Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Patrick Henry

PATRICK HENRY (1736–1799)

George Bagby Matthews, Patrick Henry, oil painting on canvas, 30 x 50 in. Original by Thomas Sully, Virginia State Artwork Collection: acquired about 1884, Library of Virginia.

Patrick Henry was a famous lawyer and a fervent patriot. He represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congresses, attended four of Virginia's five Revolutionary Conventions, and was the commonwealth of Virginia's first governor. A member of the House of Burgesses before the American Revolution, he served in the House of Delegates during and after the war. Henry was born in Hanover County on May 29, 1736. His father was a surveyor and justice of the peace, and his namesake uncle was a minister of the Church of England. As a young man, Henry and his mother often attended Presbyterian Church services and heard Samuel Davies, one of the great clergymen of colonial Virginia, preach in a new style that may have served as a model for Henry, who became one of the greatest orators in American history. Henry qualified to practice law and almost immediately rose to the forefront of colonial opposition to British policies. In a 1763 law suit known as the Parson's Cause, he challenged the right of the king to veto a law of the Virginia General Assembly, and in 1765 he opposed the Stamp Act so boldly as a member of the House of Burgesses that some members declared that his speech was treasonous.

Henry was one of the colony's delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and when the second Virginia Revolutionary Convention met in March 1775 to reelect Henry and the other delegates for the Second Continental Congress, Henry made his most famous speech, the "liberty or death" speech. He proposed that the convention put the colony into a state of defense because he believed that the British would send the army and navy to quell colonial protests. In August of that year when the third Virginia Revolutionary Convention created a colonial army, it elected Henry commander in chief. The fifth and final convention in June 1776 elected Henry governor of Virginia for a one-year term. He was reelected twice and served again as governor from 1784 to 1786. In 1787 and 1788 Henry opposed ratification of the Constitution of the United States, fearing that it would create too strong a national government that would, without a bill of rights, endanger the liberties for which the American Revolution had been fought.

Henry served several terms in the House of Delegates during and after the American Revolution. He married twice and fathered sixteen children. Henry continued to practice law until 1794 and died at his residence at Red Hill, in Charlotte County, on June 6, 1799.

Suggested Reading:

Everett, Alexander H. Life of Patrick Henry. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1844.

Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York and Toronto: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Related Links:

Patrick Henry at LVA