Not shy to express his opinions or agitate a few in power, Patrick Henry was arguably one of the most outspoken of all of the Founding Fathers. Not surprising for a man known more for the words he spoke than for his actions during the early years of the United States. But there was much more to Patrick Henry than a great speech, even if he was one of the best orators of the Revolutionary period. Here are ten interesting things you might not have known about Patrick Henry.
- His father was a Scottish immigrant
John Henry, father of Patrick Henry, attended King’s College in Scotland before immigrating to the American colonies in the 1720’s
John Henry immigrated to the Virginia colony from Scotland in the 1720’s. The elder Henry was an educated man, having attended King’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, a school founded in 1495. In 1732, he married a wealthy widow, Sarah Winston Syme. Four years later, Patrick Henry was born on the family’s farm in Hanover, Virginia. While his son attended local schools for a while, John took it upon himself to educate the young Henry.
- Henry was married twice and fathered seventeen children
Henry and his first wife, Sarah Shelton, were married in the parlor of her family’s home near Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia, in 1754 (photo courtesy of Rob Shenk)
Henry and Sarah Shelton were married in 1754 in the parlor of her family’s home. The couple had known each other most of their lives and had six children together. After the birth of their sixth child, Sarah suffered severe depression and became prone to violent outbursts. Since there was a large misunderstanding regarding mental illness at the time, little is known about Sarah’s illness and treatment. But due to the harsh treatment of the mentally ill in hospitals and other facilities, Henry refused to send his wife away for treatment. While the details concerning her death are unknown, Sarah died in 1775.
Two years later, at age forty-one, Henry married a much younger twenty-two-year-old Dorothea Dandridge. Over the course of their marriage and a very busy career for Henry, the couple had eleven children. Henry and Dorothea retired together in 1794 to Red Hill Plantation in Charlotte County, Virginia.
- Henry never went to law school
Henry and Sarah moved to Scotchtown in Hanover County, Virginia , where Sarah passed away in 1775 due to her mental illness
After marrying Sarah Shelton in 1754, her father gave the young couple a 300-acre farm with a house and six slaves. His venture in tobacco farming was not a successful one, nor had been any other business attempts to that point. After the main house burned down in 1757, and with a growing family, Henry studied and taught himself law. In 1760 he traveled to Williamsburg to take the Virginia Bar exam. Needless to say, Henry had found his career, not to mention his place in history. In 1764 they sold the unsuccessful plantation.
- He became well-known in Virginia, thanks to tobacco and ministers
Henry became famous during a case known as the “Parson’s Cause,” in which King George III (pictured) struck down a law set by the Virginia colonial legislature
The case that brought him to fame in the colonies was known as the “Parson’s Cause.” The issue involved the salaries of Anglican clergy, who had been previously paid in tobacco. After a poor crop in 1758, the price of tobacco rose from two to six pennies a pound. In response, the Virginia Colonial legislature passed the Two-Penny Act, which allowed debts to clergy to be paid at the former price of two pennies per pound. This angered some of the clergy, and King George III struck the law down.
On behalf of the clergy, Rev. James Murray of Hanover sued the county for back wages. Henry defended the county over what became the central issue leading to the war—the king’s overreaching hand in the colonies. In successfully arguing his point, Henry said “that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits the allegiance of his subjects.” The court awarded Murray one penny in back wages, while Henry’s actions in court skyrocketed him to fame and fueled his fire for justice and freedom against British tyranny.
- He spoke one of the most famous lines in history
This painting portrays Henry giving a speech against the Stamp Act of 1765. Patrick Henry was well-known for his passionate speeches, but for none quite as much as, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Several, actually. He was one of the loudest voices of the colonial cries for freedom and one of the most effective.
It was March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. In front of an audience that included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Henry made his plea to the colonies at the Second Virginia Convention. His words struck a chord throughout the church, striking at the hearts of the leaders present. His final words carried more weight in history than the man himself: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
- He was an outlaw
On the night of April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, had the gunpowder removed from Williamsburg’s magazine. After Henry and the militia demanded payment for the “stolen” gunpowder, Dunmore had Henry declared an outlaw.
John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, was no fan of Patrick Henry. After Henry’s famous speech calling on colonists of Virginia to arm themselves, Lord Dunmore ordered the gunpowder from Williamsburg’s magazine to be removed during the night of April 20, 1775. Henry and his militia marched to Williamsburg demanding to be compensated the price of the gunpowder. Lord Dunmore paid the militia but declared Henry a dangerous outlaw. The confrontation was only hours after the British march on Concord, Massachusetts, and Henry’s actions are said to have sparked the Revolutionary War in Virginia.
- Henry was the first elected governor of Virginia
Patrick Henry, great orator of the Revolutionary War and first elected Governor of Virginia, is often remembered more for his famous lines than for his heroic actions and the firm ground he stood
After the states declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, Henry became the first elected governor of the new state of Virginia. Earlier that year, Henry had removed himself from military involvement. He had previously been both the Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of the Virginia Militia. But Henry felt the need to narrow his focus on the politics of establishing a new government, one far from the tyranny of the crown, a fear he frequently spoke out on.
Henry served three one-year terms as governor (the limit at the time) before serving in the Virginia Assembly from 1780–1784. He was then reelected as the governor of Virginia, holding the office until 1786.
- Henry was a strong opponent to the Constitution
Henry, an anti-Federalist, staunchly opposed a strong central government, leading him to decline the position of Secretary of State under the Federalist President George Washington
From the beginning, Henry expressed his fear of the United States’ having too much federal power and becoming increasingly similar to the government they had declared their freedom from. In 1787, he declined an invitation to the Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation stating he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”
When the constitution made its way to Virginia for ratification, Henry was strongly opposed to it as it left out a Bill of Rights, securing the rights of the people. He became a quick leader of what became known as the Anti-Federalist party. He debated for nearly a month before approving it upon the strict promise of the addition of a Bill of Rights. Henry remained a strong supporter of states’ rights until his death in 1799, but understood the need to stand together as a country. In his last public speech, he said, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
- Henry helped found the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia
Henry was one of the first trustees of the Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia
The name of the college organized in 1775 was named for John Hampden and Algernon Sydney, both strong advocates for civil and religious rights and believers in a strong representative government. Several patriots supported the formation of the college, among them two of the earliest trustees of Hampden-Sydney College, Patrick Henry and James Madison. The student body served in the Virginia militia during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
- He declined being Secretary of State under Washington
Upon his retirement, Patrick Henry and his wife Dorothea bought Red Hill Plantation in Charlotte County, Virginia, where he spent his final years
His staunch opposition to a strong federal government also resulted in his turning down a position most would have found an honor, as well as a strategic political move.
President George Washington offered Henry the position of Secretary of State. He declined the position, as Washington was a Federalist, and he disagreed with him on various issues. He also turned down an offer by President John Adams to serve as the special envoy to France in 1798. He did not consider himself in good enough health to take the appointment, and died the following year.