Born: 1736-05-29 Hanover County, Virginia
Died: 1799-06-06 Charlotte County, Virginia
Virginia founding father, statesman, orator, and attorney who played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. Henry attended the local school for a time and received the remainder of his education from his father, who had received an excellent education at King’s College, University of Aberdeen. Opting not to continue his schooling, Henry at age fifteen commenced work as a clerk for a nearby merchant. A year later, he and his older brother William opened their own mercantile establishment, which promptly failed. In 1754, Henry married Sarah Shelton, with whom he had six children. Given three hundred acres and slaves by his father-in-law, Henry commenced a career as a planter, only to have a fire destroy his plantation. He turned again to shopkeeping, only to fail a second time. He found work in his father-in-law’s tavern.
In 1760, Henry decided to become a lawyer. Though largely self-educated and woefully unprepared, Henry convinced a group of Virginia lawyers to admit him to the bar. Over the next three years, Henry established a successful practice. In December 1763, he scored a monumental victory in a case that became a lynchpin in the so-called “Parson’s Cause,” a dispute between Church of England clergy, the British Government, and local tax collectors. Defending the local tax collectors, Henry’s impassioned criticism of the clergy and challenge to royal authority brought him widespread acclaim and launched his political career.
In 1764, Henry began his political career by winning a by-election for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He took his seat just as news of the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 reached the colony. Debate in the House of Burgesses over the proper response to the Stamp Act became the occasion for Henry’s “Caesar-Brutus” speech, one of his most famous orations. Henry’s fiery oratory led to the adoption, on May 30, of the Stamp House Resolves, which questioned the right of the British government to tax the colonies and implicitly endorsed resistance if the home government continued the policy. Henry’s “Caesar-Brutus” speech and adoption of the Stamp Act Resolves vaulted him into leadership of colonial resistance to imperial power.
Over the next few years, Henry remained in the House of Burgesses, but his interest in the colonial crisis waned as he concentrated on his law practice, growing family, and speculation in western lands. In 1773, he renewed his involvement in the revolutionary cause by working to establish a network of intercolonial committees of correspondence. In 1774, he was one of Virginia’s seven delegates to the First Continental Congress but did not prove especially influential in the proceedings. In May 1775, he assumed his seat in the Second Continental Congress, again serving without noticeable distinction. When Congress adjourned in August, Henry returned to Virginia; he would never again hold a continental or national office.
Between the first and second sessions of Congress, Henry returned to Virginia, when he busied himself with military preparedness and caring for his wife, who was suffering from severe mental illness. Sarah Henry died in early 1775, and Henry assumed active leadership of the rebellion in Virginia, particularly in the Second Virginia Convention in March. Delegates divided over whether to concentrate on finding a peaceful solution to the imperial conflict or prepare for war. Henry advocated military preparedness, introducing resolutions to that effect, and supposedly ending his oration with the exhortation “Give me liberty or give me death!” Henry’s oratory carried the day, and the colony began raising troops and stockpiling guns and ammunition. Henry’s incendiary speeches won him further popularity in the colony, as did his actions in the “Gunpowder Incident,” when he marched troops from Hanover County toward the capital in Williamsburg to demand payment for power and guns seized by the royal governor. In September 1775, the Virginia Committee of Safety made Henry commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces, but early 1776, Virginia troops were placed under the Continental Army, and Henry declined further military service.
In May 1776, Henry attended the Fifth Virginia Convention. Though initially reluctant to endorse independence, Henry overcame his misgivings and contributed one of the versions of the resolution for independence. He also helped draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia State Constitution. Though unhappy with the weak powers granted the governor under the new constitution, Henry accepted election to the governor’s chair. The General Assembly of Virginia re-elected him in 1777 and 1778, and he served until June 1779, ineligible to run for a fourth one-year term under provisions of the constitution.
After leaving the governorship, Henry concentrated on building up his personal estate and social standing. In 1777, he had married Dorothea Dandridge, who was from a prominent family, with whom he had ten children. Establishing his residence at a ten-thousand-acre plantation in Henry County (named for him), Henry declined election to the Continental Congress, but in 1780, he won election to the Virginia House of Delegates. Henry led the opposition to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and their allies, who wanted to reform the state constitution and strengthen the federal government under the Articles of Confederation. In 1784, the Virginia legislature again elected him governor. The legislature re-elected him in 1785, but in 1786, Henry declined reelection and retired from the governorship. In 1787, he declined appointment as a member of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He won election as a delegate to the Virginia ratification convention and became a leader of the Anti-Federalists. Despite Henry’s still-strong oratorical powers, the convention ratified the Constitution. Henry remained unreconciled to the outcome, and in the fall of 1788, he used his influence over Anti-Federalists in the House of Delegates to thwart Madison’s election to the U.S. Senate and block implementation of the new government.
In 1790, Henry retired from the House of Delegates, citing ill health. He returned to his lucrative law practice and land speculation. In the middle of the decade, he shifted his political allegiance to the Federalist Party. He was offered and declined appointment as secretary of state, attorney general, justice of the Supreme Court, and U.S. minister to Spain, but did re-enter the political fray in 1798 and 1799 over the Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1799, he once again won election to the General Assembly, but died before he could assume his seat.
Gravestone, Henry Cemetery, Charlotte County, VA; Thad Tate, “Henry, Patrick,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 10:615-19.