Lesser-Known Facts About Patrick Henry

Portrait of Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry, oil on canvas, 1891, U.S. Senate Collection

 

Immortalized by his famous remark, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry inspired many to support the cause of American independence. This acclaimed orator was also a member of the Continental Congress and a five-time Governor of Virginia. These 10 lesser-known facts will help you to gain deeper insights into one of America’s most revered Founding Fathers.

His Success Story

Born in 1736, Henry was a poor student whose parents worried about his future. His father helped him and his brother, William, set up a business, which later went bankrupt. Henry then tried his hand at farming tobacco, but found himself to be unsuccessful in that endeavor. After their farmhouse burned down, Henry and his first wife, Sarah Shelton, moved in with her parents. While managing his father-in-law’s tavern, which was across the street from the Hanover County Courthouse, Henry decided to become a lawyer. He passed the bar exam after studying for just six weeks and began a successful legal and political career in 1760.

In the Court of Law

Henry’s first big legal case became known as the Parson’s Cause. The people of Virginia passed a law called the Two Penny Act that set Anglican ministers salaries at two cents per pound of tobacco. This was in response to a three-year drought that lowered tobacco crop yields. James Maury, a local Hanover County parson, objected to the law because the market rate was four to six cents a pound. He sued for damages and appealed to the King of England, who vetoed the law. Henry was the lawyer for Hanover County in the lawsuit regarding the damages. He effectively argued in favor of the law and compared the king to a tyrant for vetoing laws passed by a local legislature. He convinced the jury to award the parson only one penny in damages. In the end, the king’s veto was openly ignored. As a result of this case, Henry earned a reputation for being a powerful and persuasive orator. The 1763 case is seen as one of the pivotal events leading to the American Revolution.

Virgnia House of Burgeses
Patrick Henry presenting his Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech

 

Sticking to His Beliefs

Henry vehemently opposed the Stamp Act of 1765. That same year, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Nine days after assuming his seat, he introduced the Virginia Stamp Acts Resolutions, which claimed that according to British law American colonists could only be taxed by a parliamentary body in which they had elected representatives. This was another example of the famed concept “no taxation without representation”. During his speech introducing the legislation, Henry used language that prompted other burgesses to accuse him of treason. In reply, he responded with one of his most famous quotes: “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

The Desire for Freedom

When the British closed the port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party, the Virginia House of Burgesses declared June 1, 1774 would be a day of fasting and prayer in support for the people of Boston. Throughout the colonies, Committees of Correspondence had been created several years prior to coordinate efforts concerning the British. These committees led to the gathering of the First Continental Congress in September 1774. Patrick Henry was an elected representative to this congress for the colony of Virginia. His best-known speech would be given on March 23, 1775, to the Virginia House of Burgesses on the decision to mobilize local militias against the approaching British forces. It is here he voiced the famed phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Demands Met With Resistance

In April 1775, Governor Dunmore removed the gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine. Henry organized the local militia and demanded that the governor return the gunpowder after hearing word of the Battles at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. The governor sent the colonists a bill for the value of the powder and declared Henry an outlaw for disturbing the peace in the event that became known as the Gunpowder Incident.

patrick-henry-speech-liberty
An 1876 Currier & Ives print depicting Patrick Henry giving his famous Liberty or Death speech.

 



A Radical in Words and Action

During the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Henry prepared the American colonies’ final petition to King George III, but it was considered too radical. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania prepared another more conservative petition, “The Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” explaining why the 13 colonies were engaging in armed rebellion.

An Influential Man
Patrick Henry helped to compose both the Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as her Constitution. These documents influenced fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson as he took up the daunting task of drafting the Declaration of Independence. Elected commander-in-chief of Virginia’s militia in 1775, Henry resigned the military command a year later to become the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia. He served three one-year terms in this position.

Political Persuasion

A staunch supporter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Henry was an anti-federalist who opposed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. He initially did not support this document, believing that it gave too much power to the central government. His well-reasoned arguments were instrumental in the ultimate inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

A Family Legacy

Henry married Sarah Shelton in 1754. The Henry’s moved to their Scotchtown plantation in 1771 along with their 6 children. Sarah fell ill, becoming violent to herself and others and possessed a rapidly deteriorating mental state. Instead of placing Sarah in an institution, Henry took care of her in a basement apartment at Scotchtown until her death in 1775. Two years after Sarah’s death in 1775, he married 22-year old Dorothea Dandridge, a cousin of Martha Washington; they had 11 children together. Three months prior to taking his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, Henry died of stomach cancer in 1799 at his Virginia home, Red Hill Plantation.