Study Guide

Patrick Henry in Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

By Patrick Henry

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Patrick Henry

The Speechanator

The speech that brought Patrick Henry lasting fame in American history (yup: this one) was not his first rodeo. By the time he attended the Second Virginia Convention at Henrico Parish Church in March 1775, the thirty-eight-year-old Henry had been a successful lawyer for fifteen years…and a radical politician for ten.

During that time, he'd made a number of speeches that walked that political tightrope bordering on treason. Making speeches was kind of his thing. If the Founding Fathers (who weren't yet Founding Fathers) knew two things, it was that you went to Thomas Jefferson when you needed something written, and you went to Patrick Henry when you needed something spoken.

There's a common American mythology that says the men who shaped America were just your average Joes who stood up to a tyrannical government, but that's just not true. A lot of them were reasonably well-educated members of the professional class (doctors, lawyers, and preachers), and many of them were Richie McRichpantses.

While Patrick Henry wasn't part of the powerful Tidewater aristocracy of Virginia, neither was he quite the country bumpkin who just happened to let great, classically structured speeches roll off his tongue.

Childhood and Early Adulthood

Henry's mother, Sarah Winston Syme, was a member of the old, respected, and moderately well-to-do Winston family. She was a widow when she married his father, John Henry, a Scottish immigrant. But wait—he was a Scottish immigrant with a degree from King's College at the University of Aberdeen, so he wasn't your typical penniless indentured servant.

They had nine children: an older brother, Patrick, and then seven daughters. Henry got along with all of his siblings (which is an accomplishment in itself when you consider that he had eight of 'em).

Now, it's true that, to the Tidewater aristocracy, Henry (who had had no formal education) kind of came off like a country bumpkin. However, his informal education was better than what most people had. His father and uncle, an Anglican minister with a master's degree (a big deal in those days), saw to that.

As a child, he was also influenced by the preaching of Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister who worked within the limits of the law to expand the reach of Presbyterianism even as it defied the government-sanctioned Church of England. (Check out our "Timeline" for more about Davies.)

As a young man, Henry foundered for nine years before he found his true calling: law. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, he failed at store keeping (twice) and farming, and had to live over his father-in-law's tavern and work there while he taught himself law.

Yeah: Henry taught himself law—just because he was a self-starter like that.

At the age of eighteen, Henry married sixteen-year-old Sarah ("Sally") Shelton, with whom he had six children. While most people didn't think the marriage was a good idea, given Henry's iffy job prospects, they appear to have been very much in love. (Source)

The Road to Revolution

Once Henry found his way into the legal profession, his law practice flourished, thanks to his own speech-giving skillz and his family's influence.

Henry first made a name for himself in the colony of Virginia when he argued the Parsons' Cause case in 1763. (Read about it in the "Timeline.") In his arguments, Henry criticized the Church of England and George III, and his win in this case set a precedent that said Parliament could not overturn a decision made by a local court.

In 1765, Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Never one for paying his dues before speaking his mind, Henry arrived in Williamsburg (the capital of Virginia) with a bunch of legislation he was planning to push through. He missed the first few days of the session, but he didn't care because he wasn't interested in what those stuffy, political establishment types had to say.

He was there to make waves.

To be fair, the Tidewater aristocrats who were in charge in Williamsburg were involved in some pretty shady backroom political and business deals. They were in debt big-time, and they were planning to make the public pay for it. That didn't sit right with Henry, and he made his first political speech to oppose it. "What, Sir?" he said. "Is it proposed to reclaim the Spendthrift from his dissipation and extravagance by filling his pockets with money?" (Source)

The bill was eventually killed, but Henry made political enemies of the establishment.

On May 29, he rose to introduce his own legislation: seven resolutions against the Stamp Act. (Check out the "Timeline" for the deets.) Despite the enemies Henry had made, five of his seven resolutions passed, the fifth by only one vote.

It said:

Resolved, Therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom. (Source)

Basically, Parliament can't tax Virginia. Only Virginia can tax Virginia.

Fiery Words

Speaking against the Stamp Act, Henry gave what would become known as his "Caesar-Brutus" speech, in which he said George III better watch his back, because American was going to play Brutus to Britain's Caesar.

Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler were listening, and Jefferson later said that Henry "appeared to speak to me as Homer wrote." (Source) Yeah; that Homer. The guy who wrote The Odyssey. That's some high praise coming from Thomas freakin' Jefferson.

Conservatives in the House weren't too happy, and after Henry left they reversed the ruling on that one. Still, all seven resolutions were published in newspapers across the colonies, and Henry began to be known as a voice for colonial liberty.

Meanwhile, his fortunes continued to rise. Those deeply indebted Tidewater aristocrats started to lose ground as their chickens came home to roost, and P-Hen ended up buying Scotchtown, one of their plantations, for a pretty sweet deal in 1771.

In 1770, the Boston Massacre brought the revolution nearer, and in 1773, Henry helped establish committees of correspondence in each colony. Their purpose was to keep each other informed of what was up. Then, in 1774, Henry was elected to the First Continental Congress, where he argued that colonial boundaries didn't matter as much as American unity.

This was a big deal—at a time when all the colonies were used to being separate entities with separate needs and goals, Henry stood up and said, "I am not a Virginian, but an American." (Source)

Meanwhile, personal tragedy struck the Henry family. Most historians now believe Sarah Henry suffered from puerperal (postpartum) psychosis, a rare mental illness triggered by childbirth. Refusing to put her in a mental hospital, Henry did the best he could for her by confining her to a basement room at Scotchtown and caring for her himself or, during his absences, assigning a slave to care for her. (Source)

Yeah, it wasn't ideal, but it was much better treatment than most people with mental illness got at the time. Think of this as a check in the "Henry is awesome" column.

About Those Slaves…

But, um, let's even out the "Henry is awesome column" with a little topic that falls squarely in the "Henry is less than awesome" column.


Like many a Founding Father, Henry was a walking contradiction: he talked about liberty while owning slaves. Even as he called slavery a "lamentable evil" that he "cannot justify," he didn't free his slaves.

This was actually pretty typical of the time. By the late 18th century, most educated people were beginning to realize that slavery is wrong. But a lot of them, like Henry, were caught up in the system and couldn't see a way around it. That doesn't justify slavery, of course, but maybe it explains where the slave-owning Founding Fathers' heads were and how they could talk freedom while, you know, enslaving fellow humans. (Source)

The Country in Crisis

Sarah Henry died early in 1775, leaving Henry devastated and exhausted, or in his own words, "a distraught old man." (Source)

After her death, Henry threw himself into Revolutionary activity, which brings us to March 23rd, 1775, when he delivered the famous "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech at the Second Virginia Convention. The resolutions presented in this speech (to raise an armed militia in every county) passed by only five or six votes in a convention of 120 men.

But by this time Henry was all in. On April 20, the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord (See the "Timeline" for more), Lord Dunmore tried to pull something similar by stealing Virginia's powder, and Henry was there to meet him. Lord Dunmore then declared Henry to be a legit rebel by passing an edict against him…which was just fuel for Henry's fire.

For a few months late in 1775 and early in 1776, Henry was commander-in-chief of Virginia's military, but, truth be told, the military wasn't really his forte. "I think my countrymen made a capital mistake when they took Henry out of the senate to place him in the field," said George Washington. Whoops. (Source)

When he was removed, some of his men refused to serve under another officer, but Henry encouraged them to accept new leadership, despite the fact that this was a blow to his personal pride. Historians see this as one of his most admirable moments.

Anyway, Henry had other things to do, like becoming governor of Virginia and serving three one-year terms during 1776-1779. During the war, he worked closely with George Washington to raise money and supply troops.

In Later Years...

In 1777, Henry strengthened his already strong standing in the state by marrying Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, a member of an old and powerful Virginia family, with whom he had eleven children.

Yeah. Eleven little Henrys.

Henry focused on holding state offices rather than national ones, a testament to his growing distrust of centralized government. Along with James Madison and Richard Henry Lee, Henry was one of the most influential politicians in Virginia. It was common for 18th-century politicians and political parties to shift ideas and support, and Henry ended up allied with or opposed to most of his contemporaries at one time or another.

After the war, Henry served two more terms as governor, from 1784-1786.

In the new United States, Henry became a strong opponent of a strong central government. He didn't like the federal government having too much power, whether it was British or American. He remained opposed to the ratification of the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added and is generally regarded as one of the main reasons we have a Bill of Rights.

By 1790, Henry was ready to return to his law practice full time and enjoy the quiet life at his plantation, Red Hill. In 1799, George Washington asked him to run for the Virginia state legislature. He won a seat but died before he could take office.

In other words, life gave him liberty and then gave him death. (Too soon?)

Henry's Legacy of Liberty

Today, Patrick Henry is regarded as a Founding Father, an American patriot, and the Voice of the Revolution. Honestly, being regarding as any of those things would have put him squarely in the history books—you're just showing off now, Henry.
But if you still don't believe in Henry's legacy, check out what Thomas Jefferson said about the guy: "It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry. He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution." (Source)

Still not impressed? How about Henry's obituary in the Virginia Gazette,which read, "As long as our rivers flow, or mountains stand, Virginia...will say to rising generations, imitate my Henry." (Source)

Henry left an envelope with his will that contained a single sheet of paper. On one side, he copied his Resolutions Against the Stamp Act. On the other, was his message to the future:

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, practice Virtue thyself, and encourage it in others. P. HENRY. (Source)

Um, yeah. We'll just leave you with that…because Patrick Henry's awesomeness pretty much speaks for itself.

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