1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Henry, Patrick
HENRY, PATRICK (1736–1799), American statesman and orator, was born at Studley, Hanover county, Virginia, on the 29th of May 1736. He was the son of John Henry, a well-educated Scotsman, among whose relatives was the historian William Robertson, and who served in Virginia as county surveyor, colonel and judge of a county court. His mother was one of a family named Winston, of Welsh descent, noted for conversational and musical talent. At the age of ten Patrick was making slow progress in the study of reading, writing and arithmetic at a small country school, when his father became his tutor and taught him Latin, Greek and mathematics for five years, but with limited success. His school days being then terminated, he was employed as a store-clerk for one year. Within the seven years next following he failed twice as a storekeeper and once as a farmer; but in the meantime acquired a taste for reading, of history especially, and read and re-read the history of Greece and Rome, of England, and of her American colonies. Then, poor but not discouraged, he resolved to be a lawyer, and after reading Coke upon Littleton and the Virginia laws for a few weeks only, he strongly impressed one of his examiners, and was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-four, on condition that he spend more time in study before beginning to practise. He rapidly acquired a considerable practice, his fee books shewing that for the first three years he charged fees in 1185 cases. Then in 1763 was delivered his speech in “The Parson’s Cause”—a suit brought by a clergyman, Rev. James Maury, in the Hanover County Court, to secure restitution for money considered by him to be due on account of his salary (16,000 pounds of tobacco by law) having been paid in money calculated at a rate less than the current market price of tobacco. This speech, which, according to reports, was extremely radical and denied the right of the king to disallow acts of the colonial legislature, made Henry the idol of the common people of Virginia and procured for him an enormous practice. In 1765 he was elected a member of the Virginia legislature, where he became in the same year the author of the “Virginia Resolutions,” which were no less than a declaration of resistance to the Stamp Act and an assertion of the right of the colonies to legislate for themselves independently of the control of the British parliament, and gave a most powerful impetus to the movement resulting in the War of Independence. In a speech urging their adoption appear the often-quoted words: “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third [here he was interrupted by cries of “Treason”] and George the Third may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.” Until 1775 he continued to sit in the House of Burgesses, as a leader during all that eventful period. He was prominent as a radical in all measures in opposition to the British government, and was a member of the first Virginia committee of correspondence. In 1774 and 1775 he was a delegate to the Continental Congress and served on three of its most important committees: that on colonial trade and manufactures, that for drawing up an address to the king, and that for stating the rights of the colonies. In 1775, in the second revolutionary convention of Virginia, Henry, regarding war as inevitable, presented resolutions for arming the Virginia militia. The more conservative members strongly opposed them as premature, whereupon Henry supported them in a speech familiar to the American school-boy for several generations following, closing with the words, “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!” The resolutions were passed and their author was made chairman of the committee for which they provided. The chief command of the newly organized army was also given to him, but previously, at the head of a body of militia, he had demanded satisfaction for powder removed from the public store by order of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, with the result that £330 was paid in compensation. But his military appointment required obedience to the Committee of Public Safety, and this body, largely dominated by Edmund Pendleton, so restrained him from active service that he resigned on the 28th of February 1776. In the Virginia convention of 1776 he favoured the postponement of a declaration of independence, until a firm union of the colonies and the friendship of France and Spain had been secured. In the same convention he served on the committee which drafted the first constitution for Virginia, and was elected governor of the State—to which office he was re-elected in 1777 and 1778, thus serving as long as the new constitution allowed any man to serve continuously. As governor he gave Washington able support and sent out the expedition under George Rogers Clark (q.v.) into the Illinois country. In 1778 he was chosen a delegate to Congress, but declined to serve. From 1780 to 1784 and from 1787 to 1790 he was again a member of his State legislature; and from 1784 to 1786 was again governor. Until 1786 he was a leading advocate of a stronger central government but when chosen a delegate to the Philadelphia constitutional convention of 1787, he had become cold in the cause and declined to serve. Moreover, in the state convention called to decide whether Virginia should ratify the Federal Constitution he led the opposition, contending that the proposed Constitution, because of its centralizing character, was dangerous to the liberties of the country. This change of attitude is thought to have been due chiefly to his suspicion of the North aroused by John Jay’s proposal to surrender to Spain for twenty-five or thirty years the navigation of the Mississippi. From 1794 until his death he declined in succession the following offices: United States senator (1794), secretary of state in Washington’s cabinet (1795), chief justice of the United States Supreme Court (1795), governor of Virginia (1796), to which office he had been elected by the Assembly, and envoy to France (1799). In 1799, however, he consented to serve again in his State legislature, where he wished to combat the Virginia Resolutions; he never took his seat, since he died, on his Red Hill estate in Charlotte county, Virginia, on the 6th of June of that year. Henry was twice married, first to Sarah Skelton, and second to Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, a grand-daughter of Governor Alexander Spotswocd.
See Moses Coit Tyler, Patrick Henry (Boston, 1887; new ed., 1899), and William Wirt Henry (Patrick Henry’s grandson), Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (New York, 1890–1891); these supersede the very unsatisfactory biography by William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1817). See also George Morgan, The True Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1907). (N. D. M.)