Introduction to Patrick Henry

Henry, Patrick (1736–1799), a United States orator and statesman. He was one of the first American patriots to speak out against taxation by Britain. His resolutions opposing the Stamp Act, presented before the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765 and published throughout the colonies, touched off a decade of resistance that led to the Revolutionary War.

Henry became a leader of the radical group demanding self-government for the colonies. In 1775, when war seemed likely, he proposed arming the Virginia militia in a speech ending with the famous words “I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Early Career

Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia. He was educated by his father, John Henry, a planter and county magistrate. After unsuccessful attempts at storekeeping and farming, Patrick studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1760 at the age of 24. His practice grew quickly, and in 1763 he won fame in a lawsuit known as the Parsons' Cause. The case was concerned with the repeal of Virginia legislation (on clergymen's salaries) by the king. Henry denounced the encroachment of the crown in a stirring speech that made him the idol of Virginia.

In the Patriot Cause

Henry became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765. In 1773, with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee. he helped form a Virginia Committee of Correspondence, which exchanged information with similar committees that were resisting British domination. Henry was a member of the Continental Congress, 1774–76, and of the Virginia Convention, where he delivered his “liberty or death” speech. He served briefly as the first commander of the state's militia and helped draft Virginia's constitution.

Henry was elected the first governor of the state, serving 1776–79, and proved to be an effective wartime governor. He authorized the George Rogers Clark expedition that drove the British from what became the Northwest Territory. During 1780–84 and 1787–90 Henry served in the Virginia legislature. He opposed a strong federal government and refused to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention (1787). As a member of the Virginia Ratification Convention (1788) he argued against adoption; but when the Constitution was ratified he announced his support of it. His criticism of the original document helped lead to the prompt adoption of the first 10 Amendments—the Bill of Rights.

Patrick HenryPatrick Henry

Henry declined several important posts in the new federal government, including secretary of state and chief justice of the United States. He was elected to the Virginia legislature again in 1799 but died before he could take his seat.