Patrick Henry

An American Revolutionary Patriot

Portrait of Patrick Henry on front of curtain.
Stock Montage / Getty Images

Patrick Henry was more than just a lawyer, patriot, and orator; he was one of the great leaders of the American Revolutionary War who is best known for the quote “Give me liberty or give me death”, yet this leader never held a national political office. Although Henry was a radical leader in opposition to the British, he refused to accept the new U.S. government and is considered instrumental for the passage of the Bill of Rights.

Early Years

Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia on May 29, 1736, to John and Sarah Winston Henry. Patrick was born on a plantation which had belonged to his mother’s family for a long time. His father was a Scottish immigrant who attended King's College at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and whom also educated Patrick at home. Patrick was the second oldest of nine children. When Patrick was fifteen, he managed a store his father owned, but this business soon failed.

As were many of this era, Patrick grew up in a religious setting with an uncle who was an Anglican minister and his mother would take him to Presbyterian services.

In 1754, Henry married Sarah Shelton and they had six children before her death in 1775. Sarah had a dowry which was a 600-acre tobacco farm which also included a house with six slaves. Henry was unsuccessful as a farmer and in 1757 the house was destroyed by a fire.

After selling the slaves, Henry was also unsuccessful as a storekeeper.

Henry studied law on his own, as was customary at that time in colonial America. In 1760, he passed his attorney’s examination in Williamsburg, Virginia before a group of the most influential and famous Virginia lawyers including Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, John and Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe.

Legal and Political Career

In 1763, Henry’s reputation as not only a lawyer but also who was able to captivate an audience with his oratory skills was secured with the famous case known as “Parson’s Cause.” Colonial Virginia had passed a law regarding payment for ministers which resulted in decreasing their income. The ministers complained which caused King George III to overturn it. A minister won a lawsuit against the colony for back pay and it was up to a jury to determine the amount of damages. Henry convinced the jury to only award a single farthing (one penny) by arguing that a king would veto such a law was nothing more than “a tyrant who forfeits the allegiance of his subjects.”​

Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765 where he became one the earliest argue against the Crown’s oppressive colonial policies. Henry gained fame during the debate over the Stamp Act of 1765 which negatively impacted mercantile trade in the North American colonies by requiring almost every paper used by colonists were to be printed on stamped paper that was produced in London and contained an embossed revenue stamp. Henry argued that on Virginia should have the right to levy any taxes on its’ own citizens.

Although some believed that Henry’s comments were treasonous, once his arguments were published in other colonies, the displeasure with British rule began to flourish.

American Revolutionary War

Henry used his words and rhetoric in a way that made him a driving force behind the revolt against Britain. Although Henry was very well educated, he was to discuss his political philosophies into words that the common man could easily grasp and make as their own ideology as well.

His oratory skills helped to have him selected in 1774 to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia where he not only served as a delegate but is where he met Samuel Adams. At the Continental Congress, Henry united the colonists stating that "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more.

I am not a Virginian, but an American."

In March 1775 at the Virginia Convention, Henry made the argument for taking military action against Britain with what is commonly referred to as his most famous speech proclaiming that "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!"

Shortly after this speech, the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, with the “shot heard around the world” at Lexington and Concord. Although Henry was immediately named as commander in chief of Virginia's forces, he quickly resigned this post preferring to stay in Virginia where he aided in drafting the state's constitution and becoming its’ first governor in 1776.

As governor, Henry aided George Washington by supplying troops and much-needed provisions. Although Henry would resign after serving three terms as governor, he would serve two more terms in that position in the mid-1780s. In 1787, Henry chose not to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia which resulted in the drafting of a new Constitution.

As an Anti-Federalist, Henry opposed the new Constitution arguing that this document would not only promote a corrupt government but that the three branches would compete with each other for more power leading to a tyrannical federal government. Henry also objected to the Constitution because it did not contain any freedoms or rights for individuals.

At the time, these were commonplace in state constitutions which were based on the Virginia model that Henry helped to write and which explicitly listed the individual rights of citizens that were protected. This was in direct opposition to the British model which did not contain any written protections.

Henry argued against Virginia ratifying the Constitution as he believed that it did not protect states' rights. However, in an 89-to-79 vote, Virginia lawmakers ratified the Constitution.

The Final Years

In 1790 Henry chose to be a lawyer over public service, turning down appointments to the United States Supreme Court, Secretary of State and U.S. Attorney General. Instead, Henry enjoyed that he had a successful and thriving legal practice as well as spending with his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge, who he had married in 1777. Henry also had seventeen children who were born between his two wives.

In 1799, fellow Virginian George Washington persuaded Henry to run for a seat in the Virginia legislature. Although Henry won the election, he died on June 6, 1799, at his “Red Hill” estate prior to ever taking office. Henry is commonly referred to as one of the great revolutionary leaders who lead to the formation of the United States.