March 23, 1775 dawned in Richmond.  The nip of a fading winter was still in the air; the ladies and gentlemen had not yet abandoned their warmer clothing.  But within St. John’s Church, a debate was raging hot.

Proceedings in Philadelphia had reached a fever pitch.  The colonies would fight for their liberty, and Virginia was smugly sure that Britain would bend.  Aye, America would win her freedom with hardly a fight…the redcoats would be gone with the next ship.  The Revolution could be won peacefully.

The Virginia Assembly was now listening to a man who was not so sure.  This young lawyer from Hanover County saw the danger of approaching British troops and urged Virginians to take arms.  The Revolutionary Convention prepared itself to hear his unpopular position.  What could this Patrick Henry say to change their minds?

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,” he was saying, “and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House.”

Assemblymen shifted uncomfortably.  Had not they themselves seen the great ships in their own harbors?  The marching armies drilling in the squares?

This fearless lawyer spoke upon that knowledge.  “Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.”

His voice was rising, his speech impassioned.  “If we wish to be free– if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained–we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!”

His voice rose above the clamor.  “Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable–and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come. ”

And now his voice grew louder still, speaking each word with the fervor of one who believed it with all his soul. 

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! 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 Virginia Revoluntionary Convention was on its feet, shouting.  The mood had turned, the tempest swelled.  Moments later, when a vote was called, Patrick Henry’s position won by a mere half dozen votes.  Virginia was called to arms…called to protect itself bravely against the British.  Virginia had entered the Revolution.

Who was this man?  During his life, Patrick Henry was many things.  First a shopkeeper, opening a store with his elder brother William, which quickly failed.  Then a farmer, working to till the land of his young bride, Sarah Shelton.  But when fire destroyed this place, called Pine Slash, Patrick Henry once again tried his hand at storekeeping.  This, too, failed, and so he worked at Hanover Tavern, owned by his father-in-law, and studied books of law.  In 1760, this young self-taught jack-of-all-trades convinced the panel of Virginia attorneys to admit him to the bar, despite his lack of education and knowledge.  He quickly made good in the courts of Hanover and nearby counties, and soon found fame in winning the famous Parsons’ Cause case at Hanover Courthouse, in which he argued against a law which would diminish the pay of ministers in the colonies, on behalf of one Reverend James Maury.  His speech defied the authority of Britain and earned him fame in the colonies.

Soon, this radical lawyer became as one with the fight for independence.  He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1765 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775.  He argued on behalf of persecuted Baptist ministers and against the Stamp Act (nearly committing treason in the process).  His eloquence gained him recognition as the most celebrated orator of early America.  His firey words and rebellious beliefs gained him popularity as well as enemies in this turbulent time, and to the crown, he was the face of insubordination in Virginia (an edict was issued against him by Governor Dunmore in 1775).  For a brief time he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Virginian forces, despite his inexperience, but it was soon apparent that the military was not his calling.  George Washington said, “I think my countrymen made a capital mistake when they took Henry out of the senate to place him in the field.”  Although his men were fiercely loyal to him and threatened to desert if he resigned, Henry refused to allow his pride to hurt the cause he believed in, and urged his men to respect their new commanders.

Patrick Henry went on to serve five terms as governor of Virginia (1776-1786).  He declined a sixth and continued with his law practice.  He declined a position in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, but was elected to the Virginia Convention a year later.  He strongly opposed the Constitution at first because it did not contain a Bill of Rights, but his opposition helped cause one to be written in 1791.

In the years 1794-1796 Patrick Henry declined the offices of governor of Virginia, U.S. Senator, Chief Justice, Secretary of State, and ambassador to Spain and France.  His health was failing.  He retired to Red Hill with his second wife, Dorethea Dandridge (his first wife having died in 1775), where he eventually died on June 6, 1799, shortly after his election to the state legislature.  He was 63 years old.  The Virginia Gazette reported the death of this great man, writing, “As long as our rivers flow, or mountains stand, Virginia . . . will say to rising generations, imitate my Henry.”

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Patrick Henry never served in high office or sought political power for himself.  His convictions were radical and deeply held.  He made the Revolution understandable and important to the common American men and women with his passionate, honest speaking, and was “”the man who gave the first impulse to the ball of revolution.”  As Thomas Jefferson said, ““It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry.  He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”

Even in his death, Patrick Henry worked to build up the young nation he loved.  In a letter written to be opened after his passing, he said that whether or not the independence of America “will prove a Blessing or a Curse will depend on 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”

 

 Resources:

  1. “Patrick Henry Speech -Liberty or Death” http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/henry.htm
  2. “Patrick Henry” http://americanrevwar.homestead.com/files/HENRY.HTM
  3. “Henry’s Early Life and Times (and other life events)” http://www.redhill.org/ph/life/default_career.html
  4. “Biography of Patrick Henry” http://www.redhill.org/ph/biography.html
  5. “Patrick Henry (Featured in Revolutionary City)” http://www.history.org/Almanack/people/bios/biohen.cfm
  6. “Patrick Henry” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Henry
  7. “Patrick Henry -Virginia House of Burgesses” http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/henry.htm
  8. “Patrick Henry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” (transcript of March 23, 1775 speech) http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/henry-liberty.html
Advertisements