Patrick Henry - American Revolution

American Revolution

Responding to pleas from Massachusetts that the colonies create committees of correspondence to coordinate their activities related to the British, Henry took the lead in Virginia. In March 1773, along with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, Henry led the Virginia House of Burgesses to adopt resolutions providing for a standing committee of correspondence. Each colony set up such committees, and they led to the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774, to which Henry was elected.

Patrick Henry is best known for the speech he made in the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, in Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. With the House undecided on whether to mobilize for military action against the encroaching British military force, Henry argued in favor of mobilization. Forty-two years later, Henry's first biographer, William Wirt, working from oral histories, tried to reconstruct what Henry said. According to Wirt, Henry ended his speech with words that have since become immortalized:

"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!"

The crowd, by Wirt's account, jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". For 160 years Wirt's account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt's reconstruction. Contemporary historians observe that Henry was known to have used fear of Indian and slave revolts in promoting military action against the British and that, according to the only written first-hand account of the speech, Henry used some graphic name-calling that Wirt did not include in his heroic rendition.

In August 1775, Henry was commissioned as colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, Henry led militia against the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in defense of some disputed gunpowder, an event known as the Gunpowder Incident.

Henry and others were also building institutions: in early November 1775 he and the young attorney James Madison were elected as founding trustees of Hampden-Sydney College, which opened for classes on November 10. Henry continued as a trustee until his death in 1799. As a representative in the state legislature beginning in 1780, Henry was instrumental in 1783 in achieving passage of the College's Charter, which had been delayed by the war. He is probably the author of the Oath of Loyalty to the new Republic included in that charter. Seven of his sons would attend the new college; six graduated.

In 1776 Henry was elected by the new state legislature as the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia, for a one-year term. He was twice re-elected, serving until 1779. (The new state limited governors to three terms in succession, and then required a 4-year break.) As governor, he presided over several Virginia militia expeditions against the Cherokee people in the west, who were allied with the British. He appointed his friend Joseph Martin, an explorer, as state agent to the Cherokee nation. Henry also sometimes invested in real estate with Martin. The explorer was the namesake of Martinsville, the county seat of Henry County.

In 1779, Henry and his family moved to the 10,000-acre (40 km2) Leatherwood Plantation in Henry County, Virginia. He and his first cousin Ann Winston Carr and her husband Col. George Waller jointly owned the immense property. His eldest daughter Martha and her husband John Fontaine also lived with them on the plantation. Henry lived at Leatherwood from 1779 to 1784; he owned 75 slaves and cultivated tobacco. In 1782, according to the tax list, Henry owned 64 slaves, his son-in-law John Fontaine owned 18 (he and Henry's daughter were living there as well), and his cousin's husband George Waller also owned 18 slaves, making 100 total among the three men.

From 1780 to 1784, he served in the Virginia Assembly. After he was elected as governor a second time and went to Richmond, his oldest daughter Martha and her husband John managed the Henry family portion of the large Leatherwood Plantation. John died in 1792 and Martha managed it until 1818.

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