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Patrick Henry was a leading statesman and orator at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Several of Henry's speeches have remained vivid documents of the revolutionary period, with "Give me liberty or give me death" his most remembered statement.
Henry was born May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. Though Henry attended public school for a short time, he was largely taught by his father, who had a good education. From 1751 to 1760, Henry was a storekeeper and farmer. When his business and farming ventures failed, he turned to the study of law, and received his license to practice in 1760.
Within three years, Henry had become a prominent attorney, owing in great measure to his oratorical skills. He was drawn to politics, and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765. In this colonial legislature, Henry became an outspoken critic of British policies toward the thirteen colonies. He introduced seven resolutions against the Stamp Act, which levied a tax by requiring that stamps be affixed to documents and other papers. In one speech opposing the act, he stated, "If this be Treason, make the most of it."
Henry's efforts led the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass five of the seven resolutions he introduced. All seven resolutions were reprinted in newspapers as the Virginia Resolves. Colonial businesspeople, in support of the resolves, agreed not to import British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. Trade diminished, and business owners refused to use the stamps on business documents. Faced with organized resistance in the colonies, and the displeasure of British businesses that had lost trade, the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on March 4, 1766.
"The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave."
Henry grew more radical after the repeal of the act, arguing that the colonies should break away from Great Britain. In 1773, he joined with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee to form the Committee of Correspondence to transmit messages throughout the colonies. When the House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1774, he became a member of the Virginia Provincial Convention, which advocated revolution. Before this convention, he made his most famous remarks, words that became the clarion call that led the colonies into revolution: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death." During 1774 and 1775, Henry attended the First Continental Congress as a member of the Virginia delegation, advocating military mobilization. When the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, he helped draft the legislation that organized the Continental Army. In 1776 he also helped draft the Virginia Constitution.
In 1776 Henry was elected governor of the newly independent commonwealth of Virginia. A tireless administrator, Henry worked vigorously to meet the demands of the Revolutionary War. As commander in chief, he recruited the state's quota of six thousand men for the Continental Army, plus the state militia's allotment of five thousand soldiers.
After the war, Henry continued as governor, eventually serving five terms. During his second term, Henry provided supplies to George Rogers Clark for his expedition to the Northwest Territory. Clark rid the territory of British control.
In 1788, Henry attended the Virginia convention for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Henry opposed ratification, fearing that it imperiled the rights of states and individuals, but Virginia ratified it. Henry successfully advocated the addition of the Bill of Rights to the document. This first ten amendments to the Constitution protect the rights of states and individuals, allowing Henry to support the Constitution.
Following ratification, Henry was offered many government posts, but was forced to resume his Virginia law practice to rescue himself from personal debt. He quickly became a wealthy man, since his fame attracted many clients. In 1794, he retired to his estate at Red Hill, near Appomattox, Virginia. Despite his new wealth, Henry refused pleas to resume public service, turning down President George Washington's request to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington finally persuaded Henry to seek election to the Virginia legislature. Henry won election in 1799. He died June 6, 1799, before he could take office.
Mayer, Henry. 2001. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Grove.
Rivkin, Victoria. 1998. "Patrick Henry." New York Law Journal 220 (August 24): 4.
Wirt, William. 2002. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Birmingham, Ala.: Palladium Press.