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Patrick Henry

To go with the latest American History post, we have a Patrick Henry biography.

Patrick Henry was born on Mary 29, 1736 in Hanover Country, Virginia on a plantation belonging to his mother’s family. His father was a Scottish immigrant. He was the 2nd oldest of nine children. Growing up, he played the fiddle and the flute. Most of his early schooling was done by his father and his uncle, the latter of whom also taught him about the great oratory Henry was later known for. But he taught himself law. “In 1760, he appeared in Williamsburg to take his attorney’s examination before Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, John and Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe” (Source). Patrick Henry’s fate was officially intertwined with American and Virginian history.

Henry spent the next five years practicing as a lawyer, and a powerful one at that. A well-known case took place in 1763, the Parson’s Case. Here, Henry argued against a minister who sued for back pay when King George III had changed the payment law. The man had won his case, but Henry called him greedy and had managed to persuade the jury to only grant him a penny, the lowest award possible

Image result for Patrick HenryBy 1765, Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses. There, as we learned earlier, he was “an early voice of dissent against Britain’s colonial policies,” speaking out against the Stamp Act in his “If This Be Treason . . .” speech (Source).

Then, in 1774, he was selected to serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Here, he had Sam Adams fueled the fires of American rebellion.

Henry sounded the call to arms, saying, “Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? … 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!” Furthermore, he urged all Virginians to arm themselves in self-defense.

Once the Revolution was good and underway, Henry was made the commander-in-chief of Virginia’s forces. He only served for six months. In 1776, having decided to focus on statesmanship instead, Henry helped write Virginia’s constitution. He was also elected as the state’s first ever governor.

Image result for Patrick Henry birthplaceWorried that a strong federal government would only lead to more tyranny, only this time from their own government, Henry refused an appointment to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. He did not support the original draft of the Constitution; not until the Bill of Rights was added, that is. He feared that it would take away state’s rights.

In 1790, Henry left public office in favor of returning to law. Despite being offered numerous government positions – such as Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General, or Secretary of State, he turned them all down. At this point he life, Henry much preferred the company of his wife and children.

So, he spent out the rest of his life at his estate, Red Hill in Charlotte Country, Virginia. By 1799, thanks to President Washington, Henry had accepted a seat in the Virginia Legislature. However, he would never serve. He died on June 6, 1799, at home. He may never have been president, but he is still remembered as one of the greatest revolutionary leaders.

[Below: Red Hill]

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John Adams


John Adams was born in 1735 in Massachusetts Bay Colony at Braintree. His birthplace – the oldest presidential house – still stands today. As a child, John wasn’t particularly interested in school, at least, not nearly as interested as he was in hunting. His childhood dream? To be a farmer.

Despite this, Adams was educated at Harvard in law. Actually, he was thought of as a very thoughtful man. He mastered his chosen field of law, as well as the classics, and was considered quite the philosophical politician. He made a name for himself during the trials for the Boston Massacre, where he was assigned to defend a British officer. Adams believed that the man was being unfairly accused and, thanks to a rousing speech in the man’s defense, he was acquitted.

[Below: Adams Nation Historic Park]

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Though never in favor of mobs, he did support the Boston Tea Party as “the grandest event which has ever yet happened since the controversy with the British opened” (24). Adams was a great supporter of the colonist’s struggle for freedom, and is today considered one of it’s greatest patriots. During both the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses, he was one of the most vocal and most vigorous supporters of declaring American freedom. In fact, it was Adams and Benjamin Franklin that approached Thomas Jefferson concerning the writing of the Declaration of Independence. And, there again, it was a rousing speech given by Adams that spurred the men of the Continental Congress to finally agree to declare their freedom, no matter what the consequences.

During the Revolutionary War, however, Adams was not a major participant, making him the first president who never served his country in the military. Though, that is not to say, of course, that Adams did not serve his country in his own capacity. During the war, he was busy in Europe on diplomatic assignments. He served in Holland and France, negotiating the Treaty of Peace of 1783. While there, he sent regular progress reports home to Congress. These unfortunately, included bits and pieces of his diary, which were, even more unfortunately, laughed at. Then, during the opening years after the new country, Adams served as the first American ambassador to the Court of St. James.

John Adams, 1788 by Mather BrownHe returned from London just in time to serve as America’s 1st Vice President, though he was very unhappy in this position because President Washington did not value his input nearly as much as those of his cabinet – especially the likes of Alexander Hamilton. Even then, he served for both of Washington’s terms, and spent those years attempting to come up with a proper term for the president; something more pompous sounding than ‘Mr. President.’ Unfortunately for him, no one was very receptive to his ideas. So, Mr. President it remained.

With Washington’s announcement of his resignation after two terms in office, the very first two-party election was held. The results put Adams in office as the second President, with Jefferson serving as his VP. However, he had Jefferson, despite years of friendship, started out at odds when Adams chose to keep Washington’s cabinet in tact, despite Jefferson’s pleas for Hamilton’s removal.

Adams did more than keep Washington’s cabinet in tact, he also tried to refrain from being a party leader; he chose to leave the party organization to Hamilton, for despite his being more moderate in politics than Hamilton, they were in agreement when it came to “volatile masses” – both believed that these could lead to terrible outcomes, like the French Reign of Terror (26).

Where the two did disagree was in who should run the government. Adams, much more closely aligned to Jefferson on this matter, feared the country being run by the wealthy classes. This, he believed, was as bad for the country as the mob mentality. As his term carried on, those in the Hamilton camp believed that Adams was much too conciliatory towards Jefferson.

With the French and British war going on (something that Washington had tried in vain to avoid), Adam’s “stubborn moderation was badly needed” (26). As it was, the war was causing America great problems on the high seas. And no one was quite in agreement on which side we should support. To deal with this, Adams called a special session of Congress, suggesting that they deal with the problem by arming their merchant ships, speedily building up their own navy, and recruiting a larger army. Instead, Congress “whittled the recommendations to authorization of three frigates, the calling out of 80,000 militiamen if needed, and the arming of only those merchantmen in the East Indies or Mediterranean trade” (28).

Unfortunately, France wanted no part in negotiations with America, unless Adams paid a heavy bribe. Thus broke out the Jefferson-termed “X, Y, Z fever.” Adams never did officially declare war, but hostilities did break out at sea, raising taxes considerably. By 1800, U.S. warships were in operation. The most famous of these warships was the Constitution, the highest ranking commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, is today on display at the Boston Navy Yard.

Adams saw many victories during the period, though formal war was never announced. Over time, Adams began to have “second thoughts about the wisdom of a war and returned to his customary moderation” (29). France felt the same way, and lengthy negotiations followed. But, throughout all this, the administration did pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, hoping to “frighten foreign agents out of the country,” (28). They were hoping to accomplish a second goal of stifling attacks from Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party. However, all this accomplished was making Jefferson’s party into martyrs and shooting them into fame and glory.

As a result, by the time the 1800 election rolled around, the Federalist party under Adams and Hamilton was badly divided, leaving room for Jefferson to garner the needed votes for the presidency. Adams would serve only one term. Just before the elections, though, Adams would move into the newly finished, but-not-quite-fully-furnished White House. Of course, his days in office were already numbered.

After Jefferson was sworn in, Adams retired to his farm in Quincy. The house there, nicknamed the Old House, has become a national landmark. During his retirement, he and Jefferson would mend whatever had come between them during the Adams administration. The two would spend the rest of their days writing elaborate letters back and forth.

On July 4, 1826, John Adams died at age 90. His last words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

[Below: The Old House]

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Mini-Series: John Adams

Freidel, Frank. “John Adams: Second President (1797-1801).” Our Country’s Presidents. New York: National Geographic Society, 1981, pp. 24-29.

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George Washington

After much discussion, we decided that the next feature we should add is mini biographies about presidents, generals, and other important historical figures. And who better to start off with than our first President!?

George Washington was born in 1732 in Wakefield, Virginia. “His birthplace at Wakefield is commemorated with a reconstructed brick mansion on the original plantation site in Westmoreland County. It is now a national monument” (12).

In school, Washington schooled in manners, morals, as well as the proper texts of the day. His interests? Military arts and western expansion. Appropriate for the man who would lead the revolution. Before joining the military, though, he spent his youth surveying land (no other president would hold this job until Hoover).

[Below: Washington’s birthplace. It has been reconstructed and is now a national monument.]

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In 1754, at 22, Washington was commissioned into the army as a lieutenant colonel, where he would fight in the first skirmishes of the French and Indian War, losing some 300 men. The following year, he would face the British. He was surrounded, but managed to walk away uninjured, despite having two horses shot out from under him and having four bullets go through his coat.

From 1759 until the outbreak of the Revolution, Washington spent most of his time away from military life, choosing, instead, to work the lands around his beloved Mount Vernon and spend time with his wife, Martha, and stepchildren. In between these activities, he spent time fox hunting and entertaining.

Being both a planter and a military man, put Washington amongst the dissatisfied with British ruling. He was increasingly more worried about what would happen to his country, as Britain was taking away more and more liberty from the colonies.

Image result for george washington in military uniformThen, in 1775, he was appointed to the Second Continental Congress. The Congress was after choosing a southern leader to unite all the colonies in this struggle against England. Washington, imposing in his blue military uniform, seemed the perfect choice for the job. And, of course, he was.

Only July 3, 1775 (almost exactly one year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence), Washington took full command of the army. It was his job to pull together the ragtag-looking army. However, as it becoming increasingly clear that England was not willing to budge one iota, Washington became convinced that the war would be not for less taxation and better representation, but for independence itself.

But, even with the signing of the Declaration, Washington still faced numerous obstacles, mostly from Congress (go figure). They refused to believe that he was a capable leader, so refused him even the most basic of necessities, such as supplies and men.

Despite the rank he know holds, Washington may not have been considered the greatest general ever to be seen by the American army. However, he was still a capable commander, and knew how to use his army to the best of their ability. Knowing that the British were far more experienced than his men, Washington discovered that it was far safer to rely on harassment of the enemy, rather than all-out battle – of course, we know they still saw plenty of that. Washington was known to let his men fall back during battles, only to have his men form a surprise attack later. This seemed to work well. Perhaps, one of Washington’s greatest assets as commander of the army was his organizational skills. It would be these skills that would get his men through the darkest of days, such as the winter of 1777-1778.

As the war came to a close, instead of accepting the role of king offered him, Washington preferred retirement and Mount Vernon, with his wife and, now, grandchildren. But then, back at Mount Vernon, Washington realized that the Confederation Government was not functioning well at all. They newly founded government didn’t yet have the authority and respect it needed from other countries to stand strong at sea, against merchants of other countries, or even “marauding Indians” (17). Worse yet, riots were breaking out over heavy taxation, and in Massachusetts, some farmers even began to take up arms.

Washington seemed to have no choice but to surrender. As a result, in the summer of 1787, he helped form the Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia. Washington took little part in their debates. But, as was predicted, once the Convention began to operate smoothly, and finally voted on their first president, Washington was elected. Washington wasn’t thrilled about their decision. Nevertheless, he agreed.

Image result for george washingtonAnd, on April 30, 1789, Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States, standing on the balcony of the Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York.

It was a grave man who gave the first Presidential address before Congress. But, he had every reason to be grave. The fledgling country of America was week in more than one area; the treasury and military being just a few of those areas.

Thus, the job fell to our first President. He, however, was insistent on abiding by the Congress. He was convinced that the law-making job fell to Congress and that he should leave well enough alone. He even appeared before the Senate with a list of inquiries, believing whole-heartedly in the Constitutional dictate that he should seek their advice and counsel. When they refused to give him instant answers, however, he never made that mistake again. Instead, he wrote out treaties to the best of his judgment, sending them to the Senate to ratify or reject. Despite his disappointment with the Senate’s ability to offer up suggestions, he found that the members of his cabinet were much more reliable – if not rather bent on disagreeing with one another. Even given their constant bickering, Washington usually sided with the majority. That being said, no one ever doubted that Washington was President and that the authority rested with him. 

Wanting a strong central government – to make sure the “executive authority was independent from total legislative control,” Washington appointed his own heads for Treasury, State, War, and Justice (Source). Congress only had the authority to accept or reject these appointments. He appointed Alexander Hamilton to Treasury, Thomas Jefferson to State, Henry Knox to War, and Edmund Randolph to Justice, while John Adams served as Vice President. These men created the very first Presidential cabinet. 

And the method worked. Until the bickering between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson grew so great that a separate party emerged: the Democratic-Republican party.

After serving two terms as President, Washington had grown weary of politics and was ready to retire to Mount Vernon, for good this time. So, in 1796, he settled down to write his Farewell Address, leaving a precedent of Presidential Warnings. He told the country to unite in heart, spirit, and mind.

Despite his call for unity, the 1796 election would be the first two-party election: John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson. While this has long since been normal protocol, at the time “Washington and many others perceived organized opposition to the government as treasonous” (Source). (People of today should take note of this.)

Back at Mount Vernon, Washington barely enjoy three years of real retirement. On December 14, 1799, he died of throat infection. In his will, he mandated that all his slaves should be set free.

The first President was dead and the nation would spend months mourning his passing.

[Below: Mount Vernon]

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Mini-Series: George Washington (84) & The Forging of a Nation (86)

Freidel, Frank. “George Washington: First President (1789-1797).” Our Country’s Presidents. New York: National Geographic Society, 1981, pp. 12-23.

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