Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, 1736, the second son of John and Sarah Henry. At the age of 18, he married Sarah
Shelton, who was only 16 years old. Henry’s father attempted to help him start a business as a shopkeeper, but it went bankrupt shortly thereafter.
Henry decided to study law, and he passed the bar exam by his mid-20s. He first gained public recognition in 1763 as a lawyer involved in the litigation
surrounding the famous Parson’s Cause controversy. He argued that the British Crown was compelled to accept all laws passed by the Virginia
legislature, as long as these laws were good and just.
In 1765, in his first year as an elected member to the Virginia colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry became the center of controversy
over his opposition to the Stamp Act. On May 30, 1765, as business was winding down for the day, Henry arose and offered seven resolutions, which
challenged the right of Parliament to tax the colonies. His resolutions attacked the constitutionality of the act, demanded that the tax go unpaid, and even
went so far as to assert that anyone who complied with the Stamp Act would be deemed an enemy to his Majesty’s colony.
To some members of the House of Burgesses, Henry’s position was treasonous, and they threatened to censure his actions. Although only five of his
resolutions passed (and the fifth was later rescinded), word of Henry’s seven resolutions soon reached the other twelve colonies, where they were
reprinted in their entirety. As a result of his Stamp Act resolutions, Henry’s reputation as the defender of colonial rights was established.
Patrick Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, at age 29, and he promptly aroused controversy by opposing the Stamp Act. Some
called it treason, but Henry earned his reputation as a defender of colonial rights. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)
As conflict with Britain loomed on the horizon, Henry insisted that Virginians make all necessary preparations in the event of hostilities. On March 23,
1775, a meeting took place among Virginian leaders to decide what actions the colony should take in the wake of increasing tensions. At this meeting,
Henry uttered the following words that solidified his radical reputation:
The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of
freedom or slavery¦. I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.
When Henry received word that the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had seized the colony’s supply of gunpowder from Williamsburg to prevent the
colonials from using it, he immediately mobilized the local militia in response. This mobilization occurred the same day as the battle of Lexington and
Concord, on April 19, 1775.
With the opening of hostilities in 1775, the House of Burgesses elected Henry to serve as a member of the Continental Congress. He returned to Virginia
in 1776, where he played an important role in the creation of that state’s constitution in May of that year. The state rewarded Henry’s patriotic
contributions by electing him Virginia’s first governor under the new constitution; Henry would go on to serve a total of four terms in this position.
During the constitutional crisis of the late 1780s, Henry harbored suspicions over the attempt to strengthen the federal government. Upon hearing about
the secret discussions taking place during the constitutional convention of 1787, Henry was reported to have said in disgust, I smell a rat.
He used his energies to argue vociferously against the new constitution and became a leader of the antifederalist movement in Virginia in the hope of
preventing its passage. Henry believed that the new government was simply too powerful and that the proposed constitution appeared to be too perilous
and destructive to individual liberties. In addition, he argued that this centralized government would have no checks, no real balances and that such a
government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. Unfortunately for Henry, his efforts were largely unsuccessful, and the Constitution was
ratified in 1788.
After the constitutional crisis of the late 1780s, Henry stepped away from an active public life. George Washington attempted to appoint him as secretary
of state in 1795, but he declined the offer. Even in the last year of Henry’s life, President John Adams appointed him as a diplomat to France, but, by
then, Henry’s health had deteriorated so much that he declined the appointment. After battling an extended illness, Henry passed away on June 6, 1799,
at the age of 62.
See also: House of Burgesses; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War;
Axelrad, Jacob. Patrick Henry: The Voice of Freedom. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1975.
Beeman, Richard. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Kidd, Thomas S. Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Unger, Harlow Giles. Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010.
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