In October 1754, at the age of eighteen, Henry married Sarah Shelton, a sixteen-year-old from Rural Plains, not far from Studley. He received as her dowry a 600-acre farm called Pine Slash and six slaves. Henry was remarkably candid about the contradiction that his role as a slaveholder posed for his religious and political ideals. “Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase,” he wrote in 1773. “I will not, I cannot justify it … It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.”
Early Legal Career
After unsuccessful ventures as a storeowner and planter, Henry taught himself the law and found his calling. He won admission to the bar in April 1760 and began a successful practice in the county courts. His political career took wing on December 1, l763, with his success in the lawsuit at the heart of the Parsons’ Cause controversy.
At issue in the Parsons’ Cause were the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758, temporary statutes that had stabilized the salaries of Virginia’s public officials in years when crop failure had driven up the price of tobacco, the colony’s main form of taxation and payment. The laws outraged many Virginia clergymen, including Henry’s uncle. In 1759 the Privy Council disallowed both Two Penny Acts, but the clergymen were not awarded the difference between the salary imposed by the acts and the salary calculated at the market price of tobacco. As a result, several Virginia ministers brought suit against their parish vestries for full compensation of their salaries.
The Reverend James Maury of Louisa County sued his vestry at Hanover Court House and, in November 1763 (in a decision made by Henry’s father John Henry), he won—the first victory in any suit brought in the Parsons’ Cause. Patrick Henry joined the defense in December, when a jury was summoned to decide the settlement, which Maury hoped would total nearly £300. Invoking John Locke’s principles and arguments developed in pamphlets by the burgesses Richard Bland and Landon Carter, Henry challenged the British claim to authority over Virginia’s laws. By disallowing the Two Penny Act, Henry declared, the king had violated the “compact between King and people,” thereby “degenerated into a Tyrant,” and forfeited “all right to his subjects’ obedience.” The jury accepted Henry’s arguments and awarded Maury only one penny in damages.
The American Revolution
Henry’s Louisa County neighbors—who were also Maury’s parishioners—elected the young attorney to the House of Burgesses at the next opportunity. He was sworn into office in Williamsburg on May 20, 1765. Later that month, news arrived in Williamsburg that Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, an act that would tax the colonists by requiring them to purchase stamps for virtually every piece of paper circulated in the colonies: legal documents, licenses, newspapers and pamphlets, and playing cards, among other things. News of the Stamp Act elevated Henry’s legal arguments from the Parsons’ Cause case into a challenge to British authority that eventually pushed the oldest, largest, and most populous North American colony toward revolution and independence.
Virginia’s leaders were united in their opposition to the Stamp Act, but not in their strategy on how to oppose it. At the end of the legislative session, Henry introduced five of seven resolutions attacking Parliament’s claim of authority to tax America and threatening resistance. He suggested that George III risked Julius Caesar’s fate if he disregarded American liberty—a statement some burgesses viewed as treasonous.
The House passed only four of Henry’s resolutions (an initial approval of the fifth was rescinded and expunged from the journal), but newspapers throughout the colonies printed all seven, each more radical than the previous one. The resolutions established Virginia’s reputation as an uncompromising opponent of British imperial policy and helped define the basic constitutional arguments of the American Revolution. As historian Thad W. Tate has concluded, had Henry done nothing else, “the passage of his Stamp Act Resolves was enough to establish his place among the leaders of the American Revolution.”
Henry continued to serve in the House of Burgesses throughout the 1760s and early in the 1770s, where he cemented his reputation as a powerful orator. In 1773, Henry helped establish committees of correspondence that would open the lines of communication among the governments of the North American colonies.
In September 1774 Henry and six other Virginia delegates traveled to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where John Adams felt “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared … sensible of the Precipice or rather the Pinnacle on which We stood, and had candor and courage enough to acknowledge it.” Henry felt the colonies were set on a path to war, and thrilled like-minded delegates by declaring, “Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
During this time Henry was also organizing a volunteer militia and caring for his ailing wife. Sarah Henry had become depressed and violent after the birth of their sixth and last child in 1771. Around the same time the family moved to Scotchtown, an estate in Hanover County. Rather than institutionalize his wife, Henry made a room for her in the basement of Scotchtown, where she was cared for by an enslaved servant and sometimes restrained. She died there early in 1775. Henry remarried in October 1777 and sold Scotchtown a year later. He and his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge Henry, had eleven children together.
The delegates who attended the Virginia Convention of March 1775 in Richmond were torn between hopes for peace, the impending war, and the puzzle of how best to protect their province. On March 23, at Saint John’s Church in Richmond, Henry introduced a plan of military preparedness in a speech that famously ended, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Soon thereafter Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dispatched a company of marines to seize the colony’s munitions from the public magazine in Williamsburg—just days after British soldiers had marched toward Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on a similar mission. The raid aroused anger among Virginians. More cautious men urged patience, but Henry, never one to delay action, led his Hanover militia company toward Williamsburg to demand compensation for the stolen powder. In response, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation on May 6, 1775, denouncing “a certain Patrick Henry … and a number of deluded followers, [who] have taken up arms … and put themselves in a posture of war.” Furthermore, he directed “all persons, upon their allegiance, not to aid, abet, or give countenance to the said Patrick Henry.”
Dunmore’s proclamation only strengthened Henry’s reputation as a revolutionary. When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, Henry was there. Asked to prepare the colonies’ final petition to the king, he carefully reflected his colleagues’ instructions in a draft that was deemed too radical. Fellow Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee attempted a second draft, but in the end Congress would only go as far as the gentle rhetoric of Pennsylvania’s conservative John Dickinson.
While Henry was in Philadelphia, the Virginia convention had created two provincial regiments and elected him colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment and commander of the overall militia. Henry did much to recruit and organize troops, but in December 1775 his political rivals dispatched William Woodford and the 2nd Virginia Regiment to challenge Lord Dunmore and his army near Norfolk in the Battle of Great Bridge. Passed over for active command, Henry resigned his commission when Virginia’s regiments were brought into the Continental Line that spring. Many of the soldiers he had recruited threatened to leave in protest until Henry persuaded them to put the American cause first and accept their new officers.
Bivouacked with the 1st Regiment at Williamsburg at this time, Henry was ideally situated to persuade Virginians that the January 1776 destruction of Norfolk was proof of George III’s malevolence (in reality, the Virginia militia was equally responsible) and of the necessity for independence—an argument made in a series of newspaper essays published in the Virginia Gazette early in 1776 under the pseudonym “An American.” For this reason, and because of their distinctive oratorical style, some historians believe that Henry authored the essays.
During the Virginia Convention of 1776, Henry helped write Virginia’s new constitution, its Declaration of Rights (an antecedent for the federal Bill of Rights), and a resolution to Congress proposing independence. On June 29, 1776, after a plan of state government had been adopted, the convention chose Henry as the first governor of the commonwealth. Henry’s early challenges as governor were largely military: he worked closely with George Washington to raise and equip forces for the Revolutionary War, and in 1778 sent George Rogers Clark and his troops to hold the Ohio country against the British and their Indian allies. Reelected twice for one-year terms, as limited by law, he served as governor until June 1779, and was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson.
Establishing a State and National Government
Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779, and emerged as one of the most influential members of the assembly. During this time, however, Virginia politicians began to split into two distinct factions, Anti-Federalist and Federalist, and Henry often found himself in conflict with James Madison, the leader of the latter faction. Henry and Madison clashed over the separation of church and state. Though he was committed to religious freedom, Henry opposed a complete separation; Madison advocated complete, unregulated freedom of thought. When Henry, who had been reelected to a fourth term as governor in 1784, introduced his plan for a tax to support Christian teachers—a plan that was met with ambivalence and debate among the assembly—Madison seized the opportunity to rally support for the Jefferson-penned Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Henry was denied a direct voice in the legislature when he was reelected to a fifth term as governor in November 1785, and in 1786 the bill passed, severing the connection between church and state in Virginia.
The main issue over which Henry and Madison differed, however, was the role the federal government should play in the new nation. As late as 1785 Henry pushed to strengthen the Articles of Confederation. “Sketch out some Plan for giving greater Powers to the fœderal Government,” he suggested to Madison, and he would “support it on the Floor … a bold Example set by Virginia would have Influence on the other States.” But as Madison and other Federalists pushed for a more centralized national government, Henry grew wary. In August 1786, John Jay’s negotiations for a commercial treaty with Spain aroused suspicions that the Federalist agenda might advance northern mercantile interests and surrender navigation of the Mississippi River at the expense of agricultural Virginia and the southern states.
Henry was elected to but declined to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where the Articles of Confederation would be revised. When Washington sent him a copy of the Constitution and invited him to support the document, Henry expressed serious reservations: “I have to lament that I cannot bring my mind to accord with the proposed Constitution,” he wrote. Later, challenged at public debate as to “why he had not taken a seat in the Convention and lent his aid in making a good Constitution, instead of staying at home and abusing the work of his patriotic compeers,” Henry replied, “I smelt a rat.”
The delegates elected to decide the fate of the Constitution at the Virginia Convention of 1788 were closely divided over its merits. Henry and George Mason led the Anti-Federalists in debate, marshaling a wide array of arguments against the plan, all rooted in the conviction that the existing document created a government too powerful, too centralized, and too distant from its citizens. “What right had they to say, We, the people?” Henry demanded. “Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states? … If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government.”
The plan drawn at Philadelphia, Henry contended, created “a consolidated government” that would destroy the states in “a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain.” America’s “rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the states will be relinquished,” he warned. “The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost.”
Henry was especially wary of the powers granted to the new executive. “If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands, and … where is the existing force to punish him? Can he not, at the head of his army, beat down every opposition? … What will then become of you and your rights? Will not absolute despotism ensue?”
By welcoming proposed amendments after ratification, however, Henry’s opponents at the Virginia Convention won over enough moderate Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution 89 to 79. As David Meade Randolph recorded, some of Henry’s allies, irate about the narrow defeat, met to discuss “a plan of resistance to the operation of the Federal Government” and invited Henry “to take the chair.” Henry reminded his friends that he had already “done his duty strenuously … in the proper place” where “[t]he question had been fully discussed and settled.” Now, Henry concluded, “as true and faithful republicans, they had all better go home!”
Outmaneuvered in the convention, Henry exerted his influence on behalf of Virginia’s interests and American liberties as the new government came into being. Henry’s majority in the House blocked Madison’s aspirations for a seat in the United States Senate; he also forced Madison to promise a federal bill of rights in order to win a close election to the House of Representatives.
An ailing Henry retired from active politics in 1791, and many of his old supporters joined the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Jefferson and Madison. In December 1791 Virginia finally ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which by then were largely regarded as toothless paper guarantees. Though subsequent events, especially the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, have elevated the Bill of Rights’ importance and effectiveness, Henry and many others shared George Mason’s view that one amendment limiting the new government’s powers of taxation would have been worth the ten that were passed.
In 1793 Henry worked with John Marshall to defend a Virginia physician in a suit by a British merchant house to recover prewar debts. The case turned on complexities of international law arising from the American Revolution, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and the new Constitution. As with the Parsons’ Cause, Henry’s arguments transformed a private legal dispute into a public controversy that implicated the plaintiff, this time British creditors, in the oppressive conduct of the British government. And, again, though the plaintiff won, Henry and Marshall did much to mitigate the judgment against their clients. The Parsons’ Cause had launched Henry’s career; the British debts case confirmed his reputation and could have been a stepping-stone to national office, such as a seat on the Supreme Court, had Henry accepted those overtures from President Washington.
Washington finally convinced Henry to return to politics in 1799, after the controversial Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions had been passed. Written in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which gave the president authority to deport or imprison immigrants, and restricted speech against the government, these resolutions championed state intervention against unconstitutional acts of the federal government and hinted at secession. Henry stood again for election to the House of Delegates in the spring of 1799. He delivered his last public speech, a call for national union, at Charlotte Court House on election day. “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government,” he declared, but “wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot be otherwise be redressed.” Otherwise, like failed republics of the past, “you may bid adieu forever to representative government,” for “you can never exchange the present government but for a monarchy.” Henry won the election easily, but died at Red Hill, his plantation in Charlotte County, on June 6, 1799, months before the assembly convened. He was sixty-three years old.
Henry left a small envelope, sealed with wax, with his last will and testament. Inside was a single sheet of paper on which were copied his 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act. On the back, he left a message to posterity. It began with a brief comment about his resolutions against the Stamp Act. They “spread throughout America with astonishing Quickness,” he wrote, and “brought on the War which finally separated the two Countrys and gave Independence to ours.”
Whether America’s independence “will prove a Blessing or a Curse,” Henry continued, “will depend upon 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 … Reader! whoever thou art,” Henry concluded, “practice Virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.”
With a public career that spanned three tumultuous decades, Henry ranks high among the major figures of the American Revolution, yet he held no national office except his seat in the Continental Congress. His influence gave the American Revolution a more populist character than it might otherwise have had. His steadfast support for local and state governments became a building block of Virginia political culture; his distrust of centralized political authority remains both a persistent element in political and legal culture in America and throughout the world. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, in 1989, for example, invoked Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech on their banners. “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry,” Jefferson told Daniel Webster in 1824. “He was far before all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”