Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was a Patriot during the American Revolution, and an anti-Federalist who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution afterwards. A radical democrat, he supported combining the executive and the legislative into a single elected body. An attorney, he prevailed in the Parsons' Cause by defending the right of the Virginia colony to fix the price of the tobacco to be paid to the clergy in violation of a contrary ruling in England. In the 1790s Henry was a leader of the Federalist Party in support of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and opposition to Thomas Jefferson.
Patrick Henry is best known today for the rousing speech that he gave on March 23, 1775 to the 2nd Virginia Convention at Richmond's St. John's Church:
- I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery ... We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated ... We have prostrated ourselves before the throne ... Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence. ...
- There is a just God who presides over the destines of nations ... who will raise up friends to fight our battle for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave ... 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.
Henry has this to say about the Bible:
...is a book worth more than all of the other books that were every printed.
Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736 on the tobacco plantation of Mount Brilliant, along the South Anna River in Hanover County, Virginia. He was the second son of Colonel John Henry, who had immigrated to the colony from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and Sarah Winston Syme Henry, originally from Studley in Hanover County, Virginia. Not a great deal is known of John Henry, though he was, in spite of his foreign birth, a respected figure among the gentry of the Virginia Piedmont; in addition to being commander of the local militia, he served periodically as surveyor, vestryman of the local Anglican parish (of which his brother, also named Patrick, was rector), and Justice of the County Court. His mother, meanwhile, was of an established upper-class family and thus gave her children connections to the colonial elite.
Growing up at Mount Brilliant, young Patrick was fairly outgoing, learning how to dance and play the fiddle at an early age; and he was said to have taken part in many casual conversations and arguments among his peers over matters of politics and business. At the same time, he received a vigorous, if informal, education in Latin and the classics from his father. Two other figures of importance in Henry's youth were his uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry, Sr., and his mother's favorite minister, Reverend Samuel Davies, a notable Presbyterian leader who would later become the president of Princeton University in New Jersey. From them he received not only moral tutelage but lessons in rhetoric and oratory, which would be a major influence on his political career.
In 1751, Henry's father apprenticed the 15-year-old as a clerk in the store of a local Scottish merchant. This lasted about a year before Patrick became a junior partner in another store set up by his older brother William, though it soon failed. In 1754, Patrick Henry married Sarah Shelton, whose dowry included six slaves and a farm of about 300 acres. The land on the estate proved to be of poor quality, however, and promises of a land inheritance to the west from his father were not immediately realized. To make matters worse, the young couple's home was destroyed by fire in 1757. In debt and with a family to support (the union had already produced multiple children), Henry for a time operated a tavern for his father-in-law, Captain John Shelton, but eventually decided to take up the law as a profession. As was often the case then, his studies were less-than-formal, consisting of only a few months' review of the colony's laws and of the legal compendiums of Sir Edward Coke and other notable lawyers of the past; nonetheless, he passed the bar exam at Williamsburg, and presented his law license at Goochland Court House on April 15, 1760.
Henry soon proved himself a capable and popular young lawyer. During his first three years in the profession, he handled 1,185 suits, winning the majority of his cases; his earnings in 1763 were about ₤200, rising to over ₤400 by 1766. Beyond financial success, Henry also gained fame during the early 1760s for his involvement in the so-called "Parsons' Cause."
"The Parsons' Cause"
Due to the scarcity of hard cash in late colonial Virginia, it was common practice for portions of tobacco crop to be used as a means of exchange, even in the payment of debts. A recent "Two-Penny Act" passed by the House of Burgesses, while continuing this practice, fixed the price of tobacco at a low rate for such transactions, which had the effect of making it easier for debtors to pay off their obligations, but also reducing the value to creditors. This caused a backlash from those trying to collect debts, especially the Anglican clergy, who had traditionally received their tithes from parishioners in the form of tobacco. Several clergymen wrote to the Board of Trade in London, asking that the statute be repealed but also that it be declared null and void from the point of its passage, meaning those who had paid their tithes at the lower rate would have new debts to pay. While the Board of Trade agreed to overturn the Act itself, it declined to make a ruling on backdating the repeal, leaving it to the Virginia court system to sort things out.
Among the clergy who brought suit in the wake of the repeal was Reverend James Maury of Hanover County, who pressed for payment of the debts owed. In 1763, Henry took over the case for the defendants, replacing John Lewis, who had bungled the proceedings up to now. The only significant matter still to be resolved was the amount of restitution to be given the plaintiff. In his arguments, Henry made a passionate appeal to the plight of the average Virginia farmer and his cash-poor condition, leaving him at the mercy of a cold world; his speech was so persuasive that the jury voted to award Reverend Maury only one penny as redress. The courthouse audience carried Henry out on their shoulders in triumph, while his father, who had presided on the bench, was said to have wept with pride at his son's victory. Henry's achievement not only marked him as a defender of the common man, it also represented one of the first de facto challenges to Crown authority in the years before the Revolutionary War.
(Henry's actions should not be represented as a sign of hostility toward the Christian Church or even toward the Christian clergy as a group, as he was a lifelong defender of both; his stance in "the Parsons' Cause" had strictly to do with what he perceived as an unfair system of debt.)
Partly on the strength of his victory in "the Parsons' Cause," Henry's visibility within Virginia society and politics rose tremendously. In 1764 he was able to purchase a plantation in Louisa County, and the following spring was elected from that county to the House of Burgesses, taking his seat on May 21, 1765.
- "The rising greatness of our country is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism, which with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of their number and indeed, that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics."
- "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past." - Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death
- “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government -- lest it come to dominate our lives and interests."
- "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."
- "Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our defense?"
- Original Intent (2004), David Barton, page 168