Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Patrick Henry,
the Orator of the Revolution

In 1765 there was an important meeting of the House of Burgesses Virginia, as the lawmaking body of that colony was called. They had come together to debate upon a great question, that of the Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament for the taxation of the colonies. Most of the members were opposed to it, but they were timid and doubtful, and dreadfully afraid of saying or doing something that might offend the king. They talked all round the subject, but were as afraid to come close to it as if it had been a chained wolf.

Thy were almost ready to adjourn, with nothing done, when a tall and slender young man, a new and insignificant member whom few knew, rose in his seat and began speak upon the subject. Some of the rich an aristocratic members looked upon him with indignation. What did this nobody mean in meddling with so weighty a subject as that before them, and which they had already fully debated? But their indignation did not trouble the young man.

He began by offering a series of resolutions, in which he maintained that only the Burgesses and the Governor had the right to tax the people, and that the Stamp Act was contrary to the constitution of the colony and therefore was void. This was a bold resolution. No one else had dared to go so far. It scared many of the members, and a great storm of opposition arose, but the young man would not yield.

He began to speak and soon there was flowing from his lips a stream of eloquence that took every one by surprise. Never had such glowing words been heard in that old hall. His force and enthusiasm shook the whole Assembly. Finally, wrought up to the highest pitch of indignant patriotism, he thundered out the memorable words: "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third——"Treason! Treason!" cried some of the excited members, but the orator went on—"may profit by their example. If this be treason make the most of it." His boldness carried the day; his words were irresistible; the resolutions were adopted; Virginia took a decided stand; and Patrick Henry, the orator, from that time took first rank among American speakers. A zealous and daring patriot, he had made himself a power among the people.

Who was this man that had dared hurl defiance at the king? A few years before he had been looked upon as one of the most insignificant of men, a failure in everything he undertook, an awkward, ill-dressed, slovenly, lazy fellow, who could not even speak the king's English correctly. He was little better than a tavern lounger, most of his time being spent in hunting and fishing, in playing the flute and violin, and in telling amusing stories. He was an adept in the latter and made himself popular among the common people.

He had tried farming and failed. He had made a pretense of studying law, and gained admittance to the bar, though his legal knowledge was very slight. Having almost nothing to do in the law, he spent most of his time helping about the tavern at Hanover Court-house, kept by his father-in-law, who supported him and his family, for he had married early, with little means of keeping his wife.

One day there came up a case in court which all of the leading lawyers had refused. It was called the "Parsons' Cause," and had to do with the claim of the ministers of the Established Church to collect dues from all the people, whatever their religious faith. A refusal to pay these had brought on the suit. The parsons had engaged one of the ablest lawyers of the county town on their side, and none of the lawyers seemed willing to take the opposite side.

What was the surprise of the people when the story Tent around that Patrick Henry had offered himself on the defendants' side! His taking up the case was a joke to most of them, and a general burst of laughter followed the news. What did this fellow know about the law? He was a good talker, no doubt, in his low Virginia dialect, but what kind of a show would he make in pleading a case before a learned judge! The case of the people seemed desperate indeed when intrusted to such hands as these.

When the young lawyer appeared in court smiles went round among the lawyers and the audience. The idea of this awkward, backward, slovenly, untrained man attempting to handle such an important case! It seemed utterly absurd, and the opposing lawyers felt that they would make short work of him. They had the law on their side, their plaintiffs' case was a good one, their opponent was a mountebank, the defendants would be made to pay.

It is likely enough that Patrick Henry felt much the same way. His powers had never been tried except before a bar-room audience, and he could not have had much confidence in them. Doubtless he would have been glad enough, now it was too late, to get out of the court and back in the friendly tavern of his father-in-law.

When he rose to speak he faltered and hesitated. It looked as if he would break down utterly. But he had spoken before his friends; he was not quite a tyro in oratory; as he went on his timidity vanished and his confidence returned. He warmed up to his subject and a change seemed to come over him. His form straightened, his face filled out, his eyes blazed, the words poured from his mouth, clear, forcible sentences, that carried everybody away with admiration and astonishment, came from his lips. There was not much statute law in what Patrick Henry said, but there was much of the eternal principles of right and justice. What right in equity had these plaintiffs to make the people pay for what they did not want and what they refused to accept? The argument was masterly and irresistible. It was poured forth in a flood of burning eloquence. The plaintiffs could not bear the storm of his accusations. They left the court in confusion. The specious plea of the opposing lawyers was quite overslaughed. The jury, carried away by his argument, returned the plaintiffs a verdict of one penny damages; and the people, filled with enthusiasm, lifted the young advocate on their shoulders and carried him out of the court-house in triumph.

Patrick Henry was a made man. He no longer had to lounge in his office waiting for business. Plenty of it came to him. He set himself for the first time to an earnest study of the law, he improved his dialect and his command of language, the dormant powers of his mind rapidly unfolded, and two years after pleading his first case he was elected a member of the House of Burgesses. We have seen how, in this body, he "set the ball of the Revolution rolling."

The idle tavern orator suddenly found himself launched into greatness. With all his careless habits and rural manners, he was a man of honor and integrity. Those who knew him respected him. For the first time he had learned what was in him, and he worked hard to make the best of his powers. Not many years passed after that great scene in the country court before Patrick Henry was transformed into a new man, one of culture and learning and of extraordinary powers of oratory.

It was the time for such a man to make his force felt. The country was in a critical state. The people were on all sides demanding their rights, and would soon be demanding their liberty. Excitement spread everywhere. Fearless leaders were needed, men full of the spirit of patriotism. Patrick Henry had shown that he was both. In his spirit-stirring oration before the House of Burgesses he had put himself on record for all time. His defiance of the king stamped him as a warrior who had thrown his shield away and thence-forward would fight only with the sword.

The patriot leaders welcomed him. He worked with Thomas Jefferson and others upon the Committee of Correspondence, which sought to spread the story of political events through the colonies. The Virginia Assemblies which were broken up by the governor and called together again by the people welcomed him as a member. He was sent to Philadelphia as a member of the First Continental Congress, and his voice was eloquently heard in that body. In fact, he became one of the most active and ardent of the American patriots.

Of Patrick Henry's early speeches we know nothing beyond that intense blaze of eloquence with which he? electrified the House of Burgesses. The first speech of his on record was that noble one given before the convention held at Richmond in March, 1775. But this was an effort almost without a parallel in the annals of oratory. He had presented resolutions before the convention in favor of an open appeal to arms. To this the more timid spirits made strong opposition. The fight at Lexington had not yet taken place, but Henry's prophetic gaze saw it coming. In a burst of flaming eloquence he laid bare the tyranny of Parliament and king, declared that there was nothing left but to fight, and ended with an outburst thrilling in its force and intensity:

"There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat, sir, let it come! It is in vain to extenuate the matter! 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!"

Where was the idle fisher and fiddler, who had amused himself in telling stories to tavern loungers? Was this the man, this burning orator, whose voice was capable of moving great audiences like a cyclone, and the echo of whose words still thrills our hearts? Certainly in the career of Patrick Henry we have a remarkable example of mental evolution. He was asleep in the early days, an idling dreamer. When he awoke he made the world rock with his voice.

As for Virginia, it listened to his fervid appeal, and when the news of Lexington reached its soil its sons were ready to spring to arms. Henry helped to gather a force of ardent patriots and led them to prevent the royal governor from carrying away the military stores of the state. He was elected Governor of Virginia in 1776, and held the office till 1779, actively aiding the popular cause. He was Governor again in 1784 and 1785.

In 1788, when the Federal Constitution had been formed and the States were called upon to adopt it, Henry, as a member of the Virginia Convention, appeared in a new role. He was bitterly opposed to the Constitution, which he said had "an awful squinting towards monarchy," and he opposed its adoption in a number of speeches of extraordinary eloquence. Fortunately he did not succeed, the demand for a stronger Union being too great for even his powers of oratory.

He died June 6, 1799, with the reputation of being the greatest of American orators. John Randolph of Roanoke, himself one of Virginia's famous orators, has said that Patrick Henry was Shakespeare and Garrick in one, with their genius applied to the actual business of life.