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.

In 1765, he was elected member of the house of burgesses, with express reference to an opposition to the British stamp-act. After having waited in vain for some step to be taken by another, and when the session was within three days of its expected close, he introduced his celebrated resolutions on the stamp-act. After his death, there was found among his papers one sealed, and thus indorsed Enclosed are the resolutions of the Virginia assembly, in 1765, concerning the stamp-act. Let my executors open this paper.' Within was found a copy of the resolutions in his own hand-writing. On the back of the paper containing the resolutions, is the following indorsement, also in his hand-writing: - ‘ The within resolutions passed the house of burgesses in May, 1765t They formed the first opposition to the stamp-act, and the scheme of taxing America by the British parliament. All the colonies, either through fear, or want of opportunity to form an opposition, or from influence of some kind or other, had remained silent. I had been for the first time elected a burgess a few days before, was young, inexperienced, unacquainted with the forms of the house, and the members that composed it. Finding the men of weight averse to opposition, and the commencement of the tax at hand, and that no person was likely to step forth, I determined to venture, and alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law book, wrote the within. Upon offering them to the house, violent debates ensued. Many threats were uttered, and much abuse cast on me, by the party for submission. After a long and warm contest, the resolutions passed by a very small majority, perhaps of one or two only. The alarm spread throughout America with astonishing quickness, and the ministerial party were overwhelmed. The great point of resistance to British taxation was universally established in the colonies. This brought on the war, which finally separated the two countries, and gave independence to ours. Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader, whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere, practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others. P. HENRY.

It was in the midst of the debate above-mentioned, that he exclaimed, Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third-' Treason!' cried the speaker-' Treason, treason!' echoed from every part of the house. Henry faltered not for an instant; but taking a loftier attitude, and fixing on the speaker an eye of fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis - ' may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.' From this period, Mr. Henry became the idol of the people of Virginia; nor was his name confined to his native state. His influence was felt throughout the continent, and he was every where regarded as one of the great champions of colonial liberty. In the year 1769, he was admitted to the bar of the general court. He wanted that learning, whose place no genius can supply to the lawyer; and he wanted those habits of steady and persevering application, without which that learning is not to be acquired. But on questions before a jury, his knowledge of human nature, and the rapidity as well as justness of his inferences, from the flitting expressions of the countenance, as to what was passing in the hearts of his hearers, availed him fully. The defense of criminal cases was his great professional forte. The house of burgesses of Virginia, which had led the opposition to the stamp-act, kept their high ground during the whole of the ensuing contest.

Mr. Henry having removed again from Louisa to his native county, in the year 1767 or 1768, continued a member of that house till the close of the revolution; and there could be no want of boldness in any body of which he was a member. He was one of the standing committee of correspondence and inquiry concerning the pretensions of the British, which was appointed by the house, March 12, 1773. He was also of the number of delegates sent by Virginia to the first general congress of the colonies, which assembled in Philadelphia, September 4, 1774. When the congress rose, he returned home, and entered the legislature of Virginia again, determined upon prosecuting the work of national independence. In this career, he became, by his zeal and efficiency, obnoxious to the royal governor, and to all who were disposed to maintain the royal cause, or who dreaded the resort to force.

When intelligence was received of the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, Henry summoned volunteers to meet him, in order to compel the governor of Virginia (lord Dunmore) to restore a quantity of powder which the latter had caused to be taken from the public magazine at Williamsburg. This was the first military movement in Virginia. The governor issued a proclamation, calling upon the people to resist it but Henry, at the head of a considerable corps, obliged his lordship to consent to the payment of a pecuniary compensation for the powder withdrawn. The volunteers returned in triumph to their homes. As soon, however, as all seemed again quiet, the governor sent forth, though without any effect, a violent manifesto against a certain Patrick Henry, and a number of deluded followers,' etc.

Henry took a leading party in all the subsequent measures which ended in the prostration of the royal authority, and the erection of an independent government in Virginia. The colonial convention of 1775 elected him the colonel of the first regiment, and the commander of all the forces raised and to be raised for the defense of the colony.' He soon resigned this command, from a belief that he could serve the cause of his country more effectually in the public councils than in the field. Immediately upon his resignation he was elected a delegate to the convention, and, not long after, the first governor of the commonwealth a post in which he proved signally serviceable, by sustaining the public spirit during the revolutionary struggle, providing recruits and supplies for the continental army, and crushing the intrigues of the tories who infested Virginia. His administration was prolonged by reelections until 1779, when he retired from the office, being no longer eligible without intermission, according to the constitution. As a member of the legislature, to which he at once returned, he continued to serve the great cause until the end of the war, when he was again elected governor of Virginia. The state of his affairs obliged him to resign the station in the autumn of 1786. In December of that year, he was appointed by the legislature one of the deputies to the convention, held at Philadelphia, for the purpose of revising the federal constitution. This appointment he declined, it being necessary for him to resume the practice of the law, in order to make some provision for his family. During the six following years, he regularly attended the courts, and. his great reputation obtained for him lucrative business. His next appearance in political life was as a member of the convention, which was to decide the fate of the federal constitution in Virginia. Some of the features of that instrument inspired him with fears for the liberties of the country. All his great powers of eloquence and his personal influence were exerted to procure the rejection of it. The amendments proposed by Virginia originated in the objections so vehemently and plausibly urged by him and his associates. He became, nevertheless, a convert to the excellence of the system, and an earnestfederalist, in the twofold acceptation of the term. In the spring of 1791, he bade a final adieu to public life, and, in 1794, to the bar, at which he had gained some brilliant triumphs, which are commemorated by his distinguished biographer William Wirt (Life of P. Henry, Philadelphia, 1817). In 1796, the post of governor of the state was once more tendered to him and refused. In the following year, his health began to decline, and continued to sink gradually until the moment of his death, which took place on the 6th of June. Mr. Henry, by his two marriages, was the father of fifteen children. By his first wife, he had six, of whom two only survived him; by his last, he had six sons and three daughters, all of whom, together with their mother, were living at his death. He had been fortunate during the latter part of his life; and, chiefly by the means of judicious purchases of lands, left his family, large as it was, not only independent, but rich. In his habits of living he was remarkably temperate and frugal. He seldom drank any thing but water; and his table was furnished in the most simple manner. His morals were strict. As a husband, a father, a master, he had no superior. He was kind and hospitable to the stranger, and most friendly and accommodating to his neighbors. He was nearly six feet high; spare, and what may be called raw-boned, with a slight stoop of the shoulders; his complexion was dark, sun-burned, and sallow, without any appearance of blood in his cheeks; his countenance grave, thoughtful and penetrating, and strongly marked with the lineaments of deep reflection: the earnestness of his manner, united with an habitual contraction or knitting of his brows, and those lines of thought with which his face was profusely furrowed, gave to his countenance, at some times, the appearance of severity. Henry was gifted with a strong and musical voice, and a most expressive countenance, and he acquired particular skill in the use of them. His style of speaking, to judge from the representations of his hearers, was altogether more successful than that of any of his contemporaries. He could be vehement, insinuating, humorous and sarcastic by turns, and always with the utmost effect. He was a natural orator, of the highest order, combining imagination, acuteness, dexterity and ingenuity, with the most forcible action and extraordinary powers of face and utterance. As a statesman, his principal merits were sagacity and boldness. His name is brilliantly and lastingly connected with the history of his country's emancipation.