Patrick Henry, one of America’s founding fathers, was a man of the most devout personal Christianity. Yet, he took the lead in stripping the largest church in his state of its tax revenues. He cleverly adapted the oratorical brilliance of the Awakeners to the practice law and came to be called the ‘Demosthenes of America’.
Patrick Henry, in 1759, at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson began reading law. He started his practice of Virginia law, and between 1760 and 1763, was attorney of record in 1,185 cases in Hanover and the neighboring counties. In an age when law was a genteel side pursuit of the great landowners, Henry took law as his life.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Two-Penny Act of 1758
In December 1763, Henry was hired to serve as defense lawyer for the parish vestry of Fredericksville, in Louisa County, in a case involving the so-called Two-Penny Act of 1758. The Two-Penny Act stipulated that the Church of England clergy in Virginia were to be paid in paper money rather than in tobacco, which had been done since 1696, since tobacco was more valuable than the colony’s scrip.
Reverend James Maury sued to recover the real value he thought he had been deprived of, and appealed to the king’s Privy Council, which supported Maury.
But, Henry defended the Two-Penny Act on the grounds that neither the king nor the Privy Council had the authority to annul laws duly and properly passed by a legislature of the people of Virginia. The Two-Penny Act, he said:
Had every characteristic of a good law, that it was a law of general utility, and could not be annulled consistently with the compact between the King and the people; and that by this conduct the King, from being the father of his people, had degenerated into a tyrant, and forfeited all right to his subjects’ obedience to his order regarding it.
This was an extraordinary raising of the stakes in what was otherwise a simple civil suit, but Henry was accustomed to seeing big consequences in small decisions, and, spellbound by his eloquence, the excited people seized their champion and bore him on their shoulders in triumph around the courtyard.
Learn more about the American Revolution and Howe’s war.
House of Burgesses
A year-and-half later, they elected him to the House of Burgesses. His inherited suspicion of authority blossomed in the 1760s, as the Parliament began reaching ever deeper into the colonies to control and regulate the colonial economy for Britain’s benefit.
In May 1765, the House of Burgesses adopted a series of resolutions that Henry had composed on a blank leaf of an old law book protesting the Stamp Act, and Henry strode to the floor in their defense with a blistering eloquence.
The Stamp Act
The Stamp Act, Henry declared, was tyranny, and tyranny would meet with only one end. “Tarquin and Caesar each had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third”—and at this moment the horrified Speaker of the House, John Robinson, interrupted with “Treason! Treason!” and so Henry finished with a final jab which fell only a little short of treason—“may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!
But, he bettered that in 1774, when he called on the House of Burgesses to begin arming Virginians for resistance to the Crown:
There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come! Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace. Why stand we here idle?
And then in words he borrowed from Joseph Addison’s famous play, Cato: a Tragedy of 1713, Henry asked:
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!
Learn more about creating the US Constitution.
The Confederation: A Guarantee of Liberty
Politically, Henry preferred the Confederation to anything which gave a stronger grasp over the states to Congress. But Henry did not prefer the Confederation because he loved it; he preferred it because he was convinced that its very weakness was a guarantee to the states of liberty:
“I am fearful,” Henry said, “I have lived long enough to become an old-fashioned fellow. Perhaps an invincible attachment to the dearest rights of man, may, in these refined, enlightened days, be deemed old-fashioned: if so, I am contented to be so: I say, the time has been, when every pulse of my heart beat for American liberty, and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American. Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings— give us that precious jewel, and you may take everything else!”
Patrick Henry: The Governor of Virginia
Henry was elected governor of Virginia on a wave of popularity in 1776, but he was chronically unable to work in harness with the state Assembly or even with Thomas Jefferson.
Sadly, the man whom Silas Deane of Connecticut called the Demosthenes of America—after the greatest of classical Greek orators—did not prove terribly successful beyond oratory. Henry’s accomplishments as governor of Virginia were few and unremarkable. When he left office, he declined election to the Congress, and to the surprise of George Mason, used his seat in the Virginia Assembly to begin promoting a variety of debt relief measures.
Common Questions about Patrick Henry, the Demosthenes of America
The Two-Penny Act stipulated that the Church of England clergy in Virginia were to be paid in paper money rather than in tobacco, which had been done since 1696, since tobacco was more valuable than the colony’s scrip.
Patrick Henry defended the Two-Penny Act on the grounds that neither the king nor the Privy Council had the authority to annul laws duly and properly passed by a legislature of the people of Virginia.
Patrick Henry preferred the Confederation because he was convinced that its very weakness was a guarantee to the states of liberty.