Patrick Henry’s gift for oratory became evident at an early age. Growing up in remote Hanover, Virginia, Patrick had only a few years of formal education but was tutored by his father John and his uncle and namesake, the Reverend Patrick Henry–Scotsmen who had attended Aberdeen University before emigrating. Patrick’s mother, born Sarah Winston, came from a prosperous Virginia family, and she was known for her charm, piety, and intelligence. Patrick’s sisters Jane, Elizabeth, and Lucy were also eloquent speakers, and the Henry house was alive with music and stories. Traveling preachers–notably the Methodist evangelist George Whitefield–had a great influence on young Patrick, and the rhythms of their sermons are evident in his later speeches.
Henry became a lawyer in 1760. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1764. Outspoken by nature, he soon became a leader, supporting frontier interests against political elites. His speech against the unpopular Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1765, contained the famous phrase, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. The Congress aimed to protest laws that Parliament had passed to punish the people of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. The Congress voted to cut off trade with Britain unless Parliament abolished certain tax and legal measures. It also approved resolutions advising the colonies to begin training their citizens for war. But the delegates did not seek independence from Britain. They hoped that Parliament would address their grievances.
On March 23, 1775, Henry stood before a meeting of Virginia delegates in the St. John’s Church in Richmond. The convention had opened three days earlier to decide whether Virginia would prepare for armed resistance to the British. Henry’s wife Sarah had died earlier in the year, and he approached the proceedings with a weight on his heart. But he laid out his argument with logic and passion, here referencing the British military buildup in Massachusetts:
Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years.
Henry continued, urging his fellow Virginians not to be seduced by empty promises of reconciliation with Britain. He urged action in the name of freedom:
Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free … we must fight!–I repeat it, sir, we must fight!!
Henry then addressed the fears of fellow delegates who supported independence but worried that the upstart colonies could not prevail in a fight. One can imagine the emotions in the room as Henry’s voice rose:
They tell us, sir, that we are weak–unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? … There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come!! I repeat it, sir, let it come!!!
Henry concluded, throwing caution to the wind:
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace–but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!–I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
The American Revolution would begin within weeks. Henry soon took charge of Virginia’s military preparations. He was elected Virginia governor several times between 1776 and 1785. In 1788, he opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution because it lacked protections for individual rights. He was instrumental in the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791. He died in 1799.
In a prolific career, Henry’s strong will, stirring words, and soaring voice galvanized support for American independence. His articulation of the ideals of a free people influenced generations of American and world leaders. Prolific describes Henry’s more tangible contributions to posterity as well. Married twice, he fathered 17 children and became grandfather to as many as 77.