Today in history, on May 29, 1736, Patrick Henry was born. Known as “Hot Head” and “The Voice of the Revolution,” Henry was a renowned Virginian whose talents as a lawyer and politician were matchless. Henry had an uncanny penchant for fiery oratory, and used the skill to persuade Virginians to adopt the patriot cause.
During the Stamp Act Crisis, he proposed a set of resolutions that would effectively undermine the controversial policy’s legitimacy and nullify enforcement of the act within the state. While Henry produced a valid argument that the Stamp Act was contrary to the constitutional boundaries of the British system, some considered his resolutions seditious.
When accused of treason, Patrick Henry stated: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…may he profit by their example.”
As tensions between the American colonies and the crown came to a boiling point, Henry was pivotal in the colony’s transition to republicanism. After a schism emerged between Henry and Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, after the latter dissolved the colony’s legislature. Playing a leading role in the Virginia Conventions of 1774-1776, Henry worked to undermine royal authority by organizing boycotts of British goods, preparing companies of militia to begin mustering in preparation for potential conflict, and challenging the Tory doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty – which declared that British Parliament could bind the colonies “in all ways whatsoever.”
As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Henry emerged as a radical voice that vied with conservatives like Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson – both of which sought a peaceful reconciliation with Britain. Henry’s deeds were also instrumental in convincing the Old Dominion to adopt a course of independence and commit its militia to the cause. The culmination of this decision came after an infamous speech in St. John’s Church on March 20, 1775.
There, the ardent Henry implored the delegates to engage Britain directly. “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery,” he warned:
“Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come…It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!”
By all accounts, the event was a watershed moment for Virginia. Several men that would rise to great prominence in the young republic were in attendance, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and St. George Tucker. Regardless of their political allegiances, all were profoundly captivated.
According to Edmund Randolph, the convention sat in silent consideration of Henry’s words for several minutes. Much of the Virginia General Assembly was stunned by the provocative nature of Henry’s comments, and Henry was even accused of treason by some. Despite these objections, the resolutions Henry offered passed by the narrowest of margins, with popular figures such as George Washington and Richard Henry Lee voting in favor. On the dawn of independence, Virginia joined the military cause against the British.
By 1776, after Lord Dunmore had been ejected from the colony for fear of his life, the Virginia Convention dissolved all political ties with Great Britain. The impassioned Henry generally aligned with George Mason, the primary author of the the Commonwealth’s new Declaration of Rights and republican constitution. In June of 1776, Henry was elected the state’s first republican governor by the Virginia House of Delegates.
Henry was undoubtedly the strongest political force of his time in Virginia, and one of the most famous figures of the era. He found such success in opposing the political aims of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the 1780s that the former once remarked the only political hope was to pray for Henry’s death. While not everyone agreed with all of Henry’s political views, they certainly realized his influence and popularity.
Henry was also known for his strong opposition to the United States Constitution. When called as a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, Henry’s response was to decline, believing he “smelled a rat.” Convinced that a subset of delegates would attempt to impose a nationalistic government and usurp the powers of Virginia, Henry prognosticated that the convention would “oppress and ruin the people.” He also attacked the destructive potential of a direct taxation power, congressional control over state militia, and the creation of an executive office. Along with George Mason, he was a strong proponent of a bill of rights, considering its inclusion as a necessity should the Constitution be considered.
Despite his antagonism to the new framework, Henry served as one of Virginia’s electors in the Electoral College, and accordingly casted his votes in favor of George Washington and John Adams in the first United States presidential election. Even after the First Congress proposed a bill of rights, Henry remained disturbed. According to biographer Norine Campbell, he chagrined that the original amendments recognized personal liberties only, and did little to curtail the general government. Nonetheless, ten of the original 12 amendments were ratified by the states.
Another trepidation for Henry was Alexander Hamilton’s pet Assumption Act of 1790, which proposed that the general government should assume the debts of the states in an effort to consolidate and maintain a national debt. Before he left Virginia’s House of Delegates, Henry introduced a resolution that lambasted the plan. Assuming the state debts, the resolution held, was “repugnant to the constitution of the United States, as it goes to the exercise of a power not granted to the general government.”
After retiring to his homestead in 1790, Henry fell into great debt and severed some of his previous political ties. By the mid-1790s, he reconciled with Washington. Wishing him to be a part of his administration, the president offered Henry Jefferson’s recently vacated position of Secretary of State, the prospect of being minister to Spain, and even a position on the Supreme Court. He declined all these offers, but began aligning his political interests with those of the Federalists. Henry zealously supported John Adams in the 1796 presidential election over his own arch-rival in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson.
In the midst of the Sedition Act Crisis of 1798, Henry sided with the Federalists in denying the power of the states to decide, as the creators of the Constitution, whether federal laws were unconstitutional and worthy of state-oriented resistance. According to one witness account, Henry lambasted Virginia’s response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and declared the deed filled him “with apprehension and alarm.” By such an endeavor, he declared his state had “quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution,” and called Congress “a wise body” for passing the controversial acts.
Henry intended to make a brief return to politics in 1799 after being elected again to the House of Delegates, but never attended a single session and died on June 6.
While he did not particularly like Patrick Henry, Jefferson later wrote in reflection of his oratory: “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry. He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”