Biography of Patrick Henry
Written by: Ammon, Harry Posted on: 03/18/2003
The American political leader Patrick Henry was the most
celebrated orator of the American Revolution. He was born on
May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. Henry failed as
both a storekeeper and a farmer before being admitted to the
Virginia bar in 1760. However, he won fame in 1763 after his
impassioned pleading in the Parsons' Cause, a case in which he
defended the right of the colony to fix the price of the
tobacco in which the clergy were paid, despite a contrary
ruling from London.
When Henry entered the House of Burgesses in 1765, he and
Richard Henry Lee successfully compelled the entrenched
oligarchy to share power with them. Henry's effectiveness as
an orator gave him a commanding influence in the legislature
throughout his life. After the passage of the Stamp Act (1765)
he introduced a set of radical resolutions denouncing the
British Parliament's usurpation of powers vested in the
colonial legislature, which alone had the power to tax. He
supported the resolves in a speech ending "Caesar had his
Brutus--Charles the first his Cromwell--and George III--may he
profit from their example." Widely circulated throughout the
colonies, the resolves made Henry famous.
Henry was the focal point of Virginia's opposition to British
policy. When the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the
Virginia legislature after the closing of the port of Boston
in 1774, Henry organized a rump session of the legislature,
which met in the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. It issued an
invitation to the other colonies to send delegates to a
Continental Congress. As a member of the Congress, Henry was
an outspoken advocate of strong measures of resistance. At a
meeting of the Virginia assembly in Richmond on Mar. 23, 1775,
he called on the colonists to arm themselves, with the words:
"Give me liberty, or give me death." Soon after, he led the
militia of Hanover to force Governor Dunmore to surrender
munitions belonging to the colony.
With the outbreak of the Revolution, Henry became commander in
chief of the Virginia troops, but he was prevented from
actively exercising his command by state leaders who
considered him too erratic. He continued in the legislature,
fostering the move for independence and helping draft the
first state constitu- tion. In June 1776 he was elected
governor. In this position, which he held till 1779, he
vigorously supported the war effort, dispatching George Rogers
Clark to secure the western regions. After the war Henry's
influence in the legislature tended to be sporadic because of
his habit of leaving before the end of the session. He
astonished his contemporaries by advocating state support of
religion and amnesty for Loyalists.
Henry served as governor again from 1784 to 1786 but declined
to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787. An ardent
supporter of state rights, he led the Virginia opposition to
ratification of the federal Constitution, losing the vote by a
small margin. His hostility to centralized government and to
measures favoring commercial interests led him initially to
protest the Federalist program of the Washington
administration. As the years passed, however, his fear that
the radicalism of the French Revolution would infect the
nation brought him to support the Federalist party. Just
before his death, on June 6, 1799, he was elected to the state
legislature as a Federalist.
Beeman, Richard - PATRICK HENRY (1974) Henry, William Wirt -
PATRICK HENRY: LIFE, CORRESPONDENCE, AND SPEECHES, 3 vols.
(1891) Mead, Robert Douthat - PATRICK HENRY, 2 vols.
'Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988
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