Patrick Henry

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Patrick Henry
Patrick henry.JPG
1st & 6th Governor of Virginia
In office
July 5, 1776 – June 1, 1779
Preceded by Edmund Pendleton (acting)
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
In office
December 1, 1784 – December 1, 1786
Preceded by Benjamin Harrison V
Succeeded by Edmund Randolph
Personal details
Born May 29, 1736
Studley, Colony of Virginia, British America
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Brookneal, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Anti-Federalist
Spouse(s) Sarah Shelton
Dorothea Dandridge
Profession Planter

Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an American attorney, planter and politician who became known as an orator during the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786.

Henry led the opposition to the Stamp Act 1765 and is remembered for his "Give me liberty, or give me death!" speech. Along with Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, he is regarded as one of the most influential champions of Republicanism and an invested promoter of the American Revolution and its fight for independence.

After the Revolution, Henry was a leader of the anti-federalists in Virginia. He opposed the United States Constitution, fearing that it endangered the rights of the States as well as the freedoms of individuals; he helped gain adoption of the Bill of Rights. By 1798 however, he supported President John Adams and the Federalists; he denounced passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions as he feared the social unrest and widespread executions that had followed the increasing radicalism of the French Revolution.

As a married man, Henry was an expanding landowner. By 1779, along with his cousin and her husband, Henry owned a 10,000-acre (40 km2) plantation known by the name of Leatherwood. He is also recorded to have purchased up to 78 slaves. In 1794 he and his wife retired to Red Hill Plantation, which had 520 acres (2.1 km2) in Charlotte County that was also a functioning tobacco plantation.

Early life and education

Henry was born at Studley, the family farm, in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, 1736.[1] His father was John Henry, an immigrant from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, who had attended King's College, before emigrating to the Colony of Virginia in the 1720s.[2] Settling in Hanover County, in about 1732 John Henry married Sarah Winston Syme, a wealthy widow from a prominent Hanover County family of English ancestry.[3] Patrick Henry was once thought to have been of humble origins, but he was born into the middle ranks of the Virginia landed gentry.[1]

Henry attended local schools for a few years, and then was tutored by his father. He tried to start in business but was not successful.

Marriage and family

View of Rural Plains near Totopotomoy Creek in Virginia. Henry was reportedly married to Sarah Shelton in the parlor.

In 1754 Henry married Sarah Shelton, reportedly in the parlor of her family house, Rural Plains. (It also became known as Shelton House.)

As a wedding gift, her father gave the couple six slaves and the 300-acre (1.2 km2) Pine Slash Farm near Mechanicsville. With his marriage, he became a slaveholder and landowner. Henry worked with his slaves on the land because it was a small property; it was exhausted from tobacco cultivation and he could not gain profitable yields. After the main house burned, the couple moved for a short time with their two children into the 20 by 60 foot Honeymoon Cottage, a one-story building with attic. They later moved to the Hanover Tavern, owned by Sarah's father. They sold Pine Slash Plantation in 1764, after Henry started working as a lawyer.[4]

The Henrys had six children together, one of whom married a brother of poet Thomas Campbell. In 1771 the family moved to Scotchtown Plantation, also in Hanover County. Sarah became mentally ill and died there in 1775.

On October 25, 1777, 41-year-old Henry married his second wife, 22-year-old Dorothea Dandridge (1755–1831). The next year they moved to Williamsburg after his election as governor and stayed through his two terms. They had eleven children together. In 1779 they moved to the 10,000-acre (40 km2) Leatherwood Plantation, which he bought with his cousin and her husband in Henry County, Virginia.


Henry began a career as a planter, but the soil was poor and their main house was destroyed by fire in 1757.[1] He tried a mercantile store, but it failed. While reading for the law, he continued to farm at Pine Slash Plantation before qualifying as a lawyer in 1760. He read the law with an established firm.[1]

Henry first gained local attention in a case dubbed the "Parson's Cause" (1763). It dealt with whether the price of tobacco paid to established clergy for their services, should be set by the colonial government or by the Crown. After the British Parliament overruled Virginia's Two Penny Act, which had limited the established clergy's salaries, the Reverend James Maury filed suit against the vestry of Louisa County for payment of back wages. When Maury won the suit, a jury was called in Hanover County to determine how much Maury should be paid. Henry was brought in at the last minute to argue on behalf of Louisa County.

He delivered an impassioned speech that denounced clerics who challenged Virginia's laws as "enemies of the community" and any king who annulled good laws, such as the Two Penny Act, as a "tyrant" who "forfeits all right to his subject's obedience".[5] Henry urged the jury to make an example of Maury. After less than five minutes of deliberation, they awarded Maury one penny.[6] The Hanover County Courthouse, where Patrick Henry argued the case, is still used as an active courthouse. Located along historic U.S. Route 301, the courthouse is adjacent to Hanover Tavern (rebuilt in 1791 after burning) where Patrick Henry lodged while on the case. The courthouse is the third oldest courthouse still in use in the United States.

Stamp Act

In 1765 Henry was elected from Louisa County for the House of Burgesses, the legislative body of the Virginia colony, to fill a vacated seat in the assembly. When he arrived in Williamsburg, the legislature was already in session. Nine days after being sworn in, Henry introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions, "in language so extreme that some Virginians said it smacked of treason".[7]

Patrick Henry's "Treason" speech before the House of Burgesses in an 1851 painting by Peter F. Rothermel

The new representative waited for an opportunity when the more conservative members of the House were away. As 24% attendance was considered sufficient for a quorum, Henry succeeded, through much debate, in getting his proposal passed.

It was possibly the most anti-British American political action to that point, and some credit the Resolutions with being one of the main catalysts of the Revolution.[citation needed] The proposals were based on principles that were well-established British rights, such as the right to be taxed by one's own representatives. They asserted that the colonial assemblies had the exclusive right to impose taxes on the colonies and could not assign that right.

Many colonists considered his following words inflammatory: "Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third ....may he profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!" According to the biographer Richard Beeman, the legend of this speech grew more dramatic over the years. He thinks that Henry probably did not say, "If this be treason, make the most of it."[citation needed] Bill Bryson agrees, citing another source.[8] The only account of the speech written down at the time by an eyewitness (which came to light many years later) records that Henry apologized after being accused of uttering treasonable words, and assured the House that he was loyal to the king.[8] Henry's speech was radical enough to gain notice at the time and has achieved mythic status since, even if his exact words are unknown.

Sarah's illness

In 1771 Henry and his wife Sarah moved into their Scotchtown plantation in Hanover County, along with their children: Martha ("Patsy"), Anne, Elizabeth ("Betsy"), John, William, and Edmund ("Neddy"). Sarah "started to manifest disturbing behaviors which could not at that time be diagnosed or treated. ...her mental condition deteriorated rapidly, and when she became dangerous to herself and others, she was clothed in a 'Quaker shirt,' an early form of strait jacket."[9]

Following the general practice of the time, Henry's friends and his physician, Dr. Thomas Hinde, recommended she be moved to the public hospital in Williamsburg. But, after inspecting the facilities, Henry

"saw that if he agreed, his wife would be locked into a windowless brick cell containing only a filthy mattress on the floor and a chamber pot. There she would be chained to the wall with a leg iron. Appalled by what he saw, he instead prepared a private, two-room apartment for her in the basement of Scotchtown. Each room had a window, providing light, air circulation, and a pleasant view of the grounds. The apartment also had a fireplace, which provided good heat in the winter, and a comfortable bed to sleep in."[9]

Henry (or a domestic slave when he was away on business) took care of Sarah and "watched over her, fed her, bathed her, clothed her, and prevented her from harming herself."[9] Sarah died in the spring of 1775.

"Because of her illness – then thought to have been caused by being 'possessed by the devil' – she was denied a religious funeral service or a Christian burial. Her grieving husband, 'bowed down and bleeding under the heaviest sorrows and personal distresses,' buried her thirty feet from the home they shared and planted a lilac tree next to her grave to remember her. The tree still stands there, a few steps from the door to her basement."[9]

Scotchtown is a National Historic Landmark.

American Revolution

Responding to pleas from Massachusetts that the colonies create committees of correspondence to coordinate their activities related to the British, Henry took the lead in Virginia. In March 1773, along with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, Henry led the Virginia House of Burgesses to adopt resolutions providing for a standing committee of correspondence. Each colony set up such committees, and they led to the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774, to which Henry was elected.

A Hue & Cry, Virginia broadside, 1775

Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. With the House undecided on whether to mobilize for military action against the encroaching British military force, Henry argued in favor of mobilization and ended his speech with words that have since become immortalized:

"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 text of this speech first appeared in print eighteen years after Patrick Henry's death, in "Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry"[10] by William Wirt. In 1815, Wirt wrote to a friend, "from 1763 to 1789... not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech".[11] Wirt corresponded with men who had heard the speech and others who were acquainted with people who were there at the time. All agreed that the speech had produced a profound effect, but it seems that only one tried to render an actual text. Judge St. George Tucker, who had been present for the speech, gave Wirt his recollections and Wirt wrote back stating that "I have taken almost entirely Mr. Henry's speech in the Convention of '75 from you, as well as your description of its effect on your verbatim." The original letter with Tucker's remembrances has been lost.[12]

For 160 years Wirt's account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt's reconstruction.[13] Contemporary historians observe that Henry was known to have used fear of Indian and slave revolts in promoting military action against the British and that, according to the only written first-hand account of the speech, Henry used some graphic name-calling that Wirt did not include in his heroic rendition.[14] Tucker's account was based upon recollections and not notes several decades after the speech. Tucker attempted a reconstruction of only the first two paragraphs of the speech. Tucker wrote, "In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech".[15] Scholars have argued whether the speech we know is primarily the work of Wirt or Tucker.[12]

In August 1775, Henry was commissioned as colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, Henry led militia against the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in defense of some disputed gunpowder, an event known as the Gunpowder Incident.

Henry and others were also building institutions: in early November 1775 he and the young attorney James Madison were elected as founding trustees of Hampden–Sydney College, which opened for classes on November 10. Henry continued as a trustee until his death in 1799. As a representative in the state legislature beginning in 1780, Henry was instrumental in 1783 in achieving passage of the College's Charter, which had been delayed by the war. He is probably the author of the Oath of Loyalty to the new Republic included in that charter. Seven of his sons would attend the new college; six graduated.

In 1776 Henry was elected by the new state legislature as the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia, for a one-year term. He was twice re-elected, serving until 1779. (The new state limited governors to three terms in succession, and then required a 4-year break.) As governor, he presided over several Virginia militia expeditions against the Cherokee people in the west, who were allied with the British. He appointed his friend Joseph Martin, an explorer, as state agent to the Cherokee Nation. Henry also sometimes invested in real estate with Martin. The explorer was the namesake of Martinsville, the county seat of Henry County.

Boulder and plaque marking former location of Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County, Virginia

In 1779, Henry and his family moved to the 10,000-acre (40 km2) Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County, Virginia. He and his first cousin Ann Winston Carr and her husband Col. George Waller jointly owned the immense property.[16] His eldest daughter Martha and her husband John Fontaine also lived with them on the plantation. Henry lived at Leatherwood from 1779 to 1784; he owned 75 slaves and cultivated tobacco.[17] In 1782, according to the tax list, Henry owned 64 slaves, his son-in-law John Fontaine owned 18 (he and Henry's daughter were living there as well), and his cousin's husband George Waller also owned 18 slaves, making 100 total among the three men.[18]

From 1780 to 1784, he served in the Virginia Assembly. After he was elected as governor a second time and went to Richmond, his oldest daughter Martha and her husband John managed the Henry family portion of the large Leatherwood Plantation. John died in 1792 and Martha managed it until 1818.

After the Revolution

In 1784, Henry was elected again for a one-year term by the legislature as governor of Virginia, and re-elected twice more, serving until 1786.[19] He declined to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, saying that he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy."[citation needed] An ardent supporter of state rights, Henry was an outspoken critic of the United States Constitution. He worried that the untested office of the presidency could devolve into a monarchy and became a leading opponent of James Madison.

Henry served as a representative to the Virginia convention of 1788, where he argued against ratifying the U.S. Constitution, on the grounds that it gave too much power to the federal government. It passed. He was instrumental in having the Bill of Rights adopted to amend the new Constitution and protect individual rights.[20] He was chosen as a presidential elector for the 1789 election from Campbell District, along with nine other men.[21] That District consisted of Bedford, Campbell, Charlotte, Franklin, Halifax, Henry, Pittsylvania, and Prince Edward counties, covering the area between Danville and Lynchburg in the south of Virginia.[22] The men all voted for Washington with one of their votes, and split their second votes among other candidates.[21]

In 1794 Henry and his wife Dorothea retired to his 520-acre plantation of Red Hill near Brookneal, Virginia in Charlotte County, where he conducted his law practice. But, following the widespread executions and radicalism of the continuing French Revolution, Henry began to fear a similar fate could befall America and he became alarmed at the policies of Jefferson and Madison. Federalists tried to win him over. President Washington offered Henry several top positions; he declined them all. In 1798 he spoke in behalf of the Federalist Party, campaigning for John Marshall for Congress.[23] He denounced the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which called for the rights of a state to nullify a federal law it considered unconstitutional. Henry warned that civil war was threatened because Virginia,

"had quit the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution, and, in daring to pronounce upon the validity of federal laws, had gone out of her jurisdiction in a manner not warranted by any authority, and in the highest degree alarming to every considerate man; that such opposition, on the part of Virginia, to the acts of the general government, must beget their enforcement by military power; that this would probably produce civil war, civil war foreign alliances, and that foreign alliances must necessarily end in subjugation to the powers called in."[24]

In 1798 President John Adams nominated Henry as special emissary to France, but he declined due to failing health. At the urging of Washington, Henry stood for and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a Federalist.[25] Three months prior to taking his seat, he died of stomach cancer on June 6, 1799, while at Red Hill Plantation.[26]

Some time following his death, his widow Dorothea married Judge Edmund Winston, Henry's first cousin and the executor of his estate.[26]

Honored on U.S. postage

Patrick Henry issue of 1955
Credo Issue of 1961

Patrick Henry is prominent among the few people in early American history other than American Presidents to have been honored on US postage stamps.

  • On October 7, 1955, the U.S. Post Office issued a 1-dollar postage stamp honoring Henry. It was one in a series of twenty seven stamps in the Liberty issue. A painting of Henry by American artist Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887) was used as the inspiration and as the model by the engraver for this issue.[27][28]
  • In 1960, the U.S. Post Office issued the CREDO Issue, a series of six stamps with famous quotes engraved on the face of each one. Patrick Henry's most famous words are inscribed on the front of this 4-cent issue, first released in Richmond, Virginia, on January 11, 1961.[28][29]

Monuments and memorials

Several sites associated with Henry's life have been honored. Scotchtown Plantation is a National Historic Landmark. Monuments are located at his retirement home and grave site, designated the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial. The site of his birthplace, which burned in 1807 and is now reduced to archaeological remains, is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Places named in honor of Patrick Henry date from the early years of the United States, including Henry County, Virginia, Henry County, Kentucky, Patrick County, Virginia, Henry County, Georgia, Henry County, Ohio, Henry County, Tennessee, Henry County, Alabama, Henry County, Illinois, and Henry County, Missouri after an 1841 name change. Patrick Henry Village in Heidelberg, Germany is also named for him.

Henry helped to establish Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia. It is the 10th-oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Six of his sons graduated from this college. He was made an honorary member of the college's literary society, and the Patrick Henry Scholars are named for him.

A variety of schools, ships, and other institutions are named after him, including jurisdictions. Named in his honor are Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia, eight high schools (including three in Virginia, more than for any other person in the Commonwealth), Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Virginia and Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. The Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial donated some property for the nearby Patrick Henry Boys and Girls Plantation, a private, Christian residential facility for at-risk youth.

At least three ships have been named in Henry's honor: the Civil War Confederate Navy steamboat CSS Patrick Henry, World War II Liberty ship SS Patrick Henry and the ballistic missile submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599).

Fort Patrick Henry was built during the American Revolutionary War along the South Fork Holston River at the present-day site of Kingsport, Tennessee. This fort serves as the namesake of Fort Patrick Henry Dam and its reservoir on the river.[30]

Camp Patrick Henry, a 1,700-acre (6.9 km2) complex in Newport News, Virginia, was a United States Army base from late 1942 to the late 1960s. Since being decommissioned, it is the site of the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport on 925 acres (3.74 km2). When opened in 1949, the airport was first called Patrick Henry Field. The airport code is still PHF.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Thad Tate, "Henry, Patrick", American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  2. Meade, Patrick Henry, pp. 13–18.
  3. Meade, Patrick Henry, 1:21–24.
  4. "Pine Slash Farm", Historic Markers Database, accessed 20 April 2012
  5. Meade, Patrick Henry, 1:133
  6. Beeman, Patrick Henry, 16–19; Middlekauff, Glorious Cause, 82–83; Meade, Patrick Henry, 1:125–34.
  7. T.H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution, (1985), p. 189
  8. 8.0 8.1 Bill Bryson (1998). Made In America. Black Swan. pp. 39, 435. ISBN 978-0-552-99805-5; citing Charles L. Mee (1988). The Genius of the People. Perennial Library. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-06-091478-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles><templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Richard N. Côté (2005). Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison. Corinthian Books. pp. 47–48.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, p. 115-124, accessed 16 January 2015
  11. Raphael, Founding Myths, p. 147.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Raphael, Founding Myths, p. 148.
  13. Judy Hemple, "The Textual and Cultural Authenticity of Patrick Henry's 'Liberty or Death' Speech," Quarterly Journal of Speech 63 (1977): 298–310; see Ray Raphael, Founding Myths, 311 note 7 for additional discussions among historians.
  14. Raphael, Founding Myths, 145–156, 311–313.
  15. Raphael, Founding Myths, p. 149.
  16. The True Patrick Henry, George Morgan, Lippincott, New York, 1907. 2007-07-17. Retrieved 2010-03-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Mayer, Henry (2001). A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Grove Press. Retrieved 2010-03-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "The 1782 Henry County, Virginia Personal Property Tax List", New River Notes website, accessed 20 April 2012. Note: The 1790 census was burned in the War of 1812, so the tax list is used as a substitute.
  19. "Biography of Patrick Henry". Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial. Retrieved August 16, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Elliot's Debates: Virginia Ratifying Convention: June 27, 1788". 1980-01-01. Retrieved 2010-03-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 Gordon DenBoer, The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788–1790,Volume 2, p. 303
  22. "View Election". 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2010-03-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Kidd (2011) p. 237
  24. Robert D. Meade, Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary (1969) p. 449
  25. Tyler, Patrick Henry pp. 413–420
  26. 26.0 26.1 "Patrick Henry's Family", Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial website
  27. Smithsonian National Postal Museum
  28. 28.0 28.1 Scott's US Stamp Catalogue, Identifier
  29. Credo Issue of 1961, Smithsonian National Postal Museum
  30. "Fort Patrick Henry Reservoir". Tennessee Valley Authority. Retrieved 2008-10-28.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Beeman, Richard R. (1974), Patrick Henry: A Biography, New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-004280-2
  • Jewett, Thomas (2004), Patrick Henry: America's Radical Dissenter, Early America Review Summer/Fall 2004
  • Kidd, Thomas S. (2011), Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, New York: Basic Books
  • Mayer, Henry (2001), Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic, New York: Grove Press
  • Meade, Robert D. (1957), Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making, Philadelphia: Lippincott
  • Meade, Robert D. (1969), Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary, Philadelphia: Lippincott
  • Raphael, Ray (2004), Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, New York: The New Press. ISBN 1-56584-921-3
  • Tate, Thad "Henry, Patrick"; American National Biography Online (2000); Access Sep 20 2015
  • Unger, Harlow (2010), Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call To a New Nation, Cambridge: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81886-8

Primary sources

  • William Wirt Henry, ed. Patrick Henry, Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (1891), reprints much of the existing primary source material

External links

Archival Records
Political offices
Preceded by
Edmund Pendleton
Public Safety committee President
Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by
Benjamin Harrison V
Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
Edmund Randolph