Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Patrick Henry, the Herald of the Revolution

There was a day in the history of the Old Dominion when a great lawsuit was to be tried,—a great one, that is, to the people of Hanover County, where it was heard, and to the colony of Virginia, though not to the country at large. The Church of England was the legal church in Virginia, whose people were expected to support it. This the members of other churches did not like to do, and the people of Hanover County would not pay the clergymen for their preaching. This question of paying the preachers spread far and wide. It came to the House of Burgesses, which body decided that the people need not pay them. It crossed the ocean and reached the king of England, who decided that the people must pay them. As the king's voice was stronger than that of the burgesses, the clergy felt that they had an excellent case, and they brought a lawsuit to recover their claims. By the old law each clergyman was to be paid his salary in tobacco, one hundred and sixty thousand pounds weight a year.

There seemed to be nothing to do but pay them, either in cash or tobacco. All the old lawyers who looked into the question gave it up at once, saying that the people had no standing against the king and the clergy. But while men were saying that the case for the county would be passed without a trial and a verdict rendered for the clergy, an amusing rumor began to spread around. It was said that young Patrick Henry was going to conduct the case for the people.

We call this amusing, and so it was to those who knew Patrick Henry. He was a lawyer, to be sure, but one who knew almost nothing about the law and had never made a public speech in his life. He was only twenty-seven years of age, and those years had gone over him mainly in idleness. In his boyhood days he had spent his time in fishing, hunting, dancing, and playing the fiddle, instead of working on his father's farm. As he grew older he liked sport too much and work too little to make a living. He tried store-keeping and failed through neglect of his business. He married a wife whose father gave him a farm, but he failed with this, too, fishing and fiddling when he should have been working, and in two years the farm was sold. Then he went back to store-keeping, and with the same result. The trouble was his love for the fiddle and the fishing-line, which stood very much in the way of business. He was too lazy and fond of good company and a good time to make a living for himself and his wife.

The easy-going fellow was now in a critical situation. He had to do something if he did not want to starve, so he borrowed some old law-books and began to read law. Six weeks later he applied to an old judge for a license to practise in the courts. The judge questioned him and found that he knew nothing about the law; but young Henry pleaded with him so ardently, and promised so faithfully to keep on studying, that the judge gave him the license and he hung out his shingle as a lawyer.

Whatever else Patrick Henry might be good for, people thought that to call himself a lawyer was a mere laughing matter. An awkward, stooping, ungainly fellow, dressed roughly in leather breeches and yarn stockings, and not knowing even how to pronounce the king's English correctly, how could he ever succeed in a learned profession? As a specimen of his manner of speech at that time we are told that once, when denying the advantages of education, he clinched the argument by exclaiming, "Nait'ral parts are better than all the larnin' on airth."

Home of Patrick Henry


As for the law, he did not know enough about it to draw up the simplest law-paper. As a result, he got no business, and was forced, as a last resort, to help keep a tavern which his father-in-law possessed at Hanover Court-House. And so he went on for two or three years, till 1763, when the celebrated case came up. Those who knew him might well look on it as a joke when the word went round that Patrick Henry was going to "plead against the parsons." That so ignorant a lawyer should undertake to handle a case which all the old lawyers had refused might well be held as worthy only of ridicule. They did not know Patrick Henry. It is not quite sure that he knew himself. His father sat on the bench as judge, but what he thought of his son's audacity history does not say.

When the day for the trial came there was a great crowd at Hanover Court-House, for the people were much interested in the case. On the opening of the court the young lawyer crossed the street from the tavern and took his seat behind the bar. What he saw was enough to dismay and confuse a much older man. The court-room was crowded, and every man in it seemed to have his eyes fixed on the daring young counsel, many of them with covert smiles on their faces. The twelve men of the jury were chosen. There were present a large number of the clergy waiting triumphantly for the verdict, which they were sure would be in their favor, and looking in disdain at the young lawyer. On the bench as judge sat John Henry, doubtless feeling that he had a double duty to perform, to judge at once the case and his son.

The aspiring advocate, so little learned in the law and so poorly dressed and ungainly in appearance, looked as if he would have given much just then to be out of the court and clear of the case. But the die was cast; he was in for it now.

The counsel for the clergymen opened the case. He dwelt much on the law of the matter, whose exact meaning he declared was beyond question. The courts had already decided on that subject, and so had his sacred majesty, the king of England. There was nothing for the jury to do, he asserted, but to decide how much money his clients were entitled to under the law. The matter seemed so clear that he made but a brief address and sat down with a look of complete satisfaction. As he did so Patrick Henry rose.

This, as may well be imagined, was a critical moment in the young lawyer's life. He rose very awkwardly and seemed thoroughly frightened. Every eye was fixed on him and not a sound was heard. Henry was in a state of painful embarrassment. When he began to speak, his voice was so low that he could hardly be heard, and he faltered so sadly that his friends felt that all was at an end.

But, as he himself had once said, "Nait'ral parts are better than all the larnin' on airth;" and he had these "nait'ral parts," as he was about to prove. As he went on a change in his aspect took place. His form became erect, his head uplifted, his voice clearer and firmer. He soon began to make it appear that he had thought deeply on the people's cause and was prepared to handle it strongly. His eyes began to flash, his voice to grow resonant and fill the room; in the words of William Wirt, his biographer, "As his mind rolled along and began to glow from its own action, all the exuviae of the clown seemed to shed themselves spontaneously."

The audience listened in surprise, the clergy in consternation. Was this the Patrick Henry they had known? It was very evident that the young advocate knew just what he was talking about, and he went on with a forcible and burning eloquence that fairly carried away every listener. There was no thought now of his clothes and his uncouthness. The man stood revealed before them, a man with a gift of eloquence such as Virginia had never before known. He said very little on the law of the ease, knowing that to be against him, but he addressed himself to the jury on the rights of the people and of the colony, and told them it was their duty to decide between the House of Burgesses and the king of England. The Burgesses, he said, were their own people, men of their own choice, who had decided in their favor; the king was a stranger to them, and had no right to order them what to do.

Here he was interrupted by the old counsel for the clergy, who rose in great indignation and exclaimed, "The gentleman has spoken treason."

We do not know just what words Henry used in reply. We hate no record of that famous speech. But he was not the man to be frightened by the word "treason," and did not hesitate to repeat his words more vigorously than before. As for the parsons, he declared, their case was worthless. Men who led such lives as they were known to have done had no right to demand money from the people. So bitterly did he denounce them that all those in the room rose and left the court in a body.

By the time the young advocate had reached the end of his speech the whole audience was in a state of intense excitement. They had been treated to the sensation of their lives, and looked with utter astonishment at the marvellous orator, who had risen from obscurity to fame in that brief hour. Breathless was the interest with which the jury's verdict was awaited. The judge charged that the law was in favor of the parsons and that the king's order must be obeyed, but they had the right to decide on the amount of damages. They were not long in deciding, and their verdict was the astounding one of one penny damages.

The crowd was now beyond control. A shout of delight and approbation broke out. Uproar and confusion followed the late decorous quiet. The parsons' lawyer cried out that the verdict was illegal and asked the judge to send the jury back. But his voice was lost in the acclamations of the multitude. Gathering round Patrick Henry, they picked him up bodily, lifted him to their shoulders, and bore him out, carrying him in triumph through the town, which rang loudly with their cries and cheers. Thus it was that the young lawyer of Hanover rose to fame.

Two years after that memorable day Patrick Henry found himself in a different situation. He was now a member of the dignified House of Burgesses, the oldest legislative body in America. An aristocratic body it was, made up mostly of wealthy landholders, dressed in courtly attire and sitting in proud array. There were few poor men among them, and perhaps no other plain countryman to compare with the new member from Hanover County, who had changed but little in dress and appearance from his former aspect.

A great question was before the House. The Stamp Act had been passed in England and the people of the colonies were in a high state of indignation. They rose in riotous mobs and vowed they would never pay a penny of the tax. As for the Burgesses, they proposed to act with more loyalty and moderation. They would petition the king to do them justice. It was as good as rebellion to refuse to obey him.

The member from Hanover listened to their debate, and said to himself that it was weak and its purpose futile. He felt sure that the action they proposed would do no good, and when they had fairly exhausted themselves he rose to offer his views do the question at issue.

Very likely some of the fine gentlemen there looked at him with surprise and indignation. Who was this presumptuous new member who proposed to tell the older members what to do? Some of them may have known him and been familiar with that scene in Hanover Court-House. Others perhaps mentally deplored the indignity of sending common fellows like this to sit in their midst.

But Patrick Henry now knew his powers, and cared not a whit for their respectable sentiments. He had something to say and proposed to say it. Beginning in a quiet voice, he told them that the Stamp Act was illegal, as ignoring the right of the House to make the laws for the colony. It was not only illegal, but it was oppressive, and he moved that the House of Burgesses should pass a series of resolutions which he would read.

These resolutions were respectful in tone, but very decided in meaning. The last of them declared that nobody but the Burgesses had the right to tax Virginians. This statement roused the house. It sounded like rebellion against the king. Several speakers rose together and all of them denounced the resolutions as injudicious and impertinent. The excitement of the loyalists grew as they proceeded, but they subsided into silence when the man who had offered the resolutions rose to defend them.

Patrick Henry was aroused. As he spoke his figure grew straight and erect, his voice loud and resonant, his eye flashed, the very sweep of his hand was full of force and power. He for one was not prepared to become a slave to England and her king. He denounced the islanders who proposed to rob Americans of their vested rights. In what way was an Englishman better than a Virginian? he asked. Were they not of one blood and born with the same right to liberty and justice? What right had the Parliament to act the tyrant to the colonies? Then, referring to the king, he bade him in thundering tones to beware of the consequences of his acts.

"Caesar had his Brutus," he exclaimed, in tones of thrilling force, "Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—"

Treason! Treason!' came from a dozen excited voices, but Henry did not flinch.

"May profit by their example." Then, in a quieter tone, he added: "If this be treason, make the most of it!"

He took his seat. He had said his words. These words still roll down the tide of American history as resonantly as when they were spoken. As for the House of Burgesses, it was carried away by the strength of this wonderful speech. When the resolutions came to a vote it was seen that Henry had won. They were carried, even the last and most daring of them, by one vote majority. As the Burgesses tumultuously adjourned, one member rushed out in great excitement, declaring that he would have given five hundred guineas for one vote to defeat the treasonable resolutions. But the people with delight heard of what had passed, and as Henry passed through the crowd a plain country-man clapped him on the shoulder, exclaiming,

"Stick to us, old fellow, or we are gone."

Ten years later, in the old church of St. John's, at Richmond, Virginia, standing not far from the spot where the old Indian emperor, Powhatan, once resided, a convention was assembled to decide on the state of the country. Rebellion was in the air. In a month more the first shots of the Revolution were to be fired at Lexington. Patrick Henry, still the same daring patriot as of old, rose and moved that Virginia "be immediately put in a state of defence."

St. John's Church


This raised almost as much opposition as his former resolutions in the House of Burgesses, and his blood was boiling as he rose to speak. It was the first speech of his that has been preserved, and it was one that still remains unsurpassed in the annals of American eloquence. We give its concluding words. He exclaimed, in tones of thunder,

"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! It is in vain 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. 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!"

His motion was passed, and Virginia told the world that she was ready to fight. A month later there came from the north "the clash of resounding arms;" the American Revolution was launched.

"It is not easy to say what we would have done without Patrick Henry," says Thomas Jefferson. "His eloquence was peculiar; if, indeed, it should be called eloquence, for it was impressive and sublime beyond what can be imagined. After all, it must be allowed that he was our leader. He left us all far behind."