Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Studley, Virginia. He was a brilliant orator and an influential leader in the opposition to British government. As a young lawyer, he astonished his courtroom audience in 1763 with an eloquent defense based on the doctrine of natural rights—the political theory that man is born with certain inalienable rights.
On his twenty-ninth birthday, as a new member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Henry presented a series of resolutions—the Stamp Act Resolves—which opposed Britain’s Stamp Act. The Resolves were adopted on May 30, 1765. He concluded his introduction of the Resolves with the fiery words “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—” when, it is reported, voices cried out, “Treason! treason!” He continued, “—and George the Third may profit by their example! If this be treason make the most of it.”
Henry went on to serve as a member of the first Virginia Committee of Correspondence, which facilitated inter-colonial cooperation, and as a delegate to the Continental Congresses of 1774 and 1775. At the second Virginia Convention, on March 23, 1775, in St. John’s Church, Richmond, he delivered his most famous speech. As war with Great Britain appeared inevitable, Henry proclaimed:
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! Why stand we here idle? 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!
Henry was the first elected governor of the state of Virginia, serving five one-year terms in this office from 1776-79 and again from 1784-86, alternating with terms as a member of the state legislature. Throughout his public career, Henry retained his leadership role, having a profound influence on the development of the new nation.
In 1788 Henry opposed Virginia’s ratification of the new U.S. Constitution because of his concern that the rights of individuals and of states were inadequately protected. After the Constitution was adopted, he continued to work for the addition of the first ten amendments guaranteeing the freedoms that came to be known as the Bill of Rights. His last speech before he died in 1799 was a plea for American unity in response to early arguments favoring primacy of states’ rights.
- Search on Patrick Henry to find correspondence, memoranda, and other items of interest relating to this American patriot in the following document collections:
- Creating a Constitution, part of the Special Presentation To Form A More Perfect Union, provides an overview of the events leading up to ratification and an introduction to the documents in the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 collection. Search the collection on Virginia AND Constitution, to find more documents pertaining to ratification by Virginia.
- Learn more about the Constitution by visiting Congress.gov.