Firing the first salvo of the American Revolution

Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry

Ask most any American who has a working knowledge of his/her country’s history who they consider the greatest of the Founding Fathers to be and three names normally ring out – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  All three did much to aid in the birth of the great nation known as the United States of America and rightfully deserve their place in history.  In some respects, however, another tops them all and though remembered for his famous speech delivered just prior to the start of the Revolutionary War, there is much more to this great man than the majority of Americans are aware.

Born on May 29, 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia, Patrick Henry left a mark on his country and in the hearts of his countrymen, the likes to which few can compare.  The son of John Henry and Sarah Watson, Patrick would become the symbol for his country’s struggle to obtain liberty and self-government from the oppressive fist of Mother England.

Patrick’s mother was from an old Virginia family.  Her first husband was a wealthy planter.  After he died, Sarah married John Henry, a Scottish immigrant.  Those in the social circles where Sarah had many friends felt she had lost her senses by marrying the Scottish farmer, but John proved to be a worthy resident as time went on when he reached the rank of Justice of the Peace.

Patrick, named after his uncle, was the second of nine children.  The family was close and Patrick enjoyed a happy childhood.  John taught his children at home rather than sending them to school.  John not only used books to educate his children, but also took them in the out-of-doors to teach them how to hunt and fish.  Patrick loved the solitude of the country and would many times walk through the woods by himself.  Both John and Uncle Patrick were college graduates, so even though Patrick was not considered an intellectual, he was most definitely intelligent.

1748 saw the arrival of a young Presbyterian minister – Samuel Davies.  It was said of Davies when he walked into a room, he had the appearance of a king’s ambassador.  Taken by his mother to camp meetings where Davies spoke, it is thought this became a training ground of sorts for Patrick’s future speaking skills.  Though he did not convert to the faith of his mother, Henry found a way to fuse both the gentry and evangelical styles into a new identity for his life.

At the age of 15, Henry worked in his father’s dry good store.  Not the best of businessmen, Patrick’s efforts were less than great.  The exposure, however, to the ways of Virginia society were absorbed by the youth.  He soon fit in comfortably with the aristocracy, enjoying the trappings of Virginia gentry as he continued his studies of Samuel Davies.  Patrick wanted more for himself than his father had acquired and was attracted to the world of power he found within the court house.

In 1754, the young patriot was overtaken by love for the local innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah (Sally) Sheldon.  Theirs was a short courtship and when they married in October; her father gave them a farm as a dowry.  A daughter was later born, the first of 17 children Henry would father, but her birth date was never recorded within the family Bible.

When their home later burned to the ground, Henry moved his family into his father-in-law’s inn.  Here he became the innkeeper and flourished in the role.  He felt he had truly found his calling.  The position of innkeeper offered with it the opportunity for Henry to rub shoulders with many distinguishing individuals and built within him a keen interest in law and politics.  After six months, he had gained enough knowledge in the field of law, he was able to travel to Williamsburg and gain his law license.  In the process, he appeared before Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton & John Randolph and George Wythe.  He was 23 when he began his law practice.  Many of his clients were religious dissenters, most of them Baptist, due to the fact the majority of Virginia’s populous considered the Baptist to be troublemakers.

In 1750, a drought occurred which resulted in the death of that year’s tobacco crop.  The lack of a crop resulted in the tobacco tax not being collected.  It was from this tax the Anglican priests were paid.  In 1763 the Reverend James Maury sued in the famed Parson’s Cause.  Justice of the Peace John Henry presided as judge during the case.  John ruled in favor of Maury, stating his claim was valid.  Patrick spoke in defense of Hanover County, in opposition to his father.

As Patrick began his statement, his posture was such that his head was lowered and his shoulders stooped.  John felt his son was about to prove himself an embarrassment to the Henry family, but his attitude quickly changed when his son began to speak.  As Patrick’s words became stronger, his head came up and his back & shoulders straightened.  He fiercely attacked the greedy parsons for wanting their pound of flesh from the tax money as was done in Europe by stating:

We have heard a great deal about the benevolence and holy zeal of our reverend clergy, but how is this manifested? Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanities, by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus? Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Oh no, gentlemen! Instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, these rapacious harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milk cow, the last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!

When Patrick finished, his father’s pride in him was so great, it spilled from John’s eyes in the form of tears.  The jury was sent out of the room and returned within five minutes.  The award they gave to Parson Maury was 1 farthing – equal to one penny.  Henry was carried from the courthouse on the shoulders of the people and his political career had been launched.  As fine a speech as he offered in the courthouse, the budding orator’s greatest proclamation was yet to come.

The results of the Parson’s Cause served to proclaim discontent within the colony of Virginia.  A year later, England imposed the sugar and stamp taxes on the colonists.  The area aristocrats protested, but only in mere words.  This angered the middle class, who sought a voice for their cause.  They found it in Patrick Henry.

The election in May, 1765 awarded a seat in the House of Burgess to the young Henry.  As a freshman member, Patrick stayed in his seat for the first 10 days as he watched older members fumble around for a proper response to the Stamp Act.  On May 29th, the young statesman celebrated his 29th birthday by offering the assembly a series of resolutions befitting the current crisis, the majority of which were familiar to his colleagues:

  • American colonists had transported British rights to North America at the time of their immigration.
  • Those rights had been confirmed on two different occasions by Virginia’s royal charters.
  • The right to be taxed by representatives of one’s own choosing was one of the most fundamental of British liberties.

It was his next statement, however, which raised the eyebrows of a number of his constituents; as well as creating a direct challenge to the authority of Parliament:

  • Only colonial assemblies had the right to impose taxes upon their constituents, and this right was not transferable to any other body.

The following day, Henry offered his maiden speech in the assembly, at which time he defended his resolutions by expanding with his words the scope of his criticism; criticism not solely reserved for Parliament.  Instead, Henry offered a serving of it to King George III as well when he said, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell and George the Third — .”  As he spoke, cries of ‘treason’ rang out among those in attendance.  Henry paused while they vented, then after the voices subsided, he finished his interrupted statement, “. . . may profit by their example.  If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Though Henry later offered an apology to the assembly and expressed loyalty to George III, the words he spoke proved to be the match which lit a grassfire of enthusiasm in the patriots as they were circulated in various newspapers throughout the colonies.

The entirety of Henry’s remarks is not known.  The forceful words which served to rock the assembly and offered a veiled threat to the Crown, so captivated the attention of the assembly’s scribe, he failed to write them down.  Some said when Henry spoke, it was as if he was a combination of Shakespeare and Garrick – both author and actor – due to the fact he not only wrote the script, but dramatized it as well.  Thomas Jefferson heard the speech and stated Henry spoke as Homer wrote.  His method was both evangelical and electrifying.

The words of Henry’s Stamp Act speech so riled the colonists that within a few months, Mother England removed the tax.  A new slogan was now adopted by the colonies – “no taxation without representation.”  Ten years prior to the ‘shot heard round the world,’ Patrick Henry fired the first salvo of the American Revolution; with a determination that the voice of liberty would be heard.  He considered the rebellion to be that of a grassroots nature – logical at first, then physical.

After bearing her sixth child, Sarah Henry lost her mind.  Rather than institutionalize her, Patrick kept her at home with a servant to care for her round the clock.  Her poor health weighed heavily on his mind, but Henry also knew he must continue to remain involved with the situations facing his country.

In May 1774, the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence delivered a message informing the residents of Virginia the Port of Boston would be closed.  June 1, 1774 was set aside by the Virginia House of Burgesses as a day of “fasting, humiliation, and prayer,” in support of the citizens of Boston. Governor Dunmore then dissolved the Virginia Assembly.  89 of the Burgesses now gathered at the Raleigh Tavern.  Under Henry’s leadership, they proposed all the colonies meet in a Continental congress and Henry traveled to Philadelphia to participate.  Here he met Samuel Adams, founder of the Sons of Liberty.  Together these two patriots were fully convinced war with England was inevitable.  When the Continental Congress ended, Adams returned to Massachusetts and Henry to Virginia.  Henry’s homecoming would be a sad one due to the death of Sarah in February 1775.

On March 20, 1775, 120 delegates met in Virginia.  Among them were three great patriots – George Washington – referred to as the sword of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson – the pen of the Revolution and Patrick Henry – the tongue of the Revolution.  Henry’s oratory skills were now honed to such a degree that when he stood to speak, an earthly fire would build in his eyes, his voice lowered and the walls would all but shake. For three days Henry refrained from adding his voice to the remarks being shared.  On March 23, that all changed as he gave one of the greatest speeches ever in American history.  His pale face and fiery eyes claimed the attention of the congregation as he spoke and the final lines of his remarks amounted to a call-to-arms:

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace– but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!

The powerful orator had proclaimed the clarion call which would serve to help launch the American Revolution.  As he concluded his remarks, the congregation came alive and professed their allegiance to his challenge.  When the first shots flew at Lexington and Concord, the soldiers’ uniforms had upon them the words Liberty or Death; a tradition which continued through the Civil War.

The words Patrick Henry spoke on that day became the zenith of his fame, but were only the beginning of his work as a Founding Father.  Shortly thereafter, he became a colonel in Virginia’s regiment.  George Washington later convinced Henry to relinquish his commission and return to being a statesman.

April 1775, word reached Virginia’s ears about the clash of American colonists and British redcoats in Lexington, Massachusetts and the fact Governor Dunmore had seized the gunpowder located in the magazine at Williamsburg.  Henry demanded Dunmore return the gunpowder to the colony.  Dunmore did so, then issued a proclamation labeling ‘a certain Patrick Henry’ an outlaw for disturbing the colony’s peace.

In the spring of 1776, the Old Dominion (nickname given to Virginia by King Charles II for its perceived loyalty to the English monarchy) became the first to declare its independence and Henry her first governor.  Having contracted malaria, Patrick lay upon his sickbed as he took the oath of office.  Due to events of the past, the colonists had little trust for the office of governor, so the powers Henry had while serving in his post were few.  He used his legal skill to help guide Virginia through the early years of the Revolution.  After moving his family to the governor’s palace, he began to procure aid and arms, while increasing the enlistment for the Continental Army.  He also sent George Rogers Clark to explore the Kentucky Territory, an area to which Virginia presently held claim.

In 1777, love found Henry a second time.  His new wife, Dorothea Dandridge, was two years younger than his oldest daughter.  This resulted in Dorothea’s relationship with Sarah’s children being more of a sister than that of a stepmother.  Dorothea bore Patrick 11 children and it was said the Henry home was one where the cradle never stopped rocking.

On June 6, 1799, Patrick Henry died at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia.  Though fiery in politics, Henry was prudent in his personal life.  He boldly represented the mass of new Americans, not the privileged few.  Possessing a charisma seen in only a minority of individuals, Patrick Henry proclaimed his thoughts in a language which spoke for thousands.  Regarding the liberty gained by the Revolution, Henry said:

Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse will depend upon the use our people will make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed upon us.  If they be wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable.  Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation.  Reader, whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere, practice virtue thyself and encourage it in others.


  1. "Liberty or death" is as fine an true a slogan today as the day Patrick spoke it….Is it now "Liberty or Death" to our republic?

    I believe 2012 will tell.