Patrick Henry (1736-1799), American orator and statesman, and a leading patriot of the American Revolution. Henry was one of the most eloquent advocates of individual freedom and states’ rights in the early years of United States history. His famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” have become a part of the American heritage.
Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia, and was raised on a tobacco plantation. He attended a local school for only a short time and was tutored by his father, John Henry, a surveyor and county justice. As a young man, Henry entered the world of commerce, but he proved to be a poor businessman: He failed as a storekeeper and as a farmer within the space of seven years. Henry married Sarah Shelton in 1756 and turned his attention to the study of law. He received his license to practice law in 1760 and soon acquired a large country clientele. By 1770 Henry was specializing in appeals before the Virginia General Court. His skill in criminal cases was perhaps unsurpassed by any other American lawyer of the period.
Henry won prominence in 1763 in a case known as Parsons' Cause (1763). This famous suit involved a law that permitted parishes in Virginia to pay the Anglican clergy in currency, rather than in tobacco, the commodity mandated by the British government. The British king, George III, vetoed the legislation, which was passed after the price of tobacco rose because of a crop failure. Henry used the case to defend the rights of Virginians against the actions of the king. Henry held that government was a contract between the king and his subjects and that George III had broken the contract by attempting to deprive Virginians of their natural rights. Therefore, Henry asserted, George III had forfeited his claim to the colonists’ obedience. The Parsons’ Cause case bolstered Henry’s reputation as a champion of colonial liberties.
In 1765 Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. The same year, the British Parliament infuriated the colonies by passing the Stamp Act, a form of direct taxation. Henry led the fight against the act in the House of Burgesses and presented seven resolutions condemning it. The resolutions asserted that only the colonial legislatures could levy taxes on the colonies. In support of his resolutions, Henry warned, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third … may profit by their example.” In answer to cries of treason from conservative members, Henry replied, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” The resolutions started a chain reaction that deeply affected opinion in other colonies.
Henry soon became a leading political figure in Virginia. In 1773, together with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, he persuaded the House of Burgesses to appoint a committee of correspondence for Virginia. Committees were established in other colonies to exchange news, mobilize public opinion, and coordinate actions against Great Britain. Henry was a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, where he urged vigorous collective measures by the colonists. At the Virginia Convention in Richmond in 1775, he successfully sponsored measures for armed resistance to the British. His speech in support of the resolutions concluded with the now historic words, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
In 1775, while Henry was preparing to attend the Second Continental Congress, news of the battles at Lexington and Concord reached Virginia. Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor, ordered the colony’s supply of gunpowder and ammunition seized. Henry collected the militia, marched on Williamsburg, and forced the governor to return the supplies. He then proceeded to Philadelphia, where he took his seat in the new congress.
Henry had been appointed a colonel in command of the first regiment of Virginia, but after some friction with other commanders he resigned his commission in 1776. In the same year he was elected governor of Virginia for the first of three consecutive one-year terms. After the death of his first wife, Henry married Dorothea Dandridge and returned to his beloved plantation life. But Henry did not remain on the plantation for long: He returned to public service as a state legislator, a position he held from 1780 to 1784, and was reelected governor from 1784 to 1786. While he was governor, Henry helped draft the Virginia constitution, and he dispatched George Rogers Clark on a successful military expedition to the northwest.
When his fifth one-year term as governor expired, Henry was elected a member of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. However, Henry opposed the formation of a stronger central government, and he declined to attend the convention in 1787 and 1788. In 1788, as a delegate to the Virginia convention called to ratify the new federal Constitution, Henry was the leading opponent of ratification. Henry opposed the document on the ground that it threatened the rights of states and individuals. Despite Henry’s opposition, the Constitution was ratified. Henry was an influential supporter of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and he became reconciled to the federal government after these amendments were adopted.
After serving again in the Virginia legislature, from 1787 to 1790, Henry left public life and settled down to a prosperous law practice. Because of declining health and family responsibilities, Henry refused several high posts in the federal government, including appointments as secretary of state and chief justice of the United States. In 1799, however, at the urging of President George Washington, Henry ran for a seat in the Virginia legislature. Henry campaigned vigorously as a Federalist—the political faction that supported a strong federal government—and in doing so alienated most of his former supporters. Henry was motivated by his opposition to the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which gave states the authority to determine the constitutionality of federal laws. He won the election after delivering an eloquent plea for national unity. He died on June 6, 1799, at Red Hill, his plantation home, before he could take his seat in the legislature.