Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Meeting Notes: January 16, 2013

"Patrick Henry In Person," portrayed by Bill Young

Richmond’s American Revolution Roundtable kicked off its 2013 meetings with none other than Patrick Henry as the January 16 speaker---well, sort of.

Re-enactor Bill 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 Courthouse.

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.”

Henry defended 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.
-Bill Seward

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