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Patrick Henry
May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799

Patrick Henry was a prominent figure in the American Revolution, known and remembered primarily for his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Along with Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, he was 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.

Trained as an attorney, and noted for his heated oratorical skills, this Virginian first made a name for himself in a case dubbed the "Parson's Cause" (1763), which was an argument on whether the price of tobacco paid to clergy for their services should be set by the colonial government or by the Crown. Henry technically lost the case, but damages were set at such a nominally low level that the result was widely perceived to be a victory for the independence movement. Perhaps in part because of his success in this venture, Henry was elected 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.

Henry is perhaps best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, 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.

Furthermore, other historians note that the speech may stand in contrast to this excerpt from his January 18, 1773 letter to Robert Pleasants, referencing his status as a slave-owner:

Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them.

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.

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.

He died at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia, in 1799 at the age of 63.


Patrick Henry (1736-1799), American orator and revolutionary, was a leader in Virginia politics for 30 years and a supremely eloquent voice during the American Revolution.

Patrick Henry was born into a family of lesser gentry in Hanover County, Va. He received a good education from his father and his uncle, an Anglican clergyman. He largely failed at attempts to become a storekeeper and a farmer, and his early marriage to Sarah Shelton made him at 35 the father of six children, whom he was always hard-pressed to support. A cursory training in law at Williamsburg about 1760, admission to the bar, and a modest beginning in a crowded profession did not at first improve his standing.

Eloquent Patriot

In 1763, defending a Louisa County parish against claims by its Anglican rector, Henry discovered the twin foundations of his public career - a deep empathy for injustice to the plain people and an eloquent voice that could overwhelm a jury. After he had scorned ecclesiastical arrogance and the British power supporting it, Henry's listeners carried him triumphantly from the courtroom. Two years later, as a member of the House of Burgesses, he made his stirring speech denouncing the Stamp Act. Henry also sponsored resolves against the Stamp Act, denying the power of Parliament to tax Virginians, which, published throughout the Colonies, marked him as an early radical leader. For 10 years Henry used his powerful voice and popular support to lead the anti-British movement in the Virginia Legislature.

During the crisis precipitated by the Boston Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, Henry was at the pinnacle of his career. He spurred the House of Burgesses to repeated defiances of the stubborn royal governor, Lord Dunmore. In August 1774 Henry, George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, and others traveled to Philadelphia as the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress. Henry stood with the Adamses of Massachusetts and other radicals, urging firm resistance to Britain, and union among the Colonies. "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more," Henry said. "I am not a Virginian, but an American." John Adams referred to Henry as the "Demosthenes of America." Back home in Virginia, Henry resumed his leadership of the radical party, "encouraging disobedience and exciting a spirit of revolt among the people," reported Lord Dunmore, who, as a result of Henry's exertions, was soon driven from the colony.

Elected to the first Virginia Revolutionary Convention, of March 1775, Henry made one of the most famous orations in American history. Attempting to gain support for measures to arm the colony of Virginia, Henry declared that Britain, by dozens of rash and oppressive measures, had proved its hostility. "We must fight!" Henry proclaimed. "An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! … 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 delegates were entranced by Henry's eloquence and swept away by his fervor. Virginia rushed down the road to independence.

Henry capped his seditious activities during the spring of 1775 by leading a contingent of militia that forced reparations for gunpowder stolen by British marines from the Williamsburg arsenal. In the Second Continental Congress, of May-September 1775, Henry again spoke boldly for the radicals. In Virginia for 6 months he commanded the state's regular forces, but exhibiting no particular military talent, he resigned to resume civilian leadership. At the Virginia Convention of May-July 1776, Henry sponsored resolves calling for independence that eventuated in the Declaration of Independence by Congress on July 4, 1776. "His eloquence," wrote a young listener, "unlocked the secret springs of the human heart, robbed danger of all its terror, and broke the key-stone in the arch of royal power." Henry was elected first governor of Virginia under its constitution as an independent commonwealth.

Revolutionary Governor

In three terms as wartime governor (1776-1779), Henry worked effectively to marshal Virginia's resources to support Congress and George Washington's army. He also promoted George Rogers Clark's expedition, which drove the British from the Northwest Territory. During the years of Henry's governorship, the legislature, led by Thomas Jefferson, passed reforms transforming Virginia from a royal colony into a self-governing republic.

Henry's retirement from the governorship gave him time to attend to pressing family concerns. His first wife had died in 1775, leaving him six children, aged 4 to 20. Two years later he married Dorothea Dandridge, who was half his age and came from a prominent Tidewater family. Beginning in 1778, Henry had 11 children by his second wife, thus giving him family responsibilities that taxed his resources and provided abundant distraction from public life.

Meanwhile, Henry continued to serve in the Virginia Assembly, engaging in oratorical battles with Richard Henry Lee and sharing leadership during the breakdown in government after the British invasion of Virginia in 1780-1781. Though Henry backed some measures for strengthening the Continental Congress, his concern increasingly centered on Virginia and on efforts to expand its trade, boundaries, and power.

After the Revolution, Henry served two further terms as governor of Virginia (1784-1786). Increasingly opposed to a stronger federation, he refused to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As an old revolutionary, he distrusted the ambitions of men like Virginia's James Madison and New York's Alexander Hamilton, fearing that they would sacrifice simple, republican virtues to the alleged needs of a grandiose nation.

"Peaceable Citizen" Henry

At the Virginia Convention of 1788, Henry engaged Madison and his colleagues in a dramatic debate. He called upon all his oratorical powers to parade before the delegates the tyrannies that would result under the new Constitution: Federal tax gatherers would harass men working peacefully in their own vineyards, citizens would be hauled off for trial in distant courts before unknown judges, and the president would prove to be a worse tyrant than even George III. Furthermore, in his most telling practical arguments, Henry insisted the new Federal government would favor British and Tory creditors and negotiate away American rights to use the Mississippi River. The Federalists nevertheless managed to win a narrow victory, which Henry accepted by announcing that he would be "a peaceable citizen." He had enough power in the legislature, however, to see that Virginia sent Antifederalist senators to the first Congress, and he almost succeeded in excluding Madison from a seat in the House of Representatives.

Finally, shorn of his domination of Virginia politics, Henry largely retired from public life. He resumed his lucrative law practice, earning huge fees from winning case after case before juries overwhelmed by his powerful pleas. He also extended his real estate interests, which, through skillful speculations, made him at his death one of the largest landowners in Virginia, with huge tracts in Kentucky, Georgia, and the Carolinas as well. His continuing national fame, and his switch by 1793 to support of President Washington and the Federalists, led to a series of proffered appointments: as senator, as minister to Spain and to France, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, and as secretary of state. In poor health and content to stay amid his huge progeny, Henry refused them all. Only one final cause - repeal of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 - prompted his return to politics. In 1799 Henry won election to the Assembly, causing the Jeffersonians to fear that he would carry the state back under the Federalist banner. Henry was mortally ill, however. On June 6, 1799, he died of cancer at his Red Hill plantation and was laid to rest under a plain slab containing the words "His fame his best epitaph."











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008