Patrick Henry (1736–1799) was a firebrand speaker, an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and an early opponent of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. His opposition helped convince Federalists to agree to support a bill of rights to militate against what Henry and other Anti-Federalists viewed as a threat to states’ rights and individual rights from a powerful federal government. The promise of a bill of rights helped pave the way for the adoption of the Constitution in 1788.
Henry was a skilled lawyer
Born in colonial Virginia of an English mother and Scottish father, Henry failed as a farmer and storekeeper but found his calling in the law. In court he displayed quick wit, knowledge of human nature, and forensic gifts. In 1763 he defended local tax collectors in a damage suit, arguing natural rights, after the British crown had disallowed a Virginia law that permitted payment of the Anglican clergy in money instead of tobacco. Although Henry technically lost the case, known as the Parsons’ Cause, the jury awarded only nominal damages to the clergy, and Henry’s fame grew.
In 1764 Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the Virginia legislature, where he supported frontier interests against the aristocracy. His speech against the Stamp Act in 1765 asserted the rights of the colonies to make their own laws. (“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)
Henry was a delegate to the First Continental Congress
Henry was a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. At the Virginia Convention in 1775, he sponsored measures for armed resistance to the British by the Virginia militia. (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) Although he was prepared to go to war with Britain, he initially opposed independence, thinking that independence was premature until a strong government could be established and alliances made with France and Spain.
Henry advocated for state support for religious teachers
After helping to draw up Virginia’s state constitution, in 1776, Henry served three one-year terms as governor. His influence with the legislature was sporadic because of his habit of leaving before the end of the session. As commander-in-chief of Virginia troops during the Revolutionary War, he was prevented from exercising command by state leaders who considered him erratic.
After the war, Henry advocated amnesty for British Loyalists and state support for religious teachers, the latter position putting him in conflict with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who advocated strict separation of church and state and successfully pushed for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Henry returned to law practice
Public service had left Henry badly in debt. He returned for a while to his law practice and became a successful criminal attorney. As a state legislator (1783–1784), he was in favor of strengthening the Articles of Confederation and allowing state taxes for support of churches.
After serving as governor of Virginia from 1784 to 1786, he returned to the legislature until 1790. He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and led the Anti-Federalists at the Virginia ratifying convention in opposing the Constitution.
Henry opposed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
Near the end of his career, Henry opposed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which Jefferson and Madison had secretly written in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; he denied that a state had the right to decide the constitutionality of federal laws. Fearing that the radicalism of the French Revolution would infect the United States, Henry made an apparent turnabout and joined the Federalist Party. He then successfully ran, at George Washington’s request, for the Virginia legislature in 1799. He died before taking his seat.
This article was originally published in 2009. Martin Gruberg was President of the Fox Valley Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin.