Patrick Henry Biography

Early Life and Education

Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, at Studley, his family's farm in Hanover County, Virginia. His father, John Henry, was a planter, surveyor, and justice of the Hanover County Court. His mother, Sarah Winston Syme Henry, came from a prominent Virginia family. As the second of nine children, Patrick received his early education from his father, who taught him classical knowledge. Beyond this, his formal schooling was limited.

At eighteen, Henry married Sarah Shelton in 1754, whose dowry included a 600-acre farm and six enslaved individuals.1 He initially struggled with farming and storekeeping. Facing these setbacks, Henry turned his attention to law. Self-taught using borrowed texts, he blended persuasive eloquence and legal principles. Despite his limited formal training, he passed a rigorous examination by notable Virginia attorneys and began his legal career.

A young Patrick Henry studying law books

Legal and Political Career

In 1763, the Parson's Cause trial showcased Henry's legal prowess and thrust him into the spotlight of colonial dissent against British overreach. The case revolved around the Two Penny Acts, which were passed to mitigate clergy salaries during a tobacco price increase. When King George III invalidated these acts, Henry argued that this nullification stemmed from tyrannical motives, stoking the fires of autonomy among his fellow Virginians.

Henry's political career began in 1765 when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Coinciding with his entry was the introduction of the Stamp Act, a direct tax imposed by Britain on the colonies. Henry introduced resolutions denying Parliament's authority to levy taxes without local consent.2 His opposition was so vehement that he suggested potential regicide if British edicts continued to be enforced, leading to cries of "Treason!" within the House.

Henry's most strategic move during this period was introducing resolutions claiming that colonists should only be subject to taxes levied by their own assemblies. Although only five of his seven resolutions passed, they were all widely disseminated by the press, bolstering colonial resolve against imperial statutes.

Patrick Henry arguing passionately during the Parson's Cause trial

Revolutionary Leadership

Patrick Henry's contributions to the American Revolution peaked with his unwavering leadership and groundbreaking speeches that evoked the spirit of independence. His most famous speech, delivered on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, included the iconic phrase, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" This rousing appeal advocated for armed resistance and marked a pivotal moment in colonial sentiment.

As tensions escalated into conflict, Henry transitioned into leadership in the Virginia militia. Though questioned for his military experience, his appointment reflected the trust in his leadership qualities and persuasive power. Henry's advocacy for strong, locally-driven responses to British aggression demonstrated his strategic foresight in enhancing communal resilience and resolve.

In 1776, Henry became the first governor of Virginia during the revolution.3 His governorship was marked by decisive policymaking aimed at strengthening Virginia's military presence and resources. Through adept coordination and pursuit of resources, he successfully navigated the complexities of wartime politics. Henry's administrative acumen involved fostering relationships with influential figures like George Washington, which were instrumental in solidifying Virginia's war efforts.

Patrick Henry delivering his famous Give me Liberty, or Give me Death speech

Views on Federalism and Legacy

Patrick Henry's skepticism about centralized authority led him to become a prominent Anti-Federalist. He chose not to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, claiming he "smelt a rat." This remark underscored his unease about the potential overreach of a powerful federal system, which he feared might overshadow states' rights and individual liberties.

Henry's opposition crystallized when the newly drafted Constitution was presented for ratification. He argued that the absence of a clear series of rights safeguarding individual freedoms was a glaring concern. During the Virginia Convention debates of 1788, he criticized the Constitution for its potential tyrannical overtones masked within a consolidated national government.

Henry's opposition proved instrumental in the subsequent drafting and adoption of the Bill of Rights.4 Although he disapproved of the initial Constitution, his criticisms helped pave the way for these essential safeguards that fortified the principles of freedom and governance by consent.

Returning to state politics, Henry remained a vigilant sentinel for freedoms, often clashing with policies that appeared to encroach on state sovereignties or individual rights. This phase of his political engagement accentuated his unwavering commitment to foundational liberties and gathered support for principle-driven state governance during the early years of the Republic.

Patrick Henry's legacy endures as a reminder and benchmark for political discourse, urging vigilance over liberty in the realm of governmental actions and structures. His contributions remain deeply influential in shaping America's judicial and civil landscapes.

Patrick Henry passionately arguing against the Constitution as an Anti-Federalist
  1. Mayer H. The Life of Patrick Henry. New York, NY: Schocken Books; 1969.
  2. Tyler ML. Patrick Henry. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company; 1887.
  3. Kukla J. Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2017.
  4. Beeman R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company; 1974.