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Henry, Patrick 1736-

Statesman; born in Studley, Hanover co., Va., 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 [376] a wonderful forensic speech that his fame as an orator was established. Henry became a member of the Virginia House of

Patrick Henry.

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. Washington 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

Hanover Court-House.

hot debate ensued. Henry supported his resolutions with rare eloquence and boldness. Some rose from their seats, and [377] 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! 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

Statue of Patrick Henry at Richmond, Va.

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 [378]

“Give me liberty or give me death.”

defence. The resolutions met with great opposition, and in supporting them he made the following address:

Mr. President,—No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the house. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining, as I do, [379] opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the house? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir. It will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? 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. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has all been in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. 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; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon, until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? [380] 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? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. 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.

It is 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!

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