government, must beget their enforcement by military power; that this would probably produce civil war, civil war foreign alliances, and that foreign alliances must necessarily end in subjugation to the powers called in." He was elected to the House of Delegates, but died three months prior to taking his seat. [Tyler, 413-20]
He died at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia, at the age of 63.
Monuments and memorials
- His home and gravesite has been designated Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial.
- The United States Navy submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599)
- The CSS Patrick Henry of the Confederate Navy were named in his honor, as was the first World War II Liberty ship, the SS Patrick Henry.
- Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia
- Eight high schools (including three in Virginia, more than for any other person in the Commonwealth)
- Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia is also named in his honor.
- The Patrick Henry Boys and Girls Plantation was established as a living legacy to Patrick Henry on property near his grave site donated by the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial. It is a Christian residential facility for at-risk youth.
- Henry helped to establish the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. It is the 10th oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Six of Patrick Henry's sons graduated from Hampden-Sydney. Future United States president William Henry Harrison also graduated from the College in 1791.
- Other places named in honor of Patrick Henry include:
- Henry County, Virginia
- Henry County, Kentucky
- Patrick County, Virginia
- Henry County, Georgia
- Henry County, Ohio
- Henry County, Tennessee
- Henry County, Alabama
- Henry County, Illinois
- Henry County, Missouri after an 1841 name change
- Patrick Henry Village in Heidelberg, Germany
- Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. ISBN 0-07-004280-2.
- Meade, Robert D. Patrick Henry. 2 volumes, 1957-1969.
- Works by Patrick Henry at Project Gutenberg
- Quotations by Patrick Henry at Liberty-Tree.ca
- Hanover County, Virginia, birthplace of Patrick Henry and location of the Hanover Tavern, where Henry lived and worked early in his life, and Hanover Courthouse, where the Parson's Cause case was argued in 1763.
- Scotchtown Plantation, Henry family home from 1771 - 1778 ,
- St. John's Church (Richmond, Virginia), where Henry delivered "Liberty or death" speech in 1775
- Text of 1775 "Liberty or death" speech
- Red Hill Plantation (Charlotte County, Virginia), Henry's final home and burial place
- Address opposing US Constitution
- Patrick Henry at Find-A-Grave
- Patrick Henry Letters
- Patrick Henry Monument, Henry County, Virginia, virginia.org