Henry's Early Life and Times (and other life events)

A Short Biography of Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry—Founding Father, patriot, orator, governor, husband, father, grandfather, and friend.

Who was the man who walked the rolling lawns of Red Hill? He is best remembered for his speech given at St. John’s Church in 1775, in which he cried “give me liberty or give me death!” to the charged crowd, urging them to Revolution. But he is also the man who fought for and won the Bill of Rights, which preserved individual liberties in the fledgling nation, and still does today. He was a five-term governor of Virginia, as well as its first governor.

He was also a devoted family man, fathering 17 children in the course of two marriages. He was remembered by his friends and political opponents alike for his sharp wit and strong integrity. He turned down appointments as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Ambassador to Spain and France, and even as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, much to George Washington’s disappointment.

His led a rich life, and Henry was a rich character. Read more below about why we are so committed to the legacy of this great patriot.

Early Life and Times

Patrick Henry was born at Studley in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, l736. His father John Henry was a Scottish-born planter. His mother Sarah Winston Syme was a young widow from a prominent gentry family. Henry attended a local school for a few years and received the remainder of his formal education from his father, who had attended King's College in Aberdeen.

At fifteen Henry began working as a clerk for a local merchant. A year later, in 1752, he and his older brother William opened their own store, which promptly failed.

At age eighteen, not yet having found his profession, Henry married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton, whose dowry was a 600-acre farm called Pine Slash, a house, and six slaves. Henry's first attempt as a planter ended when fire destroyed his house in 1757. After a second attempt at storekeeping proved unsuccessful, Henry helped his father-in-law at Hanover Tavern, across the road from the county courthouse, and began reading law.

The Voice of the Revolution

Parson's Cause of 1763, Henry's address to the jury made him a popular defender of the rights of colonial Americans. His was an early and powerful voice against Britain's attempt to impose taxation on the American colonies. Attacking the Stamp Act in the heated debates of the House of Burgesses in 1765, Henry hurled defiance at Parliament. Timid souls blanched as he compared George III to Julius Caesar and Charles I, but Henry responded that the king might "profit by their example."

Henry and Independence

Henry delivered his most famous speech in March 1775 at St. John's Church during the Second Virginia Convention. His eloquent words that day became a clarion call that led the colonies toward independence: "We must fight!" "Gentlemen may cry 'peace, peace' - but there is no peace." "As for me, give me liberty or give me death."

As the first elected governor of Virginia, Henry supported George Washington and the patriot cause at critical moments in the War for Independence. Henry supported the movement for independence in 1776, He also participated in the drafting Virginia's new constitution and it Declaration of Rights, an important precursor of the federal Bill of Rights. Henry served three terms as governor, from 1776 to 1779 and two subsequent terms from 1784 to 1786. He worked closely with George Washington to raise and equip the soldiers who won American independence, and in 1778 sent Virginia troops under George Rogers Clark to hold the Old Northwest against the British and their Indian allies.

Building a Nation

Henry's statesmanship did not end with the Revolution and achievement of independence. While recognizing the need to augment the financial resources of the confederation congress, he was critical of the extensive powers given to the central government by the Constitution of 1787. He was adamant in his demand for the protection of basic individual liberties. Henry's speeches in the Virginia Convention of 1788 testify to his insistence that American freedom required a Bill of Rights.

The Later Years

After twenty-five years in Virginia's legislature, five conventions, and five exhausting terms as governor, Patrick Henry retired to Red Hill and resumed his private legal practice. Failing health and the needs of his family prompted him to decline appointment as Chief Justice of the United States, Secretary of State, and minister to Spain and to France. He even turned down a sixth term as governor of Virginia. 

Only a direct appeal from George Washington persuaded Henry to stand for election to the Virginia legislature in 1799. Partisan strife threatened to undermine the young republic. The repressive Alien and Sedition Acts prompted opponents to assert that states could nullify acts of the federal government. Bowed with age, his health precarious, Patrick Henry made his last public oration to the voters at Charlotte County Courthouse - an appeal for unity and moderation to preserve the nation. Patrick Henry died three months later, on June 6, 1799, and was buried at Red Hill. The "Voice of the Revolution" fell silent - but his words echo into the 21st century.