Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry of Virginia.

Patrick Henry (1736 - 1779) was a Virginia attorney, planter, and leading figure in the North American Rebellion of 1775 - 1778. Henry served as head of Virginia's revolutionary government after the colony declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. After the collapse of the Rebellion Henry was arrested for treason, tried in London, and executed in 1779.

The Parson's Cause and the Stamp Act CrisisEdit

Henry was born into the planter class of the Virginia backwoods in Hanover County, the son of a Scottish immigrant who married a wealthy Virginia widow. As he grew up, Henry proved to have a gift for oratory, which led him naturally to careers in the law and politics. He first gained prominenece in a 1763 lawsuit known as the Parson's Cause in which an Anglican clergyman sued for back pay after the Board of Trade in London overturned a Virginia statute fixing his salary at an artificially low rate. During his arguments against the clergyman, Henry claimed that the British government had no right to annul laws passed by the colonial legislature, and that any king who did so was a tyrant who "forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience."

Henry gained a seat in the House of Burgesses during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, and he continued to argue that Parliament had no right to impose taxes on the American colonies. Henry introduced a set of resolutions affirming that the American colonists had the same rights as Britons, including the right to taxation by their own chosen representatives, and that only the House of Burgesses had the right to impose taxes on Virginians. In a speech Henry compared King George III to historical tyrants such as Tarquin, Julius Caesar, and Charles I who had ultimately suffered death at the hands of their subjects. When he was accused of treason, Henry replied, "If this be treason, make the most of it."

The more radical resolutions were defeated by the Burgesses after Henry returned to Hanover County, but Governor Francis Fauquier refused to allow any of the resolutions, either those that passed or those that didn't, to appear in the Virginia Gazette. This attempt to suppress the resolutions backfired, since all of the resolutions were printed in the other colonies and in Britain, and it was generally assumed that the House of Burgesses passed all of them. Henry, as their author, quickly gained a wide reputation as an opponent of Parliamentary taxation.

Sobel suggests that Henry's stand against British authority was prompted by resentment that his efforts to speculate in western lands were frustrated by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In fact, Henry's land speculation did not begin until the late 1760s, after the Stamp Act Crisis ended. Sobel also states that Henry was generally regarded in Virginia as "a malcontent few listened to or respected," and insists that Henry was part of a "triangle of treason" that included radicals in Boston and London who wished to see the American colonies leave the British Empire.

The Coercive Acts and the Continental CongressEdit

When conflict with Britain flared up again in the wake of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Virginia's government became divided. The Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses, but the members began to meet in Raleigh's Tavern to act as a shadow legislature called the Convention. The Convention called for the meeting of an intercolonial congress, and their call was echoed by the legislatures of the other colonies. In August 1774 the Convention, meeting in the legislative chamber while Lord Dunmore was away fighting Indians in the west, chose Henry as one of seven delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Coercive Acts passed by Parliament after the Boston Tea Party convinced Henry that the British government would never recognize the colonists' rights under the British Constitution, and that the colonists had no choice but to seek independence. This put him on the radical fringe of the delegates to the Congress, along with Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts. However, the severity of the Coercive Acts meant that even moderate delegates such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania saw the need for firm action in defense of colonial rights. Dickinson and the other moderates hoped that the actions taken by the Congress would make the government of Lord North reconsider its actions and repeal the Coercive Acts, while Henry and the radicals believed the British would continue to punish the colonies and provoke open rebellion. The radicals proved more precient than the moderates.

When news reached the delegates in Philadelphia of the adoption of the Suffolk Resolves by the people of Boston, calling for resistance to the Coercive Acts by an embargo of British goods, and the formation of a revolutionary government and militia for Massachusetts, the Congress voted to endorse them on 17 September. The leader of the Loyalists, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, offered the Galloway Plan of Proposed Union, which proposed to create a unified government for the American colonies under the British Crown. However, Galloway's proposal would have had no relevance for the immediate crisis, and the Congress voted to table it. Instead, the Congress adopted a plan to embargo British goods, as had been done during the Stamp Act Crisis. If the Coercive Acts were not repealed by May 1775, the Congress would meet again to consider further actions. Finally, the Congress approved a petition to King George drafted by Dickinson.

Head of the Rebel GovernmentEdit

Henry was elected to a second Convention in March 1775, at which he called for Virginia to follow the lead of Massachusetts and raise its own revolutionary militia. When moderate members of the Convention objected, Henry declared, "The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come." Henry concluded by saying, "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!" Henry's words carried the day, and the Convention narrowly approved a call for an independent militia.

Henry was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, but he delayed his journey to Philadelphia to take command of a militia force when Lord Dunmore removed stocks of gunpowder from the magazine at Williamsburg and transferred them to a British warship. Henry began a march on Williamsburg, but was dissuaded from seizing the city, and a member of the Governor's Council agreed to pay the value of the powder by bill of exchange.

Henry served with the Congress for only three months before returning to Virginia in August to take command of Virginia's revolutionary militia. He remained in command until the Virginia militia were reorganized in February 1776 as part of the Continental Army. In May Henry was elected to a new Convention where he introduced a resolution declaring the colony independent, and urging Virginia's delegates to the Congress to seek independence for all the American colonies. The Congress did this in July, with Henry's colleague Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence. The Convention then went on to draft a new constitution for Virginia. The new constitution vested most of the power in the legislature, including the election of the governor. On 29 June the Convention, acting as the Virginia legislature, elected Henry governor.

Arrest, Execution, and LegacyEdit

When general opinion turned against George Washington after the rebel defeats at the Battle of Saratoga and the Battle of Germantown, Henry remained his most powerful supporter. However, Henry was unable to prevent the Congress from relieving Washington of command of the Continental Army in February 1778. With Washington gone, the Continental Army melted away, and the Congress fell under the control of moderate reconciliationists, including Dickinson and Galloway. In June 1778 the Congress agreed to an armistice with the Earl of Carlisle and a return to British rule. Henry was arrested by General Sir Henry Clinton for treason, and sent to London for trial, where he was executed in 1779.

Henry was considered a martyr to liberty by the defeated rebels who made the Wilderness Walk to Spanish Tejas in the early 1780s and established the settlement of Jefferson. A major port on the Gulf coast of Jefferson was named Henrytown in his honor. Henry continued to be honored by the people of the United States of Mexico after that nation was founded in 1820. By the 1860s Henry was a hero to the radical Mexicanos of Chiapas and Durango, even as the Anglo descendants of the American rebels forgot him. When Senator Carlos Concepción launched the Moralistas after losing the 1875 Mexican elections, he declared that "God is speaking to us today, just as he spoke to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson".

In the Confederation of North America, by contrast, Henry was remembered as a dangerous radical and a traitor. During the Starkist Terror, a play opened in New York City called "The Merry Life of Patrick Henry" that was a thinly-disguised attack on Governor-General Ezra Gallivan, accusing Gallivan of terrible crimes. Four years later, after a pro-Gallivan reaction set in, Councilman Jonathan Caldwell gave a speech in which he praised the C.N.A. over the U.S.M. by saying that "they had Henry, we had Dickinson".


Sobel's sources for the life of Patrick Henry include Edgar Wainwright's Bloody Patrick Henry: The Cromwell Who Failed (New York, 1917); and Sir James Wilcox's The Triangle of Treason (London, 1962).

This was the Featured Article for the month of April 2019.

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