Today, Patrick Henry—who was born on May 29, 1736—is best remembered for hollering “Give me liberty or give me death” during a speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, though he might not have actually ever said those words. Still, whether that famous quote was his or someone else's, we cannot deny Henry’s importance to the republic that he helped found.
1. HIS FATHER WAS AN IMMIGRANT.
A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, John Henry hailed from a relatively affluent, well-regarded family. In his youth, Henry’s intelligence and Latin composition skills helped earn him a scholarship to Aberdeen University. Also enrolled at the school was John Syme, a childhood friend. John Syme had made his fortune in Virginia, and feeling adventurous, Henry decided to join him. In 1727, John Henry set sail for the colony, where he worked with Syme.
Business was booming. During his first four years in the New World, Henry acquired over 15,000 acres. Then, tragedy struck. In 1731, Syme passed away. He was survived by his son, John Syme Jr., and by his wife, Sarah. Two years later, Henry and Sarah were married. They went on to have 11 children, only nine of whom survived. One of them was Patrick, who was born on May 29, 1736.
2. AS A CHILD, HE PLAYED MULTIPLE INSTRUMENTS.
Patrick Henry lived at Studley—the family farm in Hanover County, Virginia—until he was 14 years old. As a boy, he pursued several hobbies, including hunting (he was, as one associate said, “remarkably fond of his gun”) and playing the flute and violin. As an adult, he loved comedic novels—especially a satirical biography called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
3. HE WAS A FAILED TOBACCO FARMER.
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Henry’s professional life began with a string of ill-fated business ventures. In 1752, John Henry set up a shop for Patrick and his brother, William, to run on their own. Unfortunately, the teenagers made lousy clerks: About two years after its grand opening, the poorly-managed store closed for good.
Marriage inspired him to pursue a very different career. In 1754, 18-year-old Patrick tied the knot with his first wife, Sarah Shelton, whose dowry included a 300-acre farm. For a time, the young man tried his hand at agriculture, growing wheat, barley, and tobacco. But when the family house burned down in 1757, Henry returned to storekeeping—but he wasn't any more successful at the job the second time around. So Henry got a new job at his father-in-law’s tavern, where he finally caught a break. Right across the street from this establishment was the Hanover County Courthouse. After a long day’s work, lawyers would flock to the watering hole. As Henry got to know them, he developed a passion for the legal profession. At 24, he passed the bar exam and later set up a very successful practice.
4. A CASE CALLED “PARSON’S CAUSE” MADE HIM FAMOUS.
In Henry’s day, tobacco was the lifeblood of the Virginian economy. When a three-year drought hit in the mid-1750s, it wreaked havoc on the colony’s tobacco farms. The crisis hurt everyone—including the resident Anglican clergymen.
Normally, Virginia paid these ministers in tobacco, with each man getting 16,000 pounds of the crop per year. But the ongoing drought convinced many taxpayers that this salary was far too generous. So in 1755, the House of Burgesses (Virginia’s democratically-elected legislative body) chose to restructure the whole payment policy, and the “Two Penny Act” was born. Under the new law, British parsons would now receive cash rather than tobacco. Specifically, a clergyman could expect two pence for every pound of the crop that he normally brought home.
Because the price of tobacco now exceeded two pence per pound, the new salary amounted to a pay cut. Naturally, most preachers despised the Act. As the controversy unfurled, King George II took the clerics’ side. To the disappointment of his other Virginia subjects, he vetoed the law in August 1759.
In 1763, a minister named James Maury sued Hanover County for damages brought on by the Two Penny Act. Later known as “Parson’s Cause,” this case became one of the most important in America’s colonial history. Henry was tasked with representing his county during the determination of damages—and used the platform to slam Britain’s presiding monarch. Radically, the lawyer said that “a King, by annulling or disallowing Laws of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, denigrates into a tyrant.” His passionate rhetoric turned Henry into a popular figure throughout Virginia. As for Maury, the court awarded him a token sum of one penny.
5. THE TRUE AUTHORSHIP OF HIS “GIVE ME LIBERTY” ADDRESS IS UNCLEAR.
On March 23, 1775, Henry gave a speech that would define his legacy and, for thousands, capture the spirit of the American Revolution. Addressing the Virginia Convention in modern St. John’s Church, Richmond, he insisted that war with Britain was inevitable, fervently arguing that nothing less than an organized militia could defend the colonies from their tyrannical King.
Like all great orators, he saved his best line for last. To conclude the speech, Henry shouted “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
But then again, he might not have said it. Nobody who heard the speech thought to write a transcript of it. In fact, the address remained unpublished until 1817, when it turned up in a Patrick Henry biography. This book was written by William Wirt—a future attorney general under James Monroe. To re-construct the oration, Wirt interviewed several eyewitnesses, including St. George Tucker, a federal judge. Finally, he pieced their recollections together as best he could, and would later say that he used Tucker’s description of the speech “almost entirely.”
There has been a lot of debate over the version that appears in Wirt’s biography. Were all of those inspired words really Henry’s? If not, to what degree did Wirt—or his interviewees—embellish them? Most historians believe that the speech as recreated by Wirt is at least somewhat faithful to Henry’s original remarks. Still, we’ll probably never know for certain.
6. HENRY WAS THE FIRST ELECTED GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA.
In 1776, he won the first of three consecutive gubernatorial terms, remaining in office until June 1, 1779. During this time, Henry married his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge. (Sarah Henry had died in 1775 after having dealt with a mental illness for several years, which some historians attribute to either postpartum psychosis or depression. She may have taken her own life, but historians don't know for sure.) He was subsequently re-elected governor in 1784 and left the post for good two years later.
7. HE UNSUCCESSFULLY ARGUED AGAINST THE CONSTITUTION.
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When Henry was offered the chance to visit Philadelphia and participate in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he declined—and he went on become one of the completed document’s loudest foes.
This new constitution, he feared, leaned “towards monarchy.” In his view, the text bestowed far too much power upon the federal government. “The concern I feel on this account,” he once told George Washington, “is really greater than I am able to express.”
Consequently, Henry spoke out against its adoption throughout the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1788. Among those present, nobody spoke at greater length on this subject—during the three-and-a-half-week event, Henry consumed nearly 25 percent of the total floor time. Still, his cause was defeated in the end: On June 25, Virginia’s representatives adopted the constitution by a ten-vote margin.
8. HENRY WAS AN EARLY BILL OF RIGHTS ADVOCATE.
At the Constitutional Convention, Virginia’s George Mason (and others) had insisted that a Bill of Rights be included. However, no such segment was added. Unlike Mason, most delegates—including James Madison—simply didn’t think that a Bill of Rights would be necessary.
Like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Henry disagreed. Hoping to appease those who still had their doubts about the constitution, Madison prioritized the passage of a Bill of Rights. Soon enough, he succeeded; Congress approved the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.
But this wasn’t good enough for Henry. While the Bill of Rights was still being molded in 1789, he vented his dissatisfaction with it to fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee. Henry believed that, unless the federal government’s size was decreased, Madison’s suggested amendments would “tend to injure rather than serve the cause of liberty.”
9. HE TURNED DOWN GEORGE WASHINGTON’S OFFER TO BECOME SECRETARY OF STATE.
America’s first president offered Henry the position after his previous secretary of state, Edmund Randolph Jennings, resigned in 1795. Henry politely declined, telling Washington that “My domestic situation pleads strongly against a removal to Philadelphia,” America’s then-capital. Familial obligations commanded Henry’s undivided attention, as he was now supporting “no less than eight children by my present marriage,” and a widowed daughter from his previous one.
Eventually, Washington tapped Federalist Timothy Pickering to fill the void in his cabinet.
10. HENRY’S PARTISAN ALLEGIANCE EVOLVED OVER TIME.
Of the young country’s two major political parties, Henry generally preferred the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans—at first. Toward the end of his life, however, the man started embracing a handful of Federalist policies and candidates. In 1799, Henry even went so far as to run for the Virginia State Legislature as a member of Alexander Hamilton’s party.
On the campaign trail, he delivered what would become his last public speech at the Charlotte County courthouse. In a debate with Democratic-Republican John Randolph, Henry said that although the people had the right to overthrow the government, they needed to wait until the oppression was so severe that there was no other recourse, otherwise the nation would descend into monarchy.
“United we stand, divided we fall,” Henry said, “Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” In the end, he won that seat in the State Legislature. Unfortunately, Patrick Henry died before his first term began, passing away on June 6, 1799.