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Biography of Patrick Henry


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Henry, Patrick (1736-1799), a American patriot lawyer of Virginia. He was educated in a country school and in a school kept by his father. Henry tried merchandising and farming, but lost money at both. He then turned his mind to the study of law, and was admitted to practice in 1760. Three years later he won reputation by the management of a famous law case, known as the Parson's Cause. At that day the clergymen of Virginia, like those of England, were entitled to salaries from public funds. Their salaries were reckoned in part, at least, in the currency of the day, namely tobacco. In 1758 the Virginian House of Burgesses passed an act granting the planters permission to discharge their obligations to the ministers by a cash payment of two pence for each pound of tobacco raised. The income of the clergy was diminished. The clergymen carried the matter to the king, with the result that the two pence act was repealed. The people were stirred up, because the king had overturned an act of their own legislation. The parsons brought suit to collect arrears, the share of tobacco being worth more than the two pence per pound. Henry defended the planters and won the case, the clergymen being allowed but a penny each in full of all claims. At the conclusion of the suit the crowd caught up Henry and carried him on their shoulders to the tavern. From this time on he was the idol of the people. Public office was his for the taking.

In 1765, at the time of the passage of the Stamp Act, he was a member of the House of Burgesses. He offered a set of resolutions declaring the exclusive right of colonists as Englishmen to tax themselves. These resolutions, says Bancroft, "rang the alarm bell for the continent." In 1775 he stirred up the people of Virginia, much as Sam Adams stirred up the citizens of Boston. He attended the second Virginia Convention, and offered a resolution that the colony be put immediately in a state of defense. He made an eloquent plea for instant action, closing, it is said, with these words (according to a friend's report, written from memory, many years later):

"Gentlemen may cry 'Peace! Peace!' but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almlghty God! I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

Henry was a member of the first Continental Congress. He acted as governor of Virginia during the war. He was dissatisfied with the federal constitution and opposed its ratification in 1788. He felt that it gave the general government too much power, a position taken by his state later at the opening of the Civil War.