Colonial America was at a crossroads. British Prime Minister Lord North's contempt for the colonists resulted reflected the mother nation's dismissive attitude in general toward the people it sent to North America -- religious fanatics, political dissidents and adventurers. Beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765, American loyalty to the Crown became strained. Lord North's attempt to punish all of Boston for the Boston Tea Party of 1773 galvanized rebels. After Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1774, the men held ad hoc Virginia Conventions.
The second convention at St. John's Church began on March 20, 1775, with Henry proposing they arm the Virginia militia for to overthrow Lord Dunmore, who had just declared martial law.
Three days into the convention, Henry rose to address his colleagues.
“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,” he began. Then he made clear that his loyalty was to his country, not his king.
While his speech was not formally published for 40 years, his statement of liberty or death marked the beginning of the end of British rule in Virginia. Within four months, Lord Dunmore would flee the colony for his life.
Patrick Henry's words were powerful because they came from the heart as well as the mind. He made an irrefutable case against trusting the British Crown: “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."
At the time, the colonists were divided into three camps: Loyalists, Patriots and those apathetic or avoiding the divide. Henry's case for taking action sooner rather than later was airtight: “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? Shall we gather strength but 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?"
His words won the day, a victory that was timely. Even as he spoke, the British were preparing for action. Within a month, the British would march on Lexington and Concord. By mid-summer, a peninsula in Charlestown would be the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which Americans killed 19 British officers. There would be no peaceful resolution of this conflict.
More than two centuries later, his words are resound. Most of us know only the final sentence, which is fine, because those 19 simple words encapsulate the American ideal of the individual thinking for himself and doing what he thinks is right. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, (May 18, 1736, under the old calendar) at Studley Farm in Hanover County, Virginia.
His father, John Henry, had resettled in Virginia from Scotland a decade earlier. A graduate of King's College, John Henry married a wealthy widow, Sarah Winston Syme, in 1732. The father taught the son, who became a successful attorney. He showed a passion in his arguments. In a case in 1763, Patrick Henry proclaimed that a king who would veto a good and necessary law made by a locally elected representative body was not “the father to his people” but “a Tyrant, and forfeits the allegiance of his subjects."
Those were hot words, and Patrick Henry was only warming up.
Later, nine days into his career as a legislator, Henry argued so powerfully in defense of his resolutions against the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765, that some dared call it treason. He said “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third..."
That got the crowd's attention. Cries of treason could be heard from all sides. Was he going to proclaim himself the king's assassin?
Of course not. He liked his head. He apologized and said he got carried away, protesting that he was as loyal as anyone to the king. Henry had made his point. His five resolutions passed and a new political leader had emerged in Virginia, the day after his 29th birthday. After Virginia declared her independence, Virginians elected him as their first governor.
That was not bad for a failed farmer and a failed merchant. At 18, Patrick Henry had married Sarah Shelton in the parlor of her family house. His father-in-law gave him six slaves. But the land Patrick Henry toiled was fallow. Fire destroyed their home. As a merchant, he made a good lawyer, which is what he became. Eventually, he acquired the Scotchtown Plantation.
On July 5, 1776, he became the first governor of Virginia, serving for three years. His successor was Thomas Jefferson. Henry later would serve as the state's sixth governor from December 1, 1784, to December 1, 1786.
But his success as a politician coincided with the tragic ending to his marriage. His wife went crazy and they fitted her in a “Quaker shirt” -- a straitjacket. Her physician recommended placing her in a sanitarium. Henry visited the place.
The physician wrote, “he saw that if he agreed, his wife would be locked into a windowless brick cell containing only a filthy mattress on the floor and a chamber pot. There she would be chained to the wall with a leg iron. Appalled by what he saw, he instead prepared a private, two-room apartment for her in the basement of Scotchtown. Each room had a window, providing light, air circulation, and a pleasant view of the grounds. The apartment also had a fireplace, which provided good heat in the winter, and a comfortable bed to sleep in."
Henry, or in his absence, a servant, tended her around the clock until she died in 1775, but the church denied her a proper Christian burial as the clergy saw her as possessed by the Devil. They had six children. At 41, he married Dorothea Dandridge, 22, on October 25, 1777, and had 11 more children.
Politically, Patrick Henry saw the confederation of the 13 colonies as a marriage of necessity. He opposed having a central government at all, and spoke against ratification of the U.S. Constitution, beginning with “We The People."
“Who authorized them to speak the language of We The People?” he asked.
Today, the press would scorn him as a Tea Party radical. Come to think of it, that is what he was in 1775. As for liberty or death, he got both. Patrick Henry enjoyed the former for the rest of his life. On June 6, 1799, he succumbed to death from a stomach cancer. He was 63.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.