Patrick Henry was a leader in the American Revolution who served as a governor of Virginia and a member of the Virginia House of Burgess and the Virginia House of Delegates. He was a strong advocate for independence and denounced British policy for many years.

Introduction

To many Americans today, the words Give me liberty, or give me death are a refrain of independence and rebellion. Very few know much about the man who spoke those immortal words at the outset of the American Revolution. Let’s learn more about Patrick Henry, a fiery leader who fought for American independence with his words and tenacity in the 1770s.

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Early Life

Patrick Henry was born into a middle-class family in Virginia in 1736. At the age of 18, he married Sarah Shelton, and the two were given a farm with several slaves. Acquiring land and slaves instantly gave Henry a social and economic boost. He tried his hand as a planter and farmer for several years before Henry studied law and became a practicing attorney instead. His first wife, Sarah, would die in 1775 from what was likely a mental or brain disorder, and Henry married the 22-year-old (he was 41 at the time) Dorothea Dandridge in 1777.

Political Career

Henry began practicing law in 1760, gaining attention and recognition for his abilities in the courtroom. His oratory and legal skills won him a seat in the Virginia House of Burgess in 1765, giving him a political career. Henry took a strong stance from the start, opposing the British Stamp Act of 1765 with a strongly worded measure known as the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions. Henry was able to see the act through to passage, gaining a name for himself as a blistering critic of British policy. The fundamental idea behind Henry’s objection was that Britain could not levy taxes against the colonies without giving them proper representation. Henry was, in essence, arguing in favor of representative government as the only way to properly levy taxes.

In the 1770s, Henry took a leading role in establishing a committee of correspondence in Virginia to cooperate with other colonies in opposing British policies relating to their governance. In 1775, with the relationship with the British coming to a boiling point, Henry gave a passionate speech in the Virginia House of Burgess in favor of mobilizing a militia. Henry famously proclaimed in his speech the words that have been passed down through generations and immortalized him in American history: I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!

Revolutionary Leader

Henry’s words had a rousing effect. He soon became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment later that year as the Revolutionary War began. In 1776, he was elected the Governor of Virginia, a distinction particularly noteworthy because he was the first to hold the office after the colonies had declared independence. He held the position until 1779. Then he moved to a large plantation with over 70 slaves where he and his family lived and farmed. He was a part of the Virginia Assembly for several years in the 1780s and became Governor of Virginia again for another three years from 1784 to 1786.

Patrick Henry
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In 1787, a Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to revise the rules and laws governing the new United States. Henry opposed the Constitution that emerged from the convention because he believed it granted too many powers to the federal government. In this regard, he became an early leading Anti-Federalist, who opposed strong concentrations of federal power. George Washington and John Adams, the first two presidents, were Federalists, or supporters of a stronger national government. While Henry opposed the Constitution, he did approve of the Bill of Rights, and fought to see it approved by Congress and the states. He served in the Virginia convention in 1788 that debated ratifying the Constitution. Despite Henry’s opposition, the state approved the Constitution.

While Henry was a leading Anti-Federalist in the years immediately after the Constitutional Convention, he, over time, moved toward the Federalist position. Henry feared that the French Revolution, a display of violence and chaos, could happen in America without a strong government. He argued against those who advocated for the rights of states to secede. Over time, he came to be an ally of Washington and Adams and their Federalist policies. He even was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates as a Federalist in 1799. However, because of cancer, he died before he could take his seat.

Legacy

Patrick Henry’s legacy is that of a revolutionary leader who used his fiery language and firm beliefs to inspire, lead, and advocate for principles of freedom and democracy during a crucial formative period in American history. Henry had numerous roles in the American Revolution, yet he will always be remembered for his immortal plea to his fellow Virginians in 1775: Give me Liberty, or give me Death!

Key Facts

  • Patrick Henry was born into the middle class in 1736
  • He started his political career in the Virginia House of Burgess in 1765
  • He fiercely opposed British policy and famously spoke the words ‘Give me Liberty or give me Death!’
  • He was a colonel in the Revolutionary War
  • He was elected Governor of Virginia in 1776
  • He was at first an Anti-Federalist who opposed the Constitution that emerged from the Constitutional Convention, but later switched his views
  • He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1799
  • He died that same year

Learning Outcome

Completing this lesson should prepare you to summarize Patrick Henry’s early life, his political, Revolutionary War, and post-Revolution career, as well as his key accomplishments.