Study Guide

Patrick Henry in Stamp Act

By British Parliament, King George III

Patrick Henry

Super-talented public speaker Patrick Henry is one of those Founding Fathers whose name is more familiar than what he actually did. Part of that is because he never served as president, he doesn't have a byline on either of the two marquee documents of the republic, and he never pinned Lord Cornwallis at any Wrestlemania.

Posh Patriot

Henry's major contribution—apart from giving the completely baller "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech came in the wake of the Stamp Act. Imagine Henry as a little like Bruce Wayne—which is a good description, because despite some later mythmaking, Henry was a member of the landed gentry in Virginia. If Henry's Wayne, the Stamp Act was the criminal that shot his parents and made him become Batman.

Henry was born in Virginia colony to a Scottish immigrant and his American aristocratic wife. Like a lot of Founding Fathers, Henry was a slaveowner. You'd hope that he would at least acknowledge the hypocrisy there (as Jefferson did) or even better not to own slaves and be against the practice (as Adams was), but nope: not Henry. In fact, some of his gripes with the British came about because they encouraged enslaved people to revolt against their masters.

(Yeah. We're not sure how he reconciled that one, what with his whole "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" shtick.)

I'm Mad As Hell, And I'm Not Going To Take It Anymore

Henry was an important man, though. His first brush with the world's stage was the "Parson's Cause" case in Hanover County. Basically, Henry argued that a king who overrode the will of the people was "a Tyrant, who forfeits the allegiance of his subjects." That's a pretty big deal, since for most of human history the point of being a king was doing what you liked without oversight.

Henry was a vocal opponent of the Stamp Act, and argued in public against it to the point that he was getting accused for treason. Henry doubled down and pretty soon was in every protest against the British he could find.

He gave his "Liberty or Death" standup routine in 1775, arguing that Virginians needed to arm themselves in self-defense. Unsurprisingly, given the content of this speech, Henry spent a good chunk of it as a Colonel in the Virginia Militia.

After the Revolution (spoiler alert: America won), Henry spent thirty years in one public office or another. He never got the big office—you know, the oval one—but he did nearly everything else. He ended up as an opponent of Madison's over minutiae in the Constitution. He believed that it would lead to tyranny, and only supported it after the Bill of Rights.

Henry spent his last decade in private practice. It's fair to say that without him, the U.S. would look a lot different…or might not even be here at all.

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