Patrick Henry was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first governor of Virginia. He was a gifted orator and major figure in the American Revolution. His rousing speeches—which included a 1775 speech to the Virginia legislature in which he famously declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—fired up America’s fight for independence. An outspoken Anti-Federalist, Henry opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which he felt put too much power in the hands of a national government. His influence helped create the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed personal freedoms and set limits on the government’s power.
Patrick Henry’s Early Years
Patrick Henry was born in 1736 to John and Sarah Winston Henry on his family’s farm in Hanover County, Virginia. He was educated mostly at home by his father, a Scottish-born planter who had attended college in Scotland.
Henry struggled to find a profession as a young adult. He failed in several attempts as a storeowner and a planter. He taught himself law while working as a tavern keeper at his father-in-law’s inn and opened a law practice in Hanover County in 1760.
As a lawyer and politician, Patrick Henry was known for his persuasive and passionate speeches, which appealed as much to emotion as to reason. Many of Henry’s contemporaries likened his rhetorical style to the evangelical preachers of the Great Awakening, a protestant religious revival that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s.
Henry’s first major legal case was known as the Parson’s Cause in 1763, a dispute involving Anglican clergy in colonial Virginia. The case – one of the first legal attempts to challenge the limits of England’s power over the American colonies – is often viewed as an important event leading up to the American Revolution.
Ministers of the Church of England in Virginia were paid their annual salaries in tobacco. A tobacco shortage caused by drought led to price increases in the late 1750s. In response, the Virginia legislature passed the Two-Penny Act, which set the value of the Anglican ministers’ annual salaries at two pennies per pound of tobacco, rather than the inflated price that was closer to six pennies per pound. The Anglican clergy appealed to Britain’s King George III, who overturned the law and encouraged ministers to sue for back pay.
The Parson’s Cause established Patrick Henry as a leader in the emerging movement for American independence. During the case, Henry, then a relatively unknown attorney, delivered an impassioned speech against British overreach into colonial affairs, arguing “that a King by annulling or disallowing acts of so salutary a nature, from being Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.”
In 1765, Great Britain passed the first of a series of taxes to help pay for the growing costs of defending the American colonies. The Stamp Act of 1765 required American colonists to pay a small tax on every piece of paper they used.
Colonists viewed the Stamp Act—an attempt by England to raise money in the colonies without approval from colonial legislatures—as a troublesome precedent.
Patrick Henry responded to the Stamp Act with a series of resolutions introduced to the Virginia legislature in a speech. The resolves, adopted by the Virginia legislature, were soon published in other colonies, and helped to articulate America’s stance against taxation without representation under the British Crown. The resolves declared that Americans should be taxed only by their own representatives and that Virginians should pay no taxes except those voted on by the Virginia legislature.
Later in the speech, Henry flirted with treason when he hinted that the King risked suffering the same fate as Julius Caesar if he maintained his oppressive policies.
Give me liberty, or give me death!
In March of 1775, the Second Virginia Convention met at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, to discuss the state’s strategy against the British. It was here that Patrick Henry delivered his most famous speech, ending with the quote, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and five of the six other Virginians who would later sign the Declaration of Independence were in attendance that day. Historians say that Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech helped convince those in attendance to begin preparing Virginia troops for war against Great Britain. Royal Governor Lord Dunmore responded to the speech by removing gunpowder from the magazine. That November, he would issue Dunmore’s Proclamation declaring martial law in Virginia and promising freedom to slaves of revolutionaries who joined the King’s cause.
Henry spoke without notes. No transcripts exist from his famous address. The only known version of the speech was reconstructed in an 1817 biography of Henry by author William Wirt, leading some historians to speculate that the famous Patrick Henry quote may have been fabricated by Wirt to sell copies of his book.
Patrick Henry: Wives and Children
Patrick Henry married his first wife, Sarah Shelton, in 1754, and the two went on to have six children together. Sarah died in 1775, the year of Henry’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech. He married Dorothea Dandridge of Tidewater, Virginia, two years later and their union produced eleven children.
Anti-Federalism and the Bill of Rights
Patrick Henry served as Virginia’s first governor (1776-1779) and sixth governor (1784-1786).
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Henry became an outspoken Anti-Federalist. Henry and other Anti-Federalists opposed the ratification of the 1787 United States Constitution, which created a strong federal government.
Patrick Henry worried that a federal government that was too powerful and too centralized could evolve into a monarchy. He was the author of several Anti-Federalist Papers—written arguments by Founding Father’s who opposed the U.S. Constitution.
While the Anti-Federalists were unable to stop the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Anti-Federalist Papers were influential in helping to shape the Bill of Rights. The first 10 Amendments to the United States Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, protected individual liberties and placed limits on the powers of the federal government.
Besides a brief stint as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress—the United States government during the American Revolution—Patrick Henry never held national public office.
He died on June 6, 1799 at the age of 63 from stomach cancer. His Southern Virginia plantation is now the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial.
Henry’s Full Biography; Red Hill Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation.
Patrick Henry Arguing the Parson’s Cause; Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act; Colonial Williamsburg.
Patrick Henry, Orator of Liberty; U.S. Library of Congress.