From time to time throughout history, God has raised up certain men to become champions of truth in their generation. In the days of the American War for Independence, an unlikely hero from rural Virginia became known as the “Trumpet of the Revolution.” His bold proclamation of truth, his willingness to confront apathy among his countrymen, and his courage to raise a timely warning against tyranny earned him this descriptive title.
That man was Patrick Henry. He was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. He was the son of John and Sarah Henry. His father was Scottish and his mother was English. Each Sunday, Mrs. Henry took her son to hear the Word of God preached in the surrounding churches. Although the Henry family was officially Anglican, young Patrick often accompanied his mother to hear the preaching of Samuel Davies, a local Presbyterian pastor. Pastor Davies’s messages not only influenced young Patrick’s love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but it also taught him the power of oratory to convey truth to the minds and hearts of men. A love for truth would become a mark of Patrick Henry’s life and service.
At the age of fifteen, Henry became a store clerk, selling merchandise to the local farmers. He spent most of his time, however, attentively listening to the conversations of the men who met and discussed matters of religion and politics in his store.
Patrick Henry met and married a young lady named Sarah Shelton. He was eighteen years old when they wed, and Sarah was only sixteen years old. Sarah’s father gave the young couple a small farm called “Pine Slash.” The next year, their first child was born. In addition to farming, Henry helped his father-in-law manage a family inn. The young man and father also enjoyed playing the fiddle for the entertainment of the guests.
In spite of his many talents and good character, success always seemed to elude Patrick Henry in his youth. His store closed. A drought caused his farm to fail. It seemed that Providence had laid out for him a different path. Following the advice of a local lawyer, Patrick Henry began studying law on his own. After six weeks of intense study, Henry mounted his horse for the 50-mile ride to Williamsburg, the Virginia Colony capital, where he would appear before a panel of examiners. The board consisted of such esteemed men as George Wythe, John Randolph, Peyton Randolph, and Robert Carter Nicholas, the Attorney General of the Colony of Virginia. These distinguished men were at first put off by Patrick Henry’s country habits, plain dress, and obvious lack of formal learning. But the force of his logic, the simplicity of his manner, and the natural power of his words convinced the board to grant the young lawyer’s license. They could see that the young man was devoted to pursuing the truth with integrity and honesty, and they decided that he would make a valuable contribution to the field of law regardless of his lack of formal training.
Patrick Henry returned to Hanover County to take up the practice of law. Steadily over time, he won the trust of his fellow citizens. The number of his clients grew. Henry remained a relatively unknown lawyer until he was asked to take up a case known as “The Parson’s Cause” in 1763. The case involved an unwarranted complaint among the Anglican clergy that they had not been paid enough due to the changing prices of tobacco. The Anglican clergymen throughout that part of Virginia were suing for back pay. The first phase of the trial had already been won by the clergy, but Patrick Henry ignored the details of the case and focused upon the injustice of the King of England’s veto of an act of Parliament. He suggested that the king was acting as a tyrant, and that the clergy had acted selfishly instead of following the example of the Lord Jesus. So overwhelming was his oratory and his scathing rebuke of hypocrisy and deceit, that the jury awarded the selfish clergyman in question exactly one penny! This case made Patrick Henry famous throughout the land as an advocate for truth and a champion for liberty from oppression.
Patrick Henry was elected to serve in the House of Burgesses (the parliamentary body of the Colony of Virginia) in 1764. He became known throughout Virginia as a staunch defender of religious liberty, an enemy of unjust taxation, and an advocate for holding tyrants in check, even by force of arms, if necessary.
In his speech against the infamous Stamp Act, Patrick Henry compared King George III to Julius Caesar and to Charles I. He reminded his hearers that these tyrants had met their just ends. When loyalists in the chamber cried out “Treason!” Patrick Henry turned to them and said calmly, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Patrick Henry is most famous for the speech he gave at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, as a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention. Referring to the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 8:11, Henry proclaimed that other gentlemen were merely making the masses happy by prophesying “‘Peace, peace!” Then he said, “But there is no peace. The war is actually begun!” Continuing his oration, Henry urged his fellow Virginians to take up arms to defend the cause of truth and liberty. He ended his speech with these famous words: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Henry put action to his words when British sympathizer Governor Dunmore sent the Royal Marines to seize the gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg. Taking command of a party of local militia, Patrick Henry led as they marched in defiance of Dunmore’s illegal seizure.
Although Henry had no military experience, he was made commander of all Virginia forces for a time. When the forces of Virginia were transferred to Continental Command under George Washington, Henry was elected the first governor of an independent Virginia. After the victory over the British and the conclusion of his term as governor, Patrick Henry was chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He refused the appointment, saying frankly, “I smelt a rat.”
Patrick Henry courageously warned his generation that an overreaching federal government would one day erode the authority of the individual states. He foresaw a day when state governments would again be threatened by tyranny, not by the tyranny of the British crown, but by the tyranny of federal power. His protests were largely unheeded. Although he was offered important federal government posts, such as Secretary of State under George Washington and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Patrick Henry declined them all and remained in his native Virginia.
Henry spent his final years at Red Hill, his modest family farm, and continued urging a new generation to never forget the blessings of true liberty. Patrick Henry had six children by his first wife, Sarah. After Sarah’s death, he remarried and had eleven more by his second wife, Dorothea. It is said of Henry that he began rocking the cradle when he was eighteen years old and was still rocking it at his death at the age of sixty-three.
In his final days on earth, an aging Henry could often be found on the porch of his home reading his Bible, an unchanging and unchanged source of truth that will always stand the test of time. He enjoyed the company of his many children and was happiest when his little ones were crawling all over him as he read to them or played his fiddle. He died with a prayer for his family upon his lips and is now buried in a quiet grave on the family farm. He had no grand inheritance to leave to his children and grandchildren, but he admonished them that “the religion of Christ will give them one which will make them rich indeed.”
Sources and Further Reference:
Vaughan, David. Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1997.
Henry, William Wirt. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1993.