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Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia, May 29, 1736; died in Charlotte County, Virginia, June 6, 1799. He was the son of Colonel John Henry, of Mount Brilliant, a Scotchman by birth, who was the nephew of Dr. William Robertson, the historian. Henry received only the limited education accessible in the rural locality in which he was born, consisting of the rudiments of an English training and absolutely no acquaintance with the classics. His early youth was spent on the plantation, occupied with the amusements of his age and his epoch; fishing and hunting gave him acquaintance with the fields, the streams, and the forests, and the observation of nature, her changes, her forces, and her moods. The habits thus formed evolved in part the great power of introspection and analysis of the feelings of men which afterward gave him such control of them.
At the age of fifteen he was placed in a country store as assistant salesman, or clerk. After a year's experience, his father purchased a small stock of goods for him, and set him up on his own account in partnership with his brother William.
This adventure came to grief in a year, and then Henry, at the age of eighteen, married Miss Shelton, the daughter of a neighboring farmer.
The young couple were settled on a farm by the joint efforts of their parents, where they endeavored to win a subsistence with the assistance of two or three servants. In two years he sold out and invested in another mercantile undertaking. In a few years this ended in bankruptcy, leaving him without a dollar and with a wife and an increasing family to support. He was devoted to music, dancing, and amusement, and was incapable of continuous physical or intellectual labor. He had devoted himself to desultory reading of the best kind, and made himself acquainted with the history of England, of Greece, and of Rome. He therefore undertook to win a support by the profession and the practice of the law, and after a brief pretence of preparation, by the generosity of the bar at that period, was admitted to practice. The vigor of his intellect, his powerful logic, and his acute analysis induced the examining committee to sign his certificate.
That committee consisted of Mr. Lyons, then the leader of the Provincial bar, afterward president-judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia; Mr. John Lewis, an eminent lawyer, and John Randolph, afterward knighted and as Sir John Randolph, the king's Attorney General for Virginia. Henry was twenty-four when admitted to the bar, and for three years did nothing.
Under the law of Virginia the people, without regard to religious belief, were bound to pay a tax of so many pounds of tobacco per poll for the support of the clergy. The parson of each parish was entitled to sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco per annum. When the price of tobacco was low this imposition was borne not without grumbling. When short crops or increased demand raised the price, the General Assembly of the colony by law allowed the people the option to pay their poll-tax in tobacco, or to commute it at the fixed price of 16s. and 8d. per hundred. When the market price was above that the tax was paid in currency; when it was below, in tobacco. When tobacco rose to 50s. per hundred the parsons demanded tobacco for their salaries instead of 16s. 8d. per hundred. The King in council declared the Commutation Act void, and the parsons brought suit for their salaries. The defendants pleaded the Commutation Act in defence; to this plea the plaintiffs demurred; and the court, as it was bound to do, gave judgment for the plaintiff on the demurrer. The only question then left was the quantum of damages, to be assessed by a jury. The case selected for a test was the case of the Rev. James Maury against the sheriff of Hanover County and his sureties. It was set for trial at the December term of the County Court of Hanover, 1763. Henry was retained for the defendant, and made an argument so forcible, so conclusive, and so eloquent that it has made his fame as "the greatest orator who ever lived," as Mr. Jefferson wrote of him. He took the ground that allegiance and protection in government are reciprocal, that the King of Great Britain had failed to protect the people of Virginia in their rights as Englishmen, and that therefore they owed no allegiance to him and he had no right to declare laws made by them void, therefore his nullification of the Commutation Act was void and of no effect. The jury found for the plaintiff with one penny damages, and thus ended the attempt to rely upon the power of the king to set aside laws made by Virginia for her own government.
It was the first announcement in America of the radical revolutionary doctrine that government is a matter of compact with the people, and when the former breaks the agreement, the latter are absolved from obedience to it.
The next year Henry removed to Louisa County and was employed by Dandridge in the contested election case of Dandridge v. Littlepage before the House of Burgesses for a seat in that body. When the Stamp Act passed in 1765, Mr. William Johnson, member of the House of Burgesses for Louisa County, resigned his place to make way for Henry, who was elected to fill the vacancy.
This body consisted of some of the ablest and most illustrious Americans who ever lived. George Washington, Peyton Randolph, Richard Bland, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee were all members, and Henry at the first session won a place in the front rank among them. In May, 1765, he introduced a series of resolutions, reiterating and enlarging the propositions of the parson's case, and declaring that the people of Virginia are entitled to all the rights of British subjects, and that they alone, through their General Assembly, "have the sole right and power to lay taxes and impositions on this colony," and that any attempt by any other authority "has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom." They were opposed by the old members, but the eloquent logic of Henry, backed by Johnston, a member from Fairfax, carried them by a close vote, the last one by a majority of one.
In this debate, Henry in a passion of eloquence exclaimed, "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George III.----" "Treason," cried the Speaker and the House----"may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."
The next day, the House in a panic, reconsidered, rejected, and expunged from the Journal the last resolution, which asserted the sole right of taxation in Virginia, and denied it to Parliament.
Henry continued a member of the House of Burgesses from Louisa County until the close of the Revolution. He led Virginia in resistance to the tax on tea, and in organizing armed resistance to the Mother Country by all the colonies. He was among the first of the Americans who understood that liberty could only be preserved by defending it by force.
He was sent as a deputy from Virginia to the first Continental Congress, which met at Philadelphia in September, 1774. He at once took a commanding influence in that body, and on its adjournment in October, returned home.
In March, 1776, he attended the Convention of Virginia held in Richmond. Here he moved that "this colony be immediately put in a state of defence, and that a committee be appointed to prepare a plan for embodying, assigning, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose." Bland, Harrison, Pendleton, and Nicholas, all vigorously opposed these resolutions as leading inevitably and logically to revolution and separation; but Henry, in a storm of patriotic, eloquent enthusiasm, carried everything, uttering those deathless sentences, "Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle. What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have?
"Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
"Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
The resolutions were carried and Henry made chairman of the committee to organize the colony. He proceeded with great vigor to form companies of cavalry or infantry in every county. On April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, seized the powder of the colony and placed it on the armed schooner Magdalene. The country rose at once. Henry, as captain, marched the independent company of Hanover on Williamsburgh, to compel the governor to pay for or restore the powder. Five thousand armed men were marching from the counties to reinforce him, when Lord Dunmore, through the intercession of Peyton Randolph, paid Henry for the powder and induced the volunteers from Hanover, Frederick, Berkeley, and other counties to return to their homes. As soon as they had returned, Dunmore issued a proclamation denouncing Henry and his comrades as traitors and rebels.
Henry was elected by the Virginia Convention one of the deputies to the second Continental Congress. He was also elected colonel of the first Virginia Regiment, and "commander-in-chief of all the forces raised and to be raised for the defence of the colony." Lord Dunmore having erected a fortification south of Norfolk, at Great Bridge, Colonel Woodford, with the second Virginia Regiment, was sent by the Committee of Safety to drive him away, which he did promptly and well. Henry claimed the right to command this expedition himself, but his claim was not admitted by the committee, and his authority was disclaimed by Colonel Woodford. Henry insisted upon having the question of rank between them decided, and the committee decided in favor of Colonel Henry. Yet when brigadiers were selected by Congress to command the troops of Virginia in the Continental Army, Andrew Lewis was made brigadier, Henry colonel of the first regiment. He promptly refused the Continental commission, and resigned the one held in the service of Virginia. Henry's conduct was justified in the opinion of his contemporaries and of posterity. He had led the colony at the risk of life and fortune, he had organized and led the first movement of troops against the royal authority, he had been appointed commander-in-chief and colonel of the First Regiment, and then had been superseded in command by another, without excuse or justification. He was thus driven out of the military service by petty intrigues and small jealousies of smaller men, and the country deprived of his great abilities in the military field.
On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention instructed their deputies in Congress "to declare the United Colonies free and independent States," and on June 29th adopted a form of State government and elected Mr. Henry governor. During the winter of 1776-77 was the darkest period of the revolution, and it has been charged that it was proposed to create him dictator; but his friends have always denied this, and it seems with truth, for he was re-elected governor, May 30th, 1777. He was a firm supporter of General Washington through all the trials of that period, and firmly stood by him against the intrigue in the army to supersede him with Gates. He was again elected governor in the spring of 1778, and the next year declined a re-election because in his opinion he was ineligible. His wife, Miss Shelton, died in 1775, leaving him the father of six children, and in 1777 he married Dorothea, daughter of Nathaniel W. Dandridge.
After the expiration of his gubernatorial service he retired to his estate in Henry County. He was elected to the General Assembly for that County in 1780, and he continued to represent it until after the revolution. He took the ground of amnesty to the Tories and the resumption of commercial intercourse with Great Britain. In 1784, he introduced and urged the passage of a bill to promote inter-marriages with the Indians, which failed to pass from his being again elected governor on November 17, 1784, for the term of three years.
He declined a re-election, and was appointed one of the deputies from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia. The order of appointment being George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason and George Wythe. He, however, was too poor to perform the duties of the office and was obliged to return to the practice of the law. He was sent as a member from Prince Edward to the convention to consider the Federal Constitution which had been framed at Philadelphia. The convention met at Richmond, June 2, 1788.
It was composed of the most illustrious men that Virginia ever produced, and was probably the ablest body that ever convened in any country in any age. James Madison, John Marshall, James Monroe, Edmund Pendleton, George Nicholas, George Mason, Jarvis, Grayson, and Henry, Lee, and Randolph were among the members. Henry vigorously opposed the ratification of the new constitution on the ground that it would establish a government of the people in place of a government of the States, and would create a consolidated government with omnipotent power, without check or balance, and lead to a great and mighty empire and an absolute despotism. The Federal party carried the ratification under the lead of Madison and Marshall by a majority of ten.
In the ensuing General Assembly Henry opposed the election of Madison as one of the first senators under the new constitution, and secured that of Richard Henry Lee and Grayson to represent Virginia in the first Congress. He also drafted and had passed resolutions calling upon Congress to call a Constitutional Convention of the States to cure by amendments the many defects in the Federal Constitution which were indicated by the amendments proposed to it by Virginia. The Convention was never called, but ten of the amendments were adopted by Congress and ratified by the States.
He declined a re-election to the General Assembly in 1791, and retired to private life. In November, 1791, he appeared before the Federal Court in Richmond, for the defendant in the case of the British debts. The question involved was the right of Virginia to confiscate, during the war, debts due by her citizens to subjects of Great Britain. With Henry was John Marshall, and in the argument Henry made the greatest legal effort of his life.
In November, 1795, he was again elected Governor of Virginia, but declined on account of his age. He was offered the mission to Spain by Washington during his first term, and to France during his second--both of which positions he declined. Alarmed at the position taken by the Virginia resolutions of 1798, he became a candidate for, and was elected to the General Assembly from Charlotte County in 1799. But the Virginia Legislature was opposed to his views, and reiterated those set forth in the resolution of 1798.
His health had been infirm for several years, and he died June 6, 1799. The General Assembly passed resolutions recording their love and veneration for his name and fame, and ordered a bust of him to be procured and set up in one of the niches of the hall of the House of Delegates. It is now in the capitol at Richmond.