Parsons' Cause Speech

Patrick Henry,

December 1, 1763

In an angry letter to another parson, the Reverend James Maury, who had brought suit against the vestry whom Henry represented in the Parsons' Cause, recounted Henry's speech to the jury at Hanover Court House:

Mr. Henry . . . (who had been called in by the Defendants, as we suspected, to do the dirty job I some time ago told you of), after Mr. Lyons [Maury's attorney] had opened the cause, rose and harangued the jury for near an hour. This harangue turned upon points as much out of his own depth, and that of the jury, as they were foreign to the purpose; which if would be impertinent to mention here. However, after he had discussed those points, he labored to prove "that the act of 1758 had every characteristic of a good law; that it was a law of general utility, and could not, consistently with what he called the original compact between King and people, stipulating protection on the one hand and obedience on the other, be annulled." Hence, he inferred, "that a King, by annulling or disallowing Laws of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerates into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience." He further argued, "that the only use of an Established Church and Clergy in society, is to enforce obedience to civil sanctions, and the observance of those which are called duties of imperfect obligation; that, when a Clergy ceases to answer these ends, the community have no further need of their ministry, and may justly strip them of their appointments; that the Clergy of Virginia, in this particular instance of their refusing to acquiesce in the law in question, had been so far from answering, that they had most notoriously counteracted, those great ends of their institutions; that, therefore, instead of useful members of the state, they ought to be considered as enemies of the community; and that, in the case now before them [the jury], Mr. Maury, instead of countenance, and protection and recovery of damages, very justly deserved to be punished with signal severity." And then he perorates to the following purpose, "that excepting they (the jury) were disposed themselves to rivet the chains of bondage on their own necks, he hoped they would not let slip the opportunity which now offered, of making such an example of him as might, hereafter, be a warning to himself and his brethren, not to have the temerity, for the future, to dispute the validity of such laws, authenticated by the only authority, which, in his conception, could give force to laws for the government of this Colony, authority of a legal representative of a Council, and of a kind and benevolent and patriot Governor." You'll observe I do not pretend to remember his words, but take this to have been the sum and substance of this part of his labored oration. When he came to that part of it where he undertook to assert, "that a King by annulling or disallowing acts of so salutary a nature, from being the Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience;" the more sober and virtuous part of the audience were struck with horror. Mr. Lyons called out aloud, and with an honest warmth, to the Bench, "That the gentleman had spoken treason," and expressed his astonishment "that their worships could hear it without emotion, or any mark of dissatisfaction." At the same instant, too, amongst some gentlemen in the crowd behind me, was a confused murmur of Treason, Treason! Yet Mr. Henry went on in the same treasonable and licentious strain, without interruption from the Bench, even without receiving the least exterior token of their disapprobation.

Captain Thomas Trevilian, a member of the audience, recalled this portion of Henry's speech.

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 humanity 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 child their last milch cow! The last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!