Patrick Henry

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.
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