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Patrick Henry

This article is about the American politician. For the French criminal, see Patrick Henry.
Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736--June 6, 1799) was a prominent figure during the era of the American Revolution. In the opinion of most historians (and most of his contemporaries), he was one of, if not the most radical politician of the period.

Trained as an attorney, and noted for his heated oratorical skills, this Virginian first made a name for himself in a case dubbed the "Parson's Cause" (1763) which was an argument on whether the price of tobacco paid to clergy for their services should be set by the colonial government or by the Crown. Henry won the case, to the consternation of the British government.

Perhaps in part because of his success in this venture, Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses (legislative body of the Virginia colony) in 1765. That same year, he proposed the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions. The freshman representative waited for an opportunity where the mostly conservative members of the House were away (only 24% was considered sufficient for a quorum). In this atmosphere, he succeeded, through much debate and persuasion, in getting his proposal passed. It was possibly the most anti-British (many called it "treasonous") American political action to that point, and some credit the Resolutions with being one of the main catalysts of the Revolution.

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 went further, however, to assert that the colonial assemblies had the exclusive right to impose taxes on the colonies and could not assign that right. The imputation of treason is due to his inflammatory words, "Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third—" [Cries of "Treason! Treason!"] "George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

According to biographer Richard Beeman, the legend of this speech grew more dramatic over the years. Henry probably did not say the famous last line of the above quote, i.e. "If this be treason, make the most of it." The only account of the speech written down at the time by an eyewitness (which came to light many years later) records that Henry actually apologized after being accused of uttering treasonable words, assuring the House that he was still loyal to the king. Nevertheless, Henry's passionate, radical speech caused quite a stir at the time, even if we cannot be certain of his exact words.

Henry is perhaps best known for the closing words of a speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, urging that legislature to take military action against the encroaching British military force:

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!"

During the Revolution, Henry led a military force in defense of Virginia, chiefly in defense of some disputed gunpowder coveted by the British.

After the Revolution, Henry was an outspoken critic of the Constitution and urged against its adoption, arguing it gave the federal government too much power. As a leading Antifederalist, he was instrumental in the adoption of the Bill of Rights to amend the new Constitution.

He served as the first Governor of Virginia, from 1776-79, and again from 1784-86.

In the later years of his life, Henry was a key figure in a major land speculation scandal involving the Yazoo lands in what was then the western territory of Georgia.

He died at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia, in 1799 at the age of 63.

The United States Navy submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599) was named in his honor.

Famous quotation from the speech given shortly before his death: "United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs."

External links

  • Hanover County, Virginia, birthplace of Patrick Henry and location of Hanover Courthouse, where Parson's Cause case was argued in 1763 [1]
  • Scotchtown Plantation, Henry family home from 1771 - 1778 [2], [3]
  • St. John's Church (Richmond, Virginia), where Henry delivered "Liberty or death" speech in 1775[4]
  • Text of 1775 "Liberty or death" speech
  • Red Hill Plantation (Charlotte County, Virginia), Henry's final home and burial place [5]

Last updated: 11-10-2004 19:54:34