Patrick Henry

PATRICK HENRY, the second son of John and Sarah Henry, and one of nine children, was born May 29, 1736, in the county of Hanover and colony of Virginia. "Until ten years of age, Patrick Henry was sent to a school in the neighborhood, where he learned to read and write, and made some small progress in arithmetic. He was then taken home, and, under the direction of his father, who had opened a grammar school in his own house, he acquired a superficial knowledge of the Latin language. At the same time, he made a considerable proficiency in the mathematics, the only branch of education for which, it seems, he discovered, in his youth, the slightest predilection. He was passionately addicted to the sports of the field, and could not brook the confinement and toil which education required. His father, unable to sustain the expense of his large and increasing family, found it necessary to qualify his sons, at a very early age, to support themselves. With this view, Patrick was placed, at the age of fifteen, behind the counter of a trader in the country. In the next year, his father purchased a small adventure of goods for his two sons, William and Patrick, and 'set them up in trade.' William's habits of idleness were such, that the chief management of their concerns devolved upon the younger brother, and that management was most wretched. One year put an end to this experiment, and. Patrick was engaged, for the two or three following years, in settling the accounts of the firm as well as he could. At the early age of eighteen, he married a Miss Shelton, the daughter of a respectable farmer in the neighborhood; and, by the joint assistance of their parents, the young couple were settled on a small farm, where, with one or two slaves, Mr. Henry had to dig the earth for subsistence. His want of agricultural skill, and his unconquerable aversion to every species of systematic labor, caused him, after a trial of two years, to abandon this pursuit. His next step seems to have been dictated by absolute despair; for, selling off his little possessions at a sacrifice for cash, he entered a second time into the unauspicious business of merchandise. But the same want of method, the same facility of temper, soon became apparent. He resumed his violin, his flute, his books, his inspection of human nature, and not unfrequently shut up his shop to indulge himself in the favorite sports of his youth. His reading, however, began to assume a more serious character. He studied geography, read the charters and history of the colony, and became fond of historical works generally, particularly those of Greece and Rome, and, from the tenacity of his memory and the strength of his judgment, soon made himself master of their contents. Livy was his favorite and, having procured a translation, he made it a rule to read it through, once, at least, in every year, during the earlier part of his life. The second mercantile experiment in a few years left him a bankrupt every remnant of his property was gone, and his friends were unable to assist him any further. As a last effort, he determined to make trial of the law. No one expected him to succeed; his unfortunate habits were by no means suited to so laborious a profession, and the situation of his affairs forbade an extensive course of reading. After a six weeks' preparation, he obtained a license to practice the law, being at this time of the age of four and twenty. He was, at the time of his admission to practice, not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common and simple business of his profession, even the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court. For three years, the wants and distresses of his family were extreme. The profits of his practice could not have supplied them even with the necessaries of life and he seems to have spent the greatest part of his time, both during his study of the law and the practice of the first two or three years, with his father-in-law, Mr. Shelton, who then kept a tavern at Hanover court-house. Whenever Mr. Shelton was from home, Mr. Henry supplied his place in the tavern. The controversy between the clergy on the one hand, and the legislature and people of the colony on the other, touching the stipend claimed by the former, which had created a great excitement in Virginia, was the occasion on which his genius first broke forth. The display which he made in the parsons' cause, as it was popularly called, placed him, at once, at the head of his profession, in that quarter of the colony in which he practiced. In the year 1764, he removed to the county of Louisa, and resided at a place called the Roundabout. In the autumn of the same year, a contest having occurred, in the house of burgesses, in the case of Mr. James Littlepage, the returned member of the county of Hanover, who was charged with bribery and corruption, the parties were heard by counsel, before the committee of privileges and elections, and Henry was on this occasion employed by Mr. Dandridge, the rival candidate. Henry distinguished himself by a brilliant display on the subject of the rights of suffrage. Such a burst of eloquence, from a man so very plain and humble in his appearance, struck the committee with amazement; a deep silence took place during the speech, and not a sound but from his lips was to be heard in the room.