Patrick Henry began his life on May 29th 1736. It would be a life whose importance cannot be underestimated. His accomplishments during the American Revolution are not as well a known as that of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or George Washington. However, at a time when only 1/3 of the American people agreed with the idea of going to war with the British, anyone who could help turn public sentiment towards the cause of freedom and liberty, need to be regarded as important in American history.
Patrick Henry was that individual. Had Patrick Henry not been born during that time in American history, his name would not have gone down as one of the most important men in American history. Henry needed an outlet for his self confidence to shine. The American Revolution gave him that avenue in which to show the country his greatness. Henry trained as an attorney and was noted for his talents at oration in which most of his pleas were filled with the passion that Henry felt for the subject.
In one of the earliest examples, Henry railed against the British government in reaction to the 1763 tax levied upon tobacco and if its rate should be applied by the Royal Crown or the colonial government. Henry lost the case but his gift at oration was soon noted by the Virginia Assembly and was chiefly the reason why he was elected to the House of Burgesses for the state. He was elected to that governing body in 1765, the same year that the Stamp Act, another thorn in the side of the British government by the ways in which the American colonies stiffly resisted such a tax levied upon them, was applied to the American colonies.
In Henry’s reaction to the Stamp Act, as it was in opposition to the King, calls of treason were levied upon Henry. Henry was not phased by the charge. “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third has me. George the Third may profit by their examples. If this be treason, make the most of it! ” It would be the fearless actions in the face of what had to be seen as overwhelming odds, which captured the hearts and minds of people all across the colonies and which incites people even to this day to study the man and to try to capture that same degree of passion within their own lives.
It would be this fiery oration which would forever cement his role in American colonial history. Henry’s “Give Me Liberty of Give Me Death! ” speech was given in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775. The House, like most of the country, was undecided as to whether or not they were going to send troops. The consensus before the Henry speech it was believed, was that troops were not going to be sent and that submission to the British crown and their crippling application of taxes, would continue.
This was until Henry took the floor and gave his most famous speech and one of the most famous speeches in American history. The speech is short in length but its words jump from the page and capture more in ten minutes, than a similar speech by any one else at that time, would have accomplished in two hours. Henry continues: “This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.
It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country… I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings. ” Henry was going to make his point clear and to set in stone, the issues which were in play at this time. Henry connects the continuation of British rule in the colonies as an issue simply put: Either liberty of slavery.
There would be, in the mind of Henry, no compromise. Henry continues: “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth — to know the worst and to provide for it. I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House?
” The fact that Henry could stand at a time when he was in the minority and state with such certainty, that he was willing to die for the cause of liberty; that served as one of the most important really cries during the American Revolution. Perhaps only Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which was published the following year, had an equal, if not greater affect upon the sentiments of the American colonists who even during the war, was split on their loyalties.
Henry finished his most famous speech by stating: “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! ” There have been some doubts as to whether or not Henry actually spoke those closing words as they did not appear in print until 1817 in a book by William Wirt. What is not in doubt is the fact that once Henry had concluded his speech, the crowd jumped and proclaimed “To Arms! To Arms!
At least for the Virginia Assembly, their sentiments had been changed and the power of Henry’s oration would never be in doubt again. This event would forever be cemented in history as the legend of Patrick Henry continued to grow decades after his death. The influence of Henry did not stop with this speech. In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Henry led a group of militia against Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in the defense of a shipload of gunpowder. Also during the war, Henry served as the first post colonial governor of Virginia from 1776-1779 and then from 1784 until 1786.
After the successful completion of the war, an equally important question concerning the power of the government and the Constitution needed to be answered as well. It could be well assured that Henry was going to have an opinion and would voice it. During the immediate years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the two great political parties at that time. The Federalists and Anti Federalists, fought over control of the government as well as trying to decide the definition of the government and its future role in the lives of the people that it was going to protect and serve.
In a famous letter entitled Letters From a Famous Farmer, dated October 9, 1787, Henry wrote: “The essential parts of a free government and good government are a full and equal representation of the people in the legislature, and the jury trial of the vicinage in the administration of justice- a full and equal representation, is that which possesses the same interests, feelings, opinions and views of the people themselves would were they all assembled- a fair representation, therefore, should be so relegated, that every order of men in the community..
Can have a share in it. ” In this, Henry was a strong advocate of the addition of the Bill of Rights which would eventually be added to the Constitution in 1791, four years after the Constitution was signed. As an anti-federalist, Henry was a strong opponent of Thomas Jefferson and his protege James Madison. Subsequently, Henry was a strong opponent as well of the famous Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.
Henry warned of a civil war in Virginia between the two political parties because, as he stated, the state of Virginia “had quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution, and, in daring to pronounce upon the validity of federal laws, had gone out of her jurisdiction in a manner not warranted by any authority, and in the highest degree alarming to every considerate man; that such opposition, on the part of Virginia, must beget their enforcement by military power.
” Henry was always weary of the power of the government and believed that the government was there for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens through a fair and representative government in which the people ruled. Henry continued to remain in the political limelight and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates but died at Red Hill Plantation three months before taking office in 1799. Patrick Henry was 63 years old at his death. People are only important in how they affect others.
People who are rich and famous but who do not leave a lasting effect upon the world, either good or bad, are soon forgotten. In our current time of war, public sentiment is seen as so very important. A military power whose opponent is vastly outnumbered, can still prove to be a strong force if the people are not behind the super power in a unified way. In the same way, a small band of colonies can prove to be a strong force against what was at the time, the most powerful force in the world; the British.
Even though the colonies remained split regarding their loyalty during the entire American Revolution, those who were in favor of splitting away from the British Crown, were made that much stronger by the fearless sentiments of men like Patrick Henry who became the voice of thousands of American soldiers who shared the sentiment of liberty of death. It served as the motivation through many cold nights and long days. Patrick Henry did more than his part in assuring that future generations would eventually be able to say that they live in a free country.
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