Patrick Henry, an American orator and statesman, born at Studley, Hanover co., Va., May 29, 1736, died at Red Hill, Charlotte co., June 6, 1799. His father, John Henry, was a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, and a nephew of Robertson the historian. His mother was first married to Col. John Syme, and afterward to John Henry, who was colonel of a regiment, county surveyor, presiding magistrate, and a man of liberal education and conspicuous loyalty. A few years after the birth of the boy, Col. John Henry removed from Studley to Mount Brilliant in the same county, where the childhood and early youth of the future orator were passed. He was sent first to an "old field school," where at that period tuition was chiefly confined to the English and primary departments, with perhaps a smattering of the classics. Under his father, who taught a grammar school in his own house, he acquired a competent English education, and some acquaintance with Latin and mathematics. But hunting and angling early grew to be passions with him; he would desert his books at any moment to seek the forest with his gun, or the neighboring streams with his fishing rod.
At the age of 14 he heard the celebrated Presbyterian preacher Samuel Davies, whose eloquence produced a powerful effect upon the boy and opened a new world for him. Henry spoke of him throughout life in terms of unbounded admiration, and declared that any success which he himself had achieved was due in a large measure to the great orator of the Presbyterian church. About this time his father became embarrassed, and required assistance from his sons. Patrick was accordingly placed behind the counter of a country merchant, and the year after, at the age of 16, his father set him up in business with his elder brother William. The future orator possessed none of the traits which secure success in trade. He was indolent, careless, slovenly in his dress, and awkward in manners, but humorous and attractive in conversation; and his fondness for social pleasures was rather an obstacle than an advantage. William Henry was even less energetic than his brother, and, after a year's experience, abandoned the business. After this Patrick became still more indolent. His social and sporting propensities grew upon him. The hunter's horn and the cry of the hounds often drew him away; and he expended on the violin and the flute the energies which should have been given to his business.
At other times he gratified the dry humor which characterized him by exciting debates among the country people who hung around the store. He would relate stories, real or fictitious, and derive his own amusement from the emotions exhibited by the simple auditors. If to these idle pursuits be added the fact that he could not refuse any one credit, the result of the mercantile venture may without difficulty be understood. In two or three years the store was closed, and Patrick Henry was insolvent. He had just married Miss Shelton, the daughter of a respectable farmer. With the assistance of his father and father-in-law he began farming upon a small scale, but in two years abandoned it in despair, and selling his scant property turned again to merchandise. But experience and misfortune had taught him nothing. The violin, the flute, his old pastime of telling stories and watching the expression of his auditors, were cultivated with renewed ardor. He studied geography, read translations of Latin and Greek authors, Livy being his favorite, and, when weary of books, shut up his store, and went hunting or fishing. The former result duly followed. He again became bank-rupt, and began to study law.
At the age of 24, after only six weeks' study, he presented himself before the judges, who granted him a license with hesitation, and only after a promise to study further before commencing practice. It is said that at this time he was unable to draw a declaration, or perform the simplest duties of his profession. He could obtain no practice, and the distress of his family was extreme. He was living with his father-in-law, who then kept the tavern at Hanover Court House, and Henry assisted him in the business, filling the place of Mr. Shelton in the tavern when he was compelled to be absent. Otherwise he was as idle as ever. But events were rapidly hastening toward the commencement of the great political struggle in which he was to bear so glorious a part. His first appearance in public, as in every great movement of his career, was on the side of popular rights. At the age of 27 he was retained, for want of a better advocate, in what seemed a desperate struggle - the celebrated "parsons' cause," the history of which was briefly as follows.
In 1755, a year of great drought, and serious public embarrassment from the expenses of the French war, the house of burgesses had enacted that all debts due in tobacco, then a species of currency, should be paid either in kind or in money, at the rate of 16s. 8d. for the 100 lbs. of tobacco, or 2d. per pound. The law was universal in its application, and was to remain in force for ten months. Its effect was to reduce all fees and salaries to a moderate amount in money, and it bore especially upon the clergy of the established church. They were entitled by law to 16,000 lbs. of tobacco per annum each, and the act deprived them of about G6 per cent. of their due. There was much dissatisfaction, but no resistance. When, however, in 1758, a similar law was passed, an acrimonious controversy arose between the planters and the clergy. The latter appealed finally to the king in council, and the act was declared void. Suits were immediately instituted by the clergy in the different counties to recover the amount of loss which they had suffered by the "twopenny act." The county of Hanover was selected as the theatre of the struggle, the decision in one case being regarded as a fair test of the question.
The court, on demurrer, decided in favor of the plaintiff, the Rev. John Maury; and the case now stood upon a common writ of inquiry of damages. The contest was considered at an end, and Patrick Henry seems to have been employed by the defendants merely as a matter of form. They had calculated without the popular feeling against the clergy, who were hated by a great part of the people. A large crowd assembled to witness the trial of the question of damages. On the bench sat more than twenty of the clergy, among them many of the most learned men in the colony. Their case was lucidly and calmly stated by Peter Lyons, a distinguished counsellor of the time; and Patrick Henry rose to reply. The array before him was terrifying to a youthful and inexperienced man, and the presence of his father in the chair of the presiding magistrate did not lessen the embarrassment of his position. His exordium was awkward and confused. He visibly faltered. The crowd, whose sympathies were all on the side which he represented, hung their heads and gave up the contest. The clergy smiled and exchanged glances of triumph. The father of the speaker almost sank back in his seat. But a change suddenly took place in the demeanor of every one. All eyes were drawn to the youthful orator.
His confusion had passed away; his form rose erect; and the "mysterious and almost supernatural transformation of appearance " which his contemporaries spoke of passed over him. Those who heard the unknown young man in this his first speech said that he "made their blood run cold and their hair to rise on end." Under his terrible invective the clergy disappeared hastily from the bench; and the jury, after retiring for an instant, brought in a verdict of one penny damages. A motion was made by Mr. Lyons for a new trial, but it was overruled; and Patrick Henry, thenceforth the "man of the people," was caught up by the crowd, drawn out of the court house, and borne on the shoulders of the multitude. Thus, at a single step, Henry rose to the first rank among the Virginia orators of the time. His success in the parsons' cause brought him profit as well as fame. He no longer suffered from want of business, and seems to have addressed himself to the prosecution of his profession with industry and energy. The law was not, however, destined to monopolize his genius. He entered the house of burgesses in the spring of 1765, at the moment when England consummated her long series of oppressions upon the American colonies by the passage of the stamp act.
The bill received the royal sanction in March of that year, and in May it came up for discussion before the burgesses. The character of that body was anomalous - its action difficult to predict. It had opposed consistently and with stubbornness all encroachments of the home government from the earliest times; it had repeatedly denied the right of the English parliament to lay imposts upon the American colonies, and had systematically contended that taxation and representation were inseparable. But peculiar elements and considerations entered into the struggle about to take place. An open rupture with England was extremely repugnant to the dominant party in the house. The great majority of the burgesses were opulent planters of the tide-water region, attached to the mother country by a thousand tics. They regarded Magna Charta, the established church, and the common law as a part of their inheritance; and a dissolution of the ties which bound them to Great Britain seemed a relinquishment of the part which they had in these great institutions. Thus socially and politically the ruling classes in Virginia were opposed to extreme measures, and in the house which assembled in the spring of 1705 they were represented by their most powerful names.
These gentlemen held back, hesitated, and advocated renewed protests and petitions. It was in the midst of this general indecision and doubt that Patrick Henry startled the assembly by his celebrated resolutions. He was almost unknown to the members, and the first sentiment of the richly clad planters was scorn and indignation at the presumption of the slovenly and awkward youth, in leather knee breeches and a homespun coat, who ventured to assume the post of leader in an assemblage so august and at a moment so critical. His resolutions, which he had hastily written on the leaf of a law book, contained none of the old formal and submissive phrases. They suggested no new petition or protest. They declared that the house of burgesses and the executive had " the exclusive right and power to lay taxes and imposts upon the inhabitants of this colony;" and that, consequently, the stamp act, and all other acts of parliament affecting the rights of the American colonies, were unconstitutional and void. . The best patriots received the resolutions with a tempest of opposition.
They were declared extreme, impolitic, and dangerous. "Many threats were uttered," says Henry, "and much abuse cast on me by the parties for submission." Thomas Jefferson, who heard the debate, says that it was "most bloody." But the nerve and resolution of the young burgess were as great as his eloquence. In the midst of the debate he thundered : "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 - "may profit by their example ! If this be treason, make the most of it! " The resolutions, in spite of a bitter opposition, were carried, the last by a majority of one. The young man had thus achieved at the age of 29 the reputation of being the greatest orator and political thinker of a land abounding with public speakers and statesmen. He had suddenly become a "power in the state;" and the sceptre, departing from the hands of the wealthy planters, was wielded by the county court lawyer. The mouthpiece of resistance, the authoritative representative of the masses as distinguished from the aristocracy, and soon to be the advocate of revolution, Patrick Henry thenceforth occupied a post of strength from which his enemies were unable to drive him.
From the pursuits of his profession, to which he returned, he was soon again recalled to the stage of public events. The stamp act had been repealed, but the policy of laying burdens upon the colonies had not been abandoned. In 1767 the act levying duties upon tea, glass, paper, and other articles, threw the country into renewed ferment. In the spring session of 1769 the leading advocates of resistance in the house of burgesses, of whom Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and the Lees were the most active and determined, offered a series of resolutions which caused the dissolution of the body by Lord Botetourt. Henry and his friends immediately assembled at the old Raleigh tavern in "Williamsburg, and drew up articles of association against the use of British merchandise, which were generally signed by the burgesses. Here terminated for a time the struggle, and Henry returned to his profession, though he continued a member of the burgesses. In this year he was admitted to the bar of the general court, where his appearance was respectable, but not distinguished. He was not a good " case lawyer," from defective study; but injury trials, where his wonderful powers of oratory could be brought to bear upon the passions of men, he excelled all his contemporaries.
For four years Henry continued to occupy a seat in the house of burgesses, and to practise his profession. Then the struggle between Great Britain and the colonies commenced in earnest. It was plain that both sides were greatly embittered, and there is evidence that Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and other advocates of uncompromising resistance desired to take advantage of the public sentiment and precipitate the rupture. Early in the session of 1773, Henry, Jefferson, the two Lees, and Dabney Carr met in the Raleigh tavern and originated that great machine, the " committee of correspondence, for the dissemination of intelligence between the colonies." The burgesses promptly acted upon the suggestion, and were as promptly dissolved by Lord Dunmore, who had succeeded Botetourt. They were all reelected by the people, and resumed their seats in the spring of 1774. Massachusetts had already made her courageous stand against parliament. The tea of the East India company had been thrown overboard in Boston harbor, and a collision between England and the colonies was now in the highest degree probable. The most determined patriots were therefore summoned to the public councils in Virginia. The Boston port bill, closing Boston harbor on Juno 1, speedily arrived.
The leaders of the burgesses again met in secret consultation, and the result was a resolution that the 1st of June should be set apart as "a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer" throughout the province. The burgesses passed the resolution, and Dun-more duly dissolved them. They retired to the Raleigh tavern as before (May, 1774); but public feeling was too deeply aroused to content itself with protests or " articles of association." The meeting resulted in two resolves of the utmost importance. The first was that the different counties should be recommended to elect deputies to assemble at Williamsburg, Aug. 1, to consult for the good of the colony. The second was that the committee of correspondence should propose immediately to all the colonies a general congress, to meet annually and deliberate upon the common welfare; " the first recommendation of a general congress," says Irving, "by any public assembly." The deputies accordingly assembled on Aug. 1, subscribed a new and more thorough non-importation agreement, and appointed delegates to a general congress, to meet at Philadelphia in September. Among these delegates was Patrick Henry, and his voice was the first to break the silence of the august assembly. His fame had preceded him.
He was recognized and greeted as the great champion of constitutional liberty - the man who, more than any other, had aroused public sentiment in, and directed the councils of, the great province of Virginia. His extraordinary eloquence astonished all listeners. It was "Shakespeare and Garrick combined." When he took his seat, there was no longer a doubt in any mind that he was the greatest orator of America, and one of the greatest of any land or age. A petition to the king, and an address and memorial to the inhabitants of Great Britain, were the chief results of the congress, which adjourned in October. Henry returned home with his brother delegates, and, when asked who was "the greatest man in congress," replied that Mr. Rut-ledge of South Carolina was the greatest orator, but Col. George Washington the greatest man - an instance of his powers of penetrating into the depths of human character. With the spring of the next year, 1775, all tilings advanced rapidly toward the dividing line between peace and war. In March the second convention met in Richmond, and here again Henry assumed a position very far in advance of his associates.
He rose and moved that the militia should be organized, and the " colony be immediately put in a state of defence." The resolutions met with strong opposition, as had been the case with his stamp act resolutions ten years before in the house of burgesses. The leading and greatest patriots warmly opposed them as precipitate and ill advised. Henry's speech in reply was one of extraordinary eloquence and power. With the vision of a prophet almost, he exclaimed : "There is no retreat but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston. . . . The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. . . . I know not what course others may take; but as for me - give me liberty or give me death ! " The resolutions were passed without a dissenting voice, and the convention rose. Ere long arrived the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord. The contest was not to be long delayed on the soil of Virginia. In compliance with general orders from England, Lord Dunmore had on the night of April 20 removed clandestinely from the magazine in Williamsburg all the powder of the colony. The alarm spread rapidly throughout the province, and the people flew to arms.
Seven hundred men assembled at Fredericksburg, but, receiving an assurance that the powder would be restored, were disbanded. Patrick Henry saw the favorable moment thus about to pass. He determined to act boldly. Summoning the militia of Hanover, he placed himself at their head, despatched a troop to arrest the king's receiver general, and marched upon Williamsburg. Lord Dunmore's agent met him on the way, and paid £330 for the powder; and on his return home Henry found himself and his friends denounced in a public proclamation as "deluded" arousers of sedition. But the whole province, indeed all the land, was equally deluded. The defiance had been given by Henry; the authority of the king, in the person of his representative, menaced with an armed force. There was no choice thenceforth but between submission and open resistance. In June Lord Dunmore fled with his family from Williamsburg on board a man-of-war, and in July a convention met at Richmond which organized a committee of safety, consisting of 11 gentlemen, endowed with almost dictatorial powers. Two regiments were directed to be immediately raised, and Patrick Henry was elected colonel of the first and commander of all forces to be enrolled; William Woodford, colonel of the second.
Lord Dunmore at this time was ravaging the shores of the Chesapeake and threatening Norfolk, and the committee of safety were compelled to act promptly. They detached Col. Woodford at the head of the greater portion of the forces against the enemy, and the result was the battle of Great Bridge, in which the raw Virginia recruits drove back the best trained English grenadiers and gained a victory, sending Dunmore back to his ships. The action of the committee in passing over Henry was violently inveighed against by his friends, and the venerable Edmund Pendleton, the president, was especially assailed. The censure seems to have been wholly unjust. The right of the committee to assign a separate command to Col. Woodford was formally stated in Henry's commission, and Woodford's military experience determined the action of the committee in selecting him for this critical undertaking. The ardent feelings of Henry and his disappointment doubtless betrayed him into resigning his commission, which he speedily did, though between Pendleton and himself there was never any quarrel.
He was a delegate to the convention which met in May, 1770, and instructed the Virginia deputies to the general congress to propose to that body to " declare the united colonies free and independent states." In the same year he was elected the first republican governor of Virginia, and from this time his career was rather that of the statesman and minister of public affairs, than the ardent, imposing almost dazzling orator of revolution. He filled the office of governor by successive reelections till 1779, when ho was no longer eligible. During this trying period he was eminently serviceable in sustaining public spirit and seconding the efforts of the great leaders of the revolution.
He returned to the legislative body, where he served throughout the war, at the termination of which he was again elected governor, and served until the autumn of 178C, when he resigned. In 1788 he was a member of the convention to ratify the federal constitution, an instrument whose adoption he opposed with all the strength and eloquence of his youth. Although this opposition afterward abated in a measure, he always remained fearful that the final result would be the destruction of the rights of the states. In 1794 he retired from the bar, and removed to his estate of Red Hill in Charlotte. In 1795 Washington appointed him secretary of state, in place of Edmund Randolph, who had resigned; but Henry declined the appointment, as he did that of envoy to France afterward offered him by Mr. Adams, and that of governor offered him in 1796. In March, 1799, yielding to the request of Washington and other distinguished persons, and desirous of doing his part to avert what he feared would be the disastrous results of the "resolutions of '98 " just passed by the Virginia house, he ran for the state senate in his district. The great orator had only to indicate his wishes to fill any public position, and was easily elected; but he never took his seat.
The speech at Charlotte Court House was his last, and it is said to have been worthy of his fame. He died less than three months afterward. - Patrick Henry was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary men of an ex-traordinary epoch. In the house of burgesses he bore away the palm from Edmund Pendleton, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and the most powerful men of the time. In the general congress, the men of the north acknowledged that Henry was the greatest orator whom they had ever heard. Of this con-spicuous endowment there are countless proofs, anecdotes, and traditions; and it is established beyond a rational doubt that Henry possessed a natural genius for moving men such as has rarely been bestowed upon humanity. Jefferson said that he seemed to him to speak "as Homer wrote." Undoubtedly a large part of his wonderful success was due to his moral courage. To that mysterious eloquence which swayed and took captive all minds, ho united a nerve and resolution which when thoroughly aroused were indomitable. There was a hard stubborn fibre in his moral organization which resisted all attacks, and defied whatever attempted to move him. As a mere logician, apart from the advocate, Henry had no conspicuous talent.
He was not a great lawyer, and his name remains connected with no large measures of policy under the new order of tilings, like that of Jefferson. He lives and will always live as the mouthpiece of the revolution, the voice which uttered most boldly and clearly the principles of human freedom. He was a man of the revolution, the representative of a convulsed epoch and an indignant people; the words which ho uttered were those which trembled upon the lips of millions. In person Henry was rather striking than prepossessing. Nearly six feet, spare, rawboned, and slightly stooping in the shoulders, he gave no indication of the majesty and grace which characterized his appearance when his genius was aroused. His complexion was sallow; his countenance grave, thoughtful, stern in repose, and marked with the lines of deep and painful reflection. His brows were habitually contracted, and communicated to his features an air of forbidding sternness and severity. The mouth, with closely compressed lips, and deep furrows at the corners, was set in an expression of unyielding resolution. When he spoke, however, a wonderful change passed over him. His person rose erect, his head, instead of stooping, was held proudly aloft, and the whole man seemed to undergo a transformation.
The power which he possessed of expressing feeling by a simple movement of feature was extraordinary. The stern face would relax and grow soft, pensive, and gentle; or a withering rage would burn in the fiery eyes; or eyes, mouth, and voice would convey to the listener emotions of the tender-est pathos. In private life he was kindly, good-humored, and agreeable. He possessed a dry humor which was very attractive. He indulged in none of the vices of high living then prevalent; temperate, frugal, rarely drinking anything but water, he presented a strong contrast to his contemporaries. His reading was not extensive, but serious and solid. Livy was his favorite historian; but his reading was chiefly confined to the Bible. He was a devout Christian, and when governor printed and circulated at his own expense Soame Jenyn's "View of Christianity" and Butler's "Analogy." Sherlock's sermons he read every Sunday evening to his family, after which all joined in sacred music, while he accompanied them upon the violin. All the accounts of his personal bearing represent it as simple, plain, and cordial. There was an honest good feeling in his manner which induced the commonest persons to approach him with confidence.
By this class he was almost idolized; and throughout his career he retained their unbounded admiration, attachment, and respect. - The life of Patrick Henry has been written by William Wirt (8vo, 1817), and by A. H. Everett, in Sparks's "American Biography."