Patrick Henry was a remarkable man in many ways. He was not from the Virginia gentry, but he managed to marry into it - his wife impressed by his brilliance as a speaker and lawyer. He was marvelous arguing for the innocence of his defendant clients in criminal cases, or in arguing for his clients in civil suits. Not great in statutory precedent - but boy could he swing a jury by emotion-chugging talk! Thomas Jefferson hated the success Henry got, because (being cerebral) Jefferson thought that the law should be perfectly unemotional and intellectual. That's why Jefferson failed as a lawyer.
Henry's wife Dorothea Dandridge Spottiswood was the granddaughter of Alexander Spottiswood (the early 18th Century Governor of Virginia, who sent Lt. Maynard to fight and kill the pirate Blackbeard in 1718). She brought Henry the money to finance his political career. He was elected to the House of Burgess in 1765, just in time to take an active role in fighting the Stamp Act. Here he made his first dramatic crescendo ending to a speech that we recall. In attacking Parliament, Lord Grenville, King George III, and the Stamp Act, he came close to treason, and the loyalists in the House started yelling their condemnation. Henry said, "Tarquin and Caesar each had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell and George the Third ... may profit by their example." To yells of "treason", Henry added, "If this be treason then make the most of it!" He was a feisty character.
Of course that speech was the first of many which culminated at the second revolutionary convention in Virginia in 1775. For over a century boys and girls studied these words and recited them in schools in the United States: "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Henry rose in the Virginia House, and also served in the Continental Congress. He eventually served as Governor of Virginia in the early years of the Revolution (having more success in that job than his successor Jefferson did). In later years (1784 - 1786) he was governor again. But, although he did want a centralized national government, Henry refused to go to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 because he did not trust some of the plans being suggested (he said, "I smell a rat!"). He would be a continuous critic of the Washington and Adams administrations, although Washington offered him jobs as Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States. However, when elected to the Virginia legislature again in 1799 (shortly before he died) he argued against Jefferson and Madison's Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions!. He was feisty to the end, and insisted on his own style of independence.
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