"Patrick Henry In Person," portrayed by Bill Young
Revolution Roundtable kicked off its 2013 meetings with none other than Patrick
Henry as the January 16 speaker---well, sort of.
Young, dressed in 18th Century attire, gave a very moving biographical summary
of Henry’s life as if Henry were talking to his audience shortly before his
death in 1799 at his Red Hill plantation in Charlotte County. Young
captured the passion of Henry’s famous speeches and summarized both Henry’s
professional and personal lives.
Beginning with a
brief background on Henry’s parents and Henry’s birth, Young proceeded through
Henry’s 1754 marriage to Sarah Shelton in Hanover County and their early years
of marriage. During these years Henry failed twice as a storekeeper and once as
a tobacco farmer. Henry then became a bartender at Hanover Tavern which was
owned by his father-in-law, and located across the street from Hanover
Some of Henry’s
regular customers were attorneys who practiced law at the Courthouse. As a
result of Henry’s conversations with these attorneys, he became interested in a
law career and proceeded to study for six months in order to take the state bar
exam. He barely passed in 1760.
Henry’s legal career
blossomed from the start, and only three years later he argued one of his most
famous cases, known as “The Parson’s Cause”. The main issue in the case was
whether the price of tobacco paid to Virginia’s clergy should be set by
Virginia’s colonial legislature or by the King of England. Henry argued that
the King couldn’t overturn colonial law and won the case against a parson who
had challenged Virginia’s laws. Henry asked the jury to award the parson only
one penny in damages, and that’s what the jury awarded.
In 1765 as a colonial
legislator Henry introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions, which claimed
that only the colonial legislatures had the power to impose taxes on the
colonies. During the legislature’s debate Henry said, “Caesar had his Brutus,
Charles the First his Cromwell and George the Third ..........” When
interrupted by some of his legislative colleagues and accused of treason, Henry
replied, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Virginia’s Baptists in 1768 against the charges of preaching without a license.
As part of his arguments, he sarcastically attacked this law and its attempt to
restrict the spread of Christianity to only preachers who had state licenses.
Not only did Henry win the case but his arguments would later assist with the
future passage of Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom.
In 1771 Henry, his
wife Sarah and their six children moved into their Scotchtown plantation near
Ashland. Shortly afterward Sarah became mentally ill and suicidal. Instead of
committing his wife to the horrors of an 18th Century mental institution Henry
and his servants took care of his wife at Scotchtown until her death in 1775.
Six weeks after his
wife’s death Henry gave what is generally regarded as the greatest speech of
his life and one of the greatest in American history. During the Second
Virginia Convention held at Richmond’s St. John’s Church, Henry argued in favor
of independence from Great Britain and the need to mobilize Virginia’s militia
in order to defend the colony against any British forces that might attack. The
final line of Henry’s speech, “As for me, give me liberty or give me death!”,
is still one of the most quoted lines in America’s history classes.
During the American
Revolution, Henry served as Virginia’s first post-colonial governor from July
1776 until June 1779. In 1777 he married Dorothea Dandridge, and later they
would produce 11 children. Thus, Henry had 17 children from his two marriages.
In 1787 Henry
declined to attend the Constitutional Convention and later opposed the
Constitution’s ratification on the grounds that it gave too much power to the
federal government when it came to taxation and national defense. He also
feared the loss of individual liberties and how the proposed U.S. presidency
might evolve into a monarchy. Although Henry failed in his efforts to block
passage of the Constitution, he was an influential voice who helped pursue the
passage of the Bill of Rights as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
Henry retired from
politics in 1789. President George Washington tried to appoint Henry to several
high-level government positions but Henry declined all offers.
In 1794 Henry and
his wife Dorothea retired to their Red Hill plantation. On June 6, 1799 Henry
died at Red Hill from stomach cancer at the age of 63.
Young ended his
program by taking several questions from the audience. In response to one of
them Young noted that when Henry was a young, unsuccessful farmer, he worked in
his tobacco field side-by-side with three slaves given to him by his
father-in-law. Young also answered a question about the friendship between
Henry and Thomas Jefferson by quipping, “Henry thought more of Jefferson than
Jefferson did of Henry.” Young then proceeded to discuss several specific
criticisms Jefferson had toward Henry.
The Patrick Henry
program was Young’s second presentation before Richmond’s American Revolution
Roundtable. A few years ago he dressed as an 18th Century American naval
captain and gave an interesting and thorough biography on John Paul Jones.