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Patrick Henry

orator, Governor of Virginia

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, 1736. He attended public school for only a short time, but was taught by his father, who had a good education. He studied law and was licensed to practice in 1760. Three years later, his talent as an orator won him fame in Virginia in a noted lawsuit called the Parson's Cause.

Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1764, Henry soon became a leader in that body, where he frequently lashed out at English tyranny. His speech against the Stamp Act in 1765 is considered one of his greatest orations. In it, according to tradition, he made the following statement: "Caesar had his Brutus -- Charles the First, his Cromwell -- and George the Third -- may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it." This and other speeches got him elected to the First Continental Congress in August 1774; he was also a member of the Second Continental Congress for a short time in 1775. His most well-known quote -- "Give me liberty or give me death!" -- was spoken in 1775 before the Virginia Provincial Convention, where Henry was urging that the Virginia militia be armed for defense of the colony against England. He was named commander in chief of Virginia's military forces in 1775, but resigned that post in February 1776 without seeing any military action.

A member of the committee that drew up the first constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776, Henry was elected Governor of the Commonwealth upon approval of that document. During the Revolutionary War Henry successfully recruited the state's quota of about 6,000 men for the Continental Army, plus the state militia of almost 5,000 men. Virginia was one of the few states to supply its soldiers with clothing and shoes, and even sent cattle to feed the men at Valley Forge. Henry encouraged mining lead to provide ammunition, and imported and manufactured gunpowder for the war effort. He also set up shipyards and dockyards to protect the Virginia coast and arranged for loans. During his second term he provided supplies for the George Rogers Clark expedition, which conquered the Northwest Territory. Henry's hard work as Governor was definitely appreciated by Virginia, as he was elected to that office a total of five times -- 1776, 1777, 1778, 1784, and 1785.

In 1788, Henry served in the Virginia state convention which was called to ratify the United States Constitution. He opposed ratification because he believed that the Constitution endangered the rights of individuals and states, but accepted it after the Bill of Rights was adopted.

Public service left Henry badly in debt, and in 1788 he returned to his law practice. His fame and skills as an orator gained him many clients, and he soon became a successful criminal attorney. His law fees helped him to buy land, and in 1794 he retired to Red Hill, an estate near Appomattox, Virginia. During the next five years, Henry refused many requests to return to public life, including a seat in the U.S. Senate, posts as Minister to Spain and France, a place in George Washington's Cabinet as Secretary of State, and the position of Chief Justice of the United States. In 1796, he was elected Governor of Virginia for the sixth time, but he refused to take office.

George Washington persuaded Henry to become a candidate for representative in the Virginia State Legislature. Henry made his last great speech during that campaign -- a denial of a state's right to decide the constitutionality of federal laws. He won the election, but died before he could take office, on June 6, 1799. He is buried at his Red Hill estate.


Patrick Henry National Memorial

See Also

Stamp Act
Valley Forge
George Rogers Clark
George Washington

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Revolution to Civil War >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 22, 2018.