Patrick Henry Childhood

Family Background and Education

Patrick Henry's formative years were deeply influenced by his family's emphasis on education and spiritual values. Born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia, Patrick was the second of nine children. His father, John Henry, a Scotsman educated at King's College in Aberdeen, and his mother, Sarah Winston Syme Henry, a woman from a prominent family, shaped his early learning environment. This family constellation offered Patrick a unique blend of rigorous intellectual grounding and exposure to varying perspectives.

John Henry, with his academic background, played a pivotal role in Patrick's education, providing him with a solid foundation in the classics. Meanwhile, Patrick's mother introduced him to the spirited religious sermons of Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister known for his dynamic oratory. Such experiences significantly contributed to shaping Patrick's eloquent public speaking later in life.

In addition to the intellectual influence within his home, Patrick was tutored by his uncle, Reverend Patrick Henry, the rector of St. Paul's Parish in Hanover. This familial mentorship embedded deep Anglican beliefs in him, which remained even as he later transitioned to Episcopalianism post-American Revolution.1 Reverend Henry contributed to Patrick's religious education and cultivated a critical thinking approach that was evident throughout Patrick's legal and political career.

Patrick Henry as a young boy studying with his family

Early Failures and Struggles

Despite his foundational education and supportive family environment, Patrick Henry's early ventures into the professional world were marked by significant setbacks. Initially, he tried his hand at storekeeping and farming—common trades of the period, which promised independence and potential prosperity. However, Patrick faced one failure after another in these pursuits, experiences that ultimately forged his resilient character and redirected his path toward law and politics.

His first venture into storekeeping, begun with youthful enthusiasm, ended in financial losses. The intricacies of managing inventory, credit, and customer relations proved overwhelming for the inexperienced young entrepreneur. A similar lack of success met his efforts in farming. At Pine Slash, the 600-acre farm received as a dowry upon marrying Sarah Shelton, Patrick attempted to establish himself as a planter.2 Despite his earnest efforts, crop failures and poor farm management led to insolvency. The pressure mounted as his responsibilities grew with a young family.

These sequential failures in business were transformative for Patrick Henry. His misfortunes in storekeeping and farming were critical in shaping his determination to find a sustainable career path. The hard-earned insights from these failures led him to recognize his unique strengths and arguably prepared him for his future legal career. It was in the law where Patrick's analytical mind and eloquent speech, nurtured during his education, found their true calling.

Determined more than ever, Patrick took an unconventional route to the legal profession—teaching himself the nuanced stipulations of the law. Within a mere six weeks, he had prepared enough to pass the examination required for admission to the bar in 1760,3 beginning a law career that would soon intersect with the burgeoning conflict between America and Great Britain. Here, his eloquent advocacy and vigorous defense of colonial rights underscored his transition from a thwarted businessman to a leading voice in revolutionary politics.

Patrick Henry as a young man, looking pensive after his business failures

Influence of the Great Awakening

The wave of evangelical fervor brought about by the Great Awakening had a profound effect on Patrick Henry and would play a pivotal role in shaping his public persona and rhetorical style. The Great Awakening, which swept through the American colonies primarily during the 1730s and 1740s, was characterized by a series of religious revivals that emphasized:

  • Passionate preaching
  • Emotional religious experiences
  • A personal sense of conviction and redemption

Within this charged atmosphere, Henry was regularly exposed to the powerful and emotive sermons of Samuel Davies, one of the most influential preachers of the time. Davies' ability to connect with his congregation through a compelling message centered on individual salvation and deliverance had a lasting impact on young Patrick. This exposure ingrained deep spiritual convictions and introduced him to a highly persuasive style of oration characterized by vivid imagery, emotional appeal, and an urgent call to action.

This influence is most apparent when examining Henry's most famous speeches where he exhibited similar traits. Much like the evangelical preachers of the Great Awakening, Henry mastered the art of drawing significant emotional responses from his audience, using his skills to emphasize the urgency and moral imperative of the cause of liberty. His speeches were passionate pleas meant to mobilize and inspire his listeners.

Patrick's engagement with these revivalist sermons sharpened his ability to use his voice as a dynamic tool for persuasion. He learned to modulate his tone, alter his pitch, and pause for effect to draw his audience deeper into his rhetorical embrace. Just as revivalist preachers sought to convert their listeners with sermons that stirred the soul, Henry sought to convince his audience of the justness of his cause with speeches that stirred patriotic fervor.

Through these influences, the Great Awakening equipped Patrick Henry with a robust toolkit for public speaking that extended far beyond traditional political rhetoric, blending spiritual revivalist techniques with secular concerns. This melding of styles helped him articulate the colonists' growing discontent with British rule, framing it as a political struggle and a deeply moral venture. By aligning the colonial cause with divine will, Henry's orations helped to catalyze the American Revolution and secure his place as one of its foremost orators. The religious revival of the Great Awakening directly fed into the political awakening of the colonies, as embodied by its fervent champion, Patrick Henry.

A passionate preacher during the Great Awakening delivering a fiery sermon
  1. Mayer H. The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England; 1981.
  2. Kukla J. Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 2017.
  3. Beeman R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 1974.