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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]

Image result for Patrick Henry Red Hill

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“If This Be Treason, Make the Most of It!”

In the midst of the uproar over the Stamp Act, Patrick Henry, newly elected to the House of Burgesses, decided to offer up seven resolutions to the Stamp Act.

After a heated debate within the House, all seven of Henry’s resolutions were passed by the Congress on May 30, 1765. It didn’t take long for all of these resolutions to also appear in the colonial newspapers.

By the time the vote had moved to the House, the resolutions were already considered official. Back at the House of Burgesses, however, only a mere 39 of the 115 members were actually present. “The older, more conservative members opposed Henry’s resolutions on the grounds that the action taken the previous year by the House of Burgesses sufficiently responded to the Stamp Act, especially in light of the fact that Parliament had yet to answer those earlier resolutions” (Source). But younger members, such as Henry, argued that immediate action was necessary, given that the taxes would be required within months.

By the end of the 30th, five out of the seven amendments had been passed – by very narrow margins. During the debates over the 5th, Henry stood up to speak out in support of his fifth resolution:

“Caesar had his Brutus — Charles the first, his Cromwell — and George the third — ” (“Treason,” cried the Speaker — “treason, treason,” echoed from every part of the House. — It was one of those trying moments which is decisive of character. — Henry faltered not an instant; but rising to a loftier attitude, and fixing on the Speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis) “may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it” (Source).

Unfortunately, there is not actually any record of this speech. In 1817, when William Wirt was attempting to write an account of the famous speech, he had to rely on accounts from Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, and Paul Carrington.

Many problems arise with this though. For example, Carrington was not actually a witness. He’d yet to take his seat. Jefferson and Tyler were both outside the chamber of the House of Burgesses. They claimed to “remember the cry of treason, the pause of Mr. Henry at the time of George III, and the presence of mind with which he closed the sentence and baffled the charge vociferated” (Source).

Despite none of these men having actually witnessed the speech, they were also all men of “untainted reputation;” they had no reason to lie about Patrick Henry, nor anything to gain from such lies. (Source). So, we do not have a real account of what was said. What we do know, though, is that after Henry retook his seat, another vote was taken. Five of the seven resolutions passed.

Until the following day, when the Congress reconsidered their options and decided to throw out the fifth, after all. Only four of his resolutions had passed. But these four resolutions spread quickly, and were even adapted by other colonies.

[Below: Patrick Henry addressing the Virginia Congress]

Up Next:

The Boston Massacre

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