1902 Encyclopedia > Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry
American politician
(1736-99)




PATRICK HENRY (1736-1799), an American statesman and orator, was born at Studley, Hanover county, Virginia, May 29, 1736, the second son in a family of nine children. His father, John Henry, an emigrant from Aberdeen, Scotland, was a nephew of Robertson the historian, and had risen to some eminence in the county, filling the offices of surveyor and presiding magistrate. Patrick Henry was educated at a little school near his home ; and, after the age of ten, by his father, who had opened a grammar school at his residence. In early life he showed no marked proficiency in his studies, except perhaps in mathematics, but was noted chiefly for a love of outdoor sports. At fifteen he became clerk in a country store; and at sixteen ha entered into partnership as storekeeper with his elder brother, but the business was unsuccessful, and a second attempt at storekeeping ended likewise in failure. Meanwhile the indifference to learning which marked his boyhood was replaced by a love of history, especially that of Greece and Rome; and his habitual indolence was overcome by his admiration for Livy, whose history he thenceforth read through once every year. At twenty-four, by his admission to the bar, Henry entered on the career that eventually brought him fame and fortune, although his income for some years was in keeping with his lack of previous preparation. At twenty-seven he won his first triumph, as counsel for the collector of the county, in what became known as " the parson's cause." His unexpected display of eloquence on the side of the people procured him an extravagant recognition and the title of " the orator of nature." Business poured in upon him, his popularity concealing his deficiencies; and his success was assured. In 1765 he was elected to the House of Burgesses, where he distinguished himself as the author of certain resolutions against the Stamp Act, the last of which,—providing that "the General Assembly of this colony have the sole right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony,"—though passed by a majority of only one, was the keynote of the struggle for independ* ence. In 1769 he was admitted to practice in the general court, where he attained eminence in criminal cases before juries. In 1773 he was a member of the "committee of correspondence for the dissemination of intelligence between the colonies." In the following year he was chosen delegate to the Virginia convention, which was the first public assembly to recommend an annual " General Congress," and to the " Old Continental Congress "; but his success there as an orator failed to conceal his defects as a practical statesman. In 1775, in the Virginia convention, he delivered a remarkable speech in moving that the "colony be immediately put in a state of defence," and at the head of a body of militia he forced the royal officials to pay £330 for powder clandestinely removed by order of Governor Dunmore. He was appointed by the convention colonel of the first regiment and commander of all the forces to be raised in Virginia, but a misunderstanding with the " committee of safety " led to his resignation. He was a member of the second Continental Congress of 1775, and of the Virginia convention of 1776, which had been elected " to take care of the republic," the royal governor having fled. They framed a new constitution, and elected Henry the first republican governor, on the first ballot. He was re-elected in 1777 and 1778. In 1780 he became a member of the legislature, where he continued until he was again elected governor in 1784. In 1786 he withdrew through the pressure of debt, having " never been in easy circumstances." In 1787 he was chosen a delegate to the "Federal Constitutional Convention,'' but did not attend. He had resumed his practice to better his fortunes. In 1788 he was a delegate to the Virginia convention for ratifying the Federal Constitution, which he vehemently opposed as dangerous to the liberties of the country. In 1791 he declined re-election to the legislature, continuing, " through necessity rather than choice, " the practice of the law, but usually in great and remunerative cases only. Finally, in 1794, having not only paid his debts but secured affluence, he withdrew to private life. In 1795 he declined the position of secretary of state in Washington's cabinet, in 1796 the nomination for governor of Virginia, and in 1797 the mission to France, offered by President Adams. In 1799, however, he suffered himself to be elected to the State legislature, where he wished to oppose what he deemed the dangerous doctrine of the Virginia resolutions of 1798 ; but he did not take his seat, his death occurring on the 6th June. Henry's manners were plain, his temper cheerful, and his habits temperate. His eloquence, of which some fragmentary specimens have become household words among his countrymen, was vivid and startling. Almost entirely a gift of nature, it was equal to every occasion, and, with the aid of a clear voice and perfect articulation, it was of marvellous power in bringing his hearers to a quick decision.






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