Statesman; born in Studley
, May 29, 1736; was of Scotch descent.
His father was a native of Aberdeen
, and liberally educated.
Embarking in commercial pursuits at the age of fifteen years, he was unsuccessful.
Marrying Miss Shelton
, daughter of an innkeeper, at eighteen, he assisted, at times, in “keeping a hotel” ; and finally, after six weeks study, he took up the profession of the law. But want of business kept him very poor, and he was twenty-seven years old before his oratorical powers were discovered.
Then, in a celebrated case tried in the courthouse of Hanover county
, he made such
a wonderful forensic speech that his fame as an orator was established.
Henry became a member of the Virginia House
Burgesses in 1765, wherein, that year, he introduced resolutions for bold opposition to the Stamp Act, and made a most remarkable speech.
From that time he was regarded as a leader of the radical patriots of his colony.
He was admitted to the bar of the highest court in Virginia
in 1769, and in 1773 he was appointed one of the Virginia committee of correspondence.
As a delegate to the first Continental Congress, in 1774, he opened the business of that body by declaring the union of the provinces, and saying, “I am not a Virginian
—I am an American
He was an eloquent leader in the famous provincial convention at Richmond
(March, 1775), and, at the head of the militia of Hanover
, compelled Lord Dunmore
(q. v.) to restore powder he had removed from the colonial magazine at Williamsburg
For a short time Henry was in the military service, and was the first governor of the State of Virginia
(1776-79). He was again elected governor after the war and was a member of the State convention that ratified the national Constitution, he opposing it with all his strength because it menaced State supremacy.
In 1794 Henry retired from the bar, and took up his abode at Red Hill
, in Charlotte
appointed him Secretary of State
in 1795; but he declined the nomination, as he did that of envoy to France
, offered by President Adams
, and of governor offered by the people.
Henry was elected to the State Senate in 1799, but, dying June 6, 1799, never took his seat.
When the news of the passage of the Stamp Act and kindred measures reached Virginia
(May, 1765) the House of Burgesses
was in session.
The aristocratic leaders in that body hesitated, and the session was drawing near its close, when Henry, finding the older and more influential members disinclined to move in the matter, offered a series of resolutions, in which all the rights of British-born subjects were claimed for the Virginians; denied any authority, anywhere, excepting in the Provincial Assembly, to impose taxes upon them; and denounced the attempt to vest that authority elsewhere as inconsistent with the ancient constitution and subversive of liberty in Great Britain
as well as in America
The aristocratic members were startled, and a
hot debate ensued.
Henry supported his resolutions with rare eloquence and boldness.
Some rose from their seats, and
others sat in breathless silence.
At length, when alluding to tyrants, Henry exclaimed, “Caesar had his Brutus
, Charles the First his Cromwell
, and George the Third—” At this moment there was a cry of “Treason!
from different parts of the house.
Henry paused a moment, and concluded his sentence by saying “may profit by these examples.
If that be treason, make the most of it.”
The resolutions passed in spite of the old leaders; but in Henry's absence, the next
day, they were reconsidered and softened.
But a manuscript copy had already been sent to Philadelphia
, and they soon appeared in the newspapers, producing a wonderful effect.
These resolutions were followed in Massachusetts
by the recommendation of a committee of the General Assembly for a congress of delegates from the several colonies to meet in New York City in October following.
See Stamp act Congress
After his death, there was found among his papers one sealed, and thus endorsed: “Enclosed are the resolutions of the Virginia Assembly, in 1765, concerning the Stamp Act.
Let my executors open this paper.”
Within was found a copy of the resolutions in his handwriting.
On the back of the paper containing the resolutions is the following endorsement, also in his handwriting: “The within resolutions passed the House of Burgesses
in May, 1765.
They formed the first opposition to the Stamp Act, and the scheme of taxing America by the British Parliament.
All the colonies, either through fear, or want of opportunity to form an opposition, or from influence of some kind or other, had remained silent.
I had been for the first time elected a burgess a few days before, was young, inexperienced, unacquainted with the forms of the house, and the members that composed it. Finding the men of weight averse to opposition, and the commencement of the tax at hand, and that no person was likely to step forth, I determined to venture, and alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on the blank leaf of an old law-book, wrote the within.
Upon offering them to the house, violent debates ensued.
Many threats were uttered, and much abuse cast on me, by the party for submission.
After a long and warm contest, the resolutions passed by a very small majority, perhaps of one or two only.
The alarm spread throughout America
with astonishing quickness, and the ministerial party were overwhelmed.
The great point of resistance to British taxation was universally established in the colonies.
This brought on the war which finally separated the two countries, and gave independence to ours.
Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God had bestowed upon us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy.
If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable.
Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation.
Reader, whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere, practise virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.”
The liberty or death speech.
On March 23, 1775, he offered resolutions in the Richmond convention to organize the militia and put the colony in a state of
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
defence. The resolutions met with great opposition, and in supporting them he made the following address: