Patrick Henry: America's Radical Dissenter

By Thomas Jewett

Patrick Henry is widely known as a major figure at the beginning of the Revolution. His name was synonymous with radicalism and dissent by colonist and English alike. It is said that his Stamp Act Resolutions were the first shots fired in the Revolution. His radical dissent did not end with the winning of freedom though. Henry's concern for individual liberties and state sovereignty made him the chief dissenter for the Anti-Federalist during the debate concerning the Constitution.

Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736 at Studly Plantation in Hanover County Virginia. He was the second of eleven children born to John Henry and Sarah Henry. Henry's parents were well-educated and he came from scholarly roots on both sides of his family. Patrick Henry was the exception to this family's tradition. Henry, in his youth, was said to have been an idler and somewhat of a wastrel, even though his family admitted he was bright. By the age of ten his parents concluded that he was too lazy to become a farmer and attempted to steer him toward academe. Since Henry's progress at the local school was poor, his father became his tutor. Patrick's father labored for five years to teach him Latin, Greek and mathematics, with very limited success. The younger Henry would not apply himself.

Trying a new tack for his dissolute son, the older Henry set Patrick and his brother William up in a store in 1752. This business soon failed. The brothers were too liberal in giving credit to their customers and it seems that Patrick had finally acquired a taste for scholarship, especially ancient history. Unfortunately he spent his time reading instead of clerking in the store. At the age of eighteen, Patrick married Sarah Shelton. Her dowry consisted of a 600 acre tobacco farm in Hanover County named Pine Slash, a house, and six slaves. His attempts at agriculture were also a failure. Further bad luck followed in 1757 when the house and its furnishings were destroyed by fire. Henry sold the slaves and with this capital opened a store. This business was also short lived. His lack of success forced the Henry family (by this time the Henrys had two children) to move in with Sarah's father in 1760. Henry helped his father-in-law run the Hanover Tavern. The Tavern was across the street from the Hanover County courthouse and Henry would often observe the court's proceedings and became fascinated with the legal profession. He decided to become a lawyer. After reading Coke Upon Littleton and the Virginia law for six weeks Henry traveled to Williamsburg to be examined by John Randolph. After hours of questioning, Randolph admitted him to the bar on the condition that Henry continue with his legal studies.

Surprisingly, Henry was an immediate success. He rapidly acquired a considerable practice, his account books showed that in the first three years he charged fees for 1185 cases. What brought about this amazing turnabout? First, Henry did not dress or act like an aristocrat. He was often found in the town tavern entertaining the locals with his fiddle playing. This made him extremely popular and trusted by the common man. Second, while Henry may not have known the law as well as other attorneys, he was able to sway juries. His speaking style was a departure from traditional legal oratory, which emphasized rationality and allusions to classical texts. His style resembled nothing so much as an evangelical preacher, with biblical references and an appeal to passion and emotion rather than reason. This style came from his childhood. Although Henry had been baptized into the Church of England, he often attended Presbyterian services with his mother. The dramatic preaching of Samuel Davies and other ministers associated with the evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening was a basic influence on his oratory. Henry's powers as an orator were discovered by the majority of Virginians, in December, 1763, when he argued what is known as the "Parson's Cause." This was a suit brought by Rev. James Maury, of the established church of Virginia, to recover his salary, which had been fixed at 16,000 pounds of tobacco. A small crop that year had caused market prices to escalate. This induced the legislature in Williamsburg to pass an act commuting the salaries of the Anglican clergy into money at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, which was the original price. The Act had not been approved by the King, but the House of Burgesses was determined to enforce it. In his defense of the Act Henry argued that "a king, by disallowing acts of a salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerates into a tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects' obedience." He pleaded the case so well that the jury awarded Maury one penny for damages. This radical stance made Henry the idol of the common people, procured for him an enormous law practice, and led to him being elected to the Virginia Legislature in 1765.

Previously of that year England had passed the Stamp Acts which taxed the Colonies. On May 29, 1765, nine days after taking his seat, and on his twenty ninth birthday, Henry moved a series of five radical resolutions defining the rights of the Virginia Colony. He denounced the British Parliament's usurpation of powers vested in the colonial legislature, which alone had the power to tax and pronounced the Stamp Act unconstitutional. Henry was able to bring his resolution to the floor of the very conservative legislature with the help of Richard Henry Lee and by waiting until the majority of the conservative membership was away from Williamsburg (only 24% of the body was considered sufficient for a quorum). After a speech, which Thomas Jefferson described as surpassing anything he had ever heard, the five resolutions passed. It is in this speech that Henry tread the fine line of treason for the first time by stating "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George III-may profit from their example." This was the most anti-British political action to that point in the Colonies and some credit the resolutions with being one of the main catalysts of the Revolution. The Resolutions and the speech were published throughout the Colonies and so inflamed the public that enforcement of the Acts became impractical. Henry became the prominent radical leader in Virginia and famous in all the Colonies. Henry was now the focal point of Virginia's opposition to British policy. He would sit in the House of Burgesses during the tumultuous times leading up to 1775. In May, 1773, he, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Danby Carr, carried through the Virginia House a resolution establishing Committees of Correspondence between the Colonies. When Lord Dunmore dissolved the Legislature, after the closing of the Port of Boston in 1774, Henry organized a rump session of the House, which met at Raleigh's Tavern in Williamsburg. He was in the forefront at this illegal meeting in calling for a Continental Congress. It was during this session that George Mason stated the effect Henry had upon the delegates:

"He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard. Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention, and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is, in my opinion, the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues, and had he lived in Rome about the time of the first Punic War, when the Roman people had arrived at their meridian glory, and their virtues not tarnished, Mr. Henry's talents must have put him at the head of that glorious commonwealth." Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress in August, 1774. At its opening session, he put himself into a leadership position when he declared. "I am not a Virginian, but an American." He sat on several important committees (Colonial Trade and Manufactures, that for drawing up an address to the King, and that for stating the rights of the Colonies) and led the fight against the reconciliation plan with England that had been proposed by Joseph Galloway. His leadership was critical in defeating this plan, which failed by only one vote, thereby sealing the destiny of the continent.

Henry returned home in late 1774 and called a meeting to organize a militia in Hanover County of all able-bodied men over the age of eighteen. He was unanimously elected the body's Colonel. At almost the same time the English had issued, by order of Council, a ban on all gunpowder and arms distribution to Colonial militias and the seizing of all stores already in Colonial hands. The Royal Governor of Virginia dissolved the Colonial General Assembly. In defiance of his ban, representatives assembled at St. John's Church in Richmond in March, 1775. Henry, regarding war as inevitable, presented resolutions for arming the Virginia militia. The more conservative members strongly opposed them as premature, whereupon Henry supported the resolutions with in his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.

At the time Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, few people knew of the personal tragedy that he had been experiencing during the previous three critical years leading up to the Revolution. In 1772, after giving birth to her sixth child, Sarah Henry became deeply melancholic and, finally violent. Henry had her confined to a room in the basement and placed in a strait jacket to prevent her from taking her own life. She was attended to by a slave woman twenty-four hours a day. Each day Henry would open the trapdoor to the basement and went down to feed her himself. As the son of Sarah's doctor later wrote that while Henry was fomenting rebellion and arousing his native land to arms, "his soul was bowed down and bleeding under the heaviest sorrows and personal distress. Daniel M. Roberts ( contends that "those who look at the past must avoid too much speculation about how personal trauma affects political actions. But it is useful to consider how Henry's quiet struggle to comfort a wife gone mad might have given intensity to his political rhetoric. Without evidence we cannot say for sure, but hearing the word of the Liberty or Death speech, one cannot help but wonder how his thoughts of a straight jacketed wife, in a dark basement room, struggling with a sickness that would not go away, might not have influenced the manner in which he spoke of the Colonies with a stubborn and intractable England." Could Henry's situation have inspired the words "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" Sarah Henry would die later in 1775.

One month after his St. John's Church speech, on April 18, British troops moved against Lexington and Concord. Two days later Governor Dunmore of Virginia seized the gunpowder stored by the militia in Williamsburg. Henry organized 150 men from Hanover County to march on the capitol and demand the return of the military stores. Along the way, militia from other counties joined the march. As Henry's troops neared Williamsburg, they numbered several thousand. The Governor, cowed by this show of force, agreed to pay 330 pounds as compensation for the powder. Henry accepted the offer and sent his troops home. Four days later, Dunmore issued a proclamation charging that the money had been extorted and that "a certain Patrick Henry...and a number of deluded followers who had organized an independent company and put themselves in a posture of war be arrested as traitors." A few weeks later Dunmore was forced to take refuge with his family on a British warship anchored in the York River.

Although Henry had no military background, he was elected colonel of the First Virginia Regiment and commander-in-chief of the all Virginia troops. His want of experience gave rise to some jealousy on the part of other well-known officers. When the Virginia troops were taken into the Continental Army, Congress offered Colonel Henry the command of a single regiment. Henry refused to accept the commission and resigned his military appointment in February, 1776. There was thought in Congress that Henry was too radical and erratic to command troops. In April of that year, Henry was elected to represent Hanover County to the Virginia Revolutionary Convention. At the Convention he arranged for the introduction of resolutions that directed Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence, and that the Colony should at once develop a constitution with a bill of rights. Once again Henry utilized his powers as a speaker to overcome all opposition and obtained a unanimous vote for the resolutions. Henry was active in the writing of Virginia's Constitution, which served as a model for other colonies. He probably drafted the fifteenth and sixteenth articles to the Virginia Declaration of Rights that guarantees religious liberty and which became an important forerunner of the Federal Bill of Rights.

On the adoption of the constitution in June, 1776, he was elected the state's first governor, and was re-elected in 1777 and 1778. During his first tenure as chief executive Henry had to inaugurate the new government in the midst of war. This labor would put most men to a severe test but Henry showed that he possessed superb organizational abilities. He also planned and sent out the expedition under George Rogers Clark, which conquered the vast Northwest Territory. This conquest made him governor of an area larger than the rest of the country. While governor, Henry carried on a courtship and married, on October 9, 1776 Dorothea Dandridge. Miss Dandridge was twenty-two years old, the same age as his son John. Less than a month after the marriage, John, who was a captain in the Continental army, was walking across the field of battle after the victory at Saratoga. Recognizing the faces of dead friends, he snapped his sword into pieces and went "raving mad." Whether Henry was aware of it or not, it has been conjectured that the son was also in love with Dorothea and that her marriage to his father unhinged him.

The Virginia Constitution limited a governor to no more than three consecutive terms so at the end of 1779 Henry left office. He moved his family to Leatherwood, a 10,000 acre plantation that he had purchased near the Virginia-North Carolina border. The citizens of the area immediately elected him to the Virginia Legislature. While he was in the Legislature, British troops, under Benedict Arnold and Banistre Tarleton, invaded Virginia. Their attack sent the Governor, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legislature scurrying over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the relative safety of Saunton. An anecdotal story of Henry's flight remains and it also points out the high regard that the common citizens of Virginia had for the man.

It is said that as Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, Judge Tyler, and Colonel Christian were hurrying along, they saw a little hut in the forest. An old woman was chopping wood by the door. The men were hungry, and stopped to ask for food. "Who are you?" she asked. "We are members of the Legislature." said Patrick Henry; "we have just been compelled to leave Charlottesville on account of the British." "Ride on, then, ye cowardly knaves!" she said in wrath. "Here are my husband and sons just gone to Charlottesville to fight for ye, and you running away with all your might. Clear out! Ye shall have nothing here." "But," replied Mr. Henry, "we were obliged to flee. It would not do for the Legislature to be broken up by the enemy. Here is Mr. Benjamin Harrison; you don't think he would have fled had it not been necessary?' "I always thought a great deal of Mr. Harrison till now," answered the old woman, "but he'd no business to run from the enemy." And she started to shut the door in their faces. "Wait a moment, my good woman," cried Mr. Henry; "would you believe that Judge Tyler or Colonel Christian would take to flight if there were not good cause for so doing?' "No, indeed I wouldn't." replied the old woman. "But," Henry said, "Judge Tyler and Colonel Christian are here." "They are?" exclaimed the woman. "Well, I would never have thought it. I didn't suppose they would ever run from the British; but since they have, they shall have nothing to eat in my house. You may ride along." Things were getting desperate. Then Judge Tyler stepped forward: "What would you say, my good woman, if I were to tell you that Patrick Henry fled with the rest of us?" "Patrick Henry!" she answered angrily, "I should tell you there wasn't a word of truth in it! Patrick Henry would never do such a cowardly thing." "But this is Patrick Henry," said Judge Tyler. The old woman was astonished; but she stammered and pulled at her apron string, and said: "Well, if that's Patrick Henry, it must be all right. Come in, and ye shall have the best I have in the house."

In response to the British raid a Virginian legislator called for an investigation of Jefferson's conduct and handling of the situation. Henry knew that Governor Jefferson had acted properly and that he would be exonerated of any wrong doing. Jefferson however, regarded the call for an investigation as a personal insult and blamed Henry for not stopping it. This caused the friendship between the two revolutionary leaders to sour. With Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown in October of 1781, the independence of the colonies was secured after six years of warfare. After the war Henry's influence in the legislature was sporadic because of his habit of leaving sessions to take care of his law practice and family matters. While in attendance, though, he was still a force. He astonished colleagues by advocating amnesty for the Loyalist and the reopening of ports once again to immigration and commerce. He fought to expand government support for teachers and championed the Virginia State Act for Religious Freedom, which stipulated the separation of church and state. He was also in the forefront in convincing the Federal Government to force Great Britain to perform her treaty obligations by surrendering the forts in the Northwest, thereby securing Clark's victories.

Henry was elected once again to the office of Governor in 1784 and 1785. He chose not to serve a third term for personal reasons. His family was growing and he moved to a new plantation, Pleasant Grove, in Prince Edward County. He wished to expand his law practice in this new area and secure his financial picture which had suffered during his public service. This is one of the reasons he declined to serve at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The public reason he gave for not attending was, as he so eloquently put it, "I smell a rat!" In March of 1788, Henry was elected a delegate to the Virginia Convention which was to consider ratification of the Constitution. He stood in direct opposition to ratification, because he felt that the document created too strong a central government which would inevitably usurp the powers of the states. Henry contended, to adopt the new Constitution was akin to a new revolution.

Revolutions like this have happened in almost every country in Europe: similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome: instances of the people losing their liberty by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few. We are cautioned...against faction and turbulence: I acknowledge that licentiousness is dangerous, and that it ought to be provided against: I acknowledge also the new form of Government may effectually prevent it: Yet, there is another thing it will as effectually do" it will oppress and ruin the people...I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people or by the tyranny of rulers? I imagine, Sir, you will find the balance on the side of tyranny.

When it became clear that the Constitution would be ratified, Henry advocated the adoption of amendments to the document before its ratification by Virginia. He and other anti-Federalist offered twelve amendments to protect personal liberties. Of these, ten were ratified and became the Bill of Rights. Their adoption quieted, to a great measure, his apprehensions as to the Constitution, and he supported Washington's administration, though he did not fully approve of all its measures. In 1788, Henry was elected for the last time to the Legislature at the age of fifty-two. He will serve one term and retire, to once again attempt to get his financial house in order. He will be elected Governor several times in the following years, but refuse to serve. In 1794, he was appointed a United States Senator. Washington offered him the position of Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. During Adam's presidency he was nominated to be Minister to France. Ill health, financial cares, and a large family caused him to decline all of the offices.

The "Great Dissenter" did come out of retirement for one last fight in 1799. Washington convinced him to run for the Virginia Legislature to lead the fight over the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These Resolutions had been secretly written by Jefferson and Madison as a response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Both Washington and Henry believed that the Resolutions posed a great danger to the Union. Henry did not approve of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but felt that other means should be utilized to deal with them.

Henry was elected, but died on June 6, 1799 before he could take his seat. Thus passed, America's radical dissenter. A man called the Demosthenes of his age, fighting to the end. More About Patrick Henry

— Tom Jewett is presently an Assistant Professor at McKendree College. He retired from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and holds the title of Professor Emeritus from that institution.