Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Patrick Henry


Quebec fell. The French and Indian War came to an end. And with its close came the last of French power in America. On that September day of 1759 it seemed as if the might of England were established in America forever, and "God save the King" was sung in every village and town of the loyal English colonies.

The long struggle was over. The victory was won. And now the colonists turned to the peaceful duties of home once more. Life was much the same as before the war, and yet in some respects there were marked differences.

To begin with, the English colonists no longer dreaded the French and their cruel Indian friends. Thanks to English courage and perseverance, that fear was gone.

Moreover, the courage and perseverance which had gained this great blessing had not all belonged to the King's red-coated troops. The colonists justly felt that they themselves had done much toward conquering the foe. They had left their homes and families, had made long hard journeys over unbroken lands, and had fought shoulder to shoulder with the English troops on many battlefields. Yes, surely the victory belonged as fully to them as to the King's regulars. Their pride was great.

Before the war each colony had stood alone. But now the settlers from the different colonies had met in a common cause, had fought a common foe, and had come to realize that they dwelt in a common country—one well worth fighting for.

And so, with their enemy beaten, their ability to fight established, and their love for their land increased, these loyal colonists sent up the heartfelt petition, "God save the King!"

Meanwhile, however, in 1760, the King of England, George II, died; and immediately his grandson was proclaimed King in his place. Just as the colonists were settling down to work, and starting to enlarge their already profitable trade, this new king, George III, took a step which threatened trouble for them.

About one hundred years before George III became king, England had passed certain "Navigation Acts." These Acts had declared that the English colonies in America must not carry on trade with any countries other than England and her possessions, must not ship their goods in any but English or colonial ships, and must not manufacture their own products into finished articles. But these laws had not been enforced; and so, in spite of their existence, the colonies had sent their goods to Spain, France, and the West Indies, and had used their lumber, iron, furs, and other products as they saw fit.

All this was now to be changed. George III proposed to put the old Navigation Acts into force and to insist that his American colonies obey them.

This meant nothing short of ruin to colonial commerce. As the colonists had disobeyed the Navigation Act's for so long, without hindrance, there seemed no reason why they should obey them now. Hence they commenced to smuggle goods and to hide them in their houses.

The King was determined to stop the smuggling, so he issued "Writs of Assistance." These writs gave the King's colonial officers the right to enter any suspected house and search it. It was very easy for an officer who suspected a colonist unjustly to enter his house, and very unpleasant for an innocent colonist to have his house searched from top to bottom at the whim of an officer. Bitter feeling sprang up, and appeal after appeal was sent to the King—but all in vain.

Patrick Henry


King George had found that, with his throne, he had inherited enormous debts. One of them was the great cost of the French and Indian War. Moreover, he intended to keep British soldiers in America, to prevent the French from regaining what they had lost. This standing army would be a further expense. But why should not his prosperous American colonists be made to pay for a war that had been fought chiefly in their behalf? Why should they not also help to support a standing army sent for their protection?

The next question was how best to get some of the colonists' money into the English treasury. The King and his Parliament decided to do this by means of a stamp tax. Stamps of different kinds and values were to be issued and sent to America to be sold. Thereafter, in America, no business paper, such as an insurance agreement, a will, a note, or a deed, would be legal unless it were written on paper that bore one of these stamps—the stamp of right kind and value for that particular purpose. The stamps were to be so varied in their uses that they would cover nearly every line of business. Even each newspaper was to be stamped, so that the man who bought it would pay, not only for the thing itself, but for its stamp as well. All the money received from the sale of the stamps would go to the English Government.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


To George III this seemed an excellent plan. Early in 1765 the Stamp Act, as it was called, was passed by Parliament. Word was sent to the American colonists that by November 1st of that same year they might look for their stamps; for on that day the Stamp Act would be put in force.


The news that the Stamp Act had been passed swept from end to end of the colonies. Everywhere men heard it with serious faces and asked each other what it meant. Never before had England tried to tax her American colonies without their consent. Were they to allow it now?

What worried the colonists was not that they must help pay England's war debt, although they had already fully paid their share; or that they were ordered to support in their midst an army of British soldiers, just when they had learned to defend themselves. The trouble was that they had not been consulted in these matters.

Virginia was the first to summon her House of Burgesses, as her legislative assembly was called, in an effort to find an answer to the grave question. Its members met at Williamsburg, on the 30th of May, 1760. The discussion began. All were opposed to the Stamp Act, but the remedies that they suggested for the evil were extremely mild. True Englishmen at heart were the Virginia burgesses, and the lifelong habit of obedience to their King prevented most of them from any thought of radical action. "Let us send the King a statement of our rights and petition him to consider them," said these conservative members.

For a moment no protest was raised. Then Patrick Henry rose slowly to his feet. All turned toward him wonderingly, and well they might. Only twenty-nine years old, roughly dressed, stoop-shouldered and awkward, surely this new member could have little to say on so great a subject. Quietly glancing from one to another of the dignified bewigged and beruffled older members, Henry began to speak.

Patrick Henry

According to English law, he argued, King George, could place no tax on his subjects at home or abroad without the consent of those subjects or their representatives in Parliament. Had the American colonies been asked their opinion of this Stamp Act? No! Had they any representatives in England's Parliament to give consent to such a measure? No! Then clearly King George had no right to demand that his American colonists pay this tax or buy his stamps. And he, Patrick Henry, had written some resolutions which he respectfully requested the burgesses to hear.

Patrick Henry


These resolutions he read from the fly leaf of an old book on which he had just jotted them down. They were a clear and concise statement of the rights granted the Virginians by their charter—rights which belonged to each and every subject of the English King, wherever he dwelt in that King's domains. And, concluded the resolutions, His Majesty's liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to obey any law which imposes a tax, unless that law is made by the Virginia House of Burgesses. Moreover, any person who denies this exclusive right to the House of Burgesses shows himself an enemy to the colony.

At once all was excitement. On every hand the conservative members were attacking this open defiance of the King—this declared intention to disobey his stamp law.

Again Patrick Henry rose to his feet. This time his head was high, his eyes flashed, and his wonderful voice thrilled every listener. In plain terms he now repeated his views of the Stamp Act, and the King and Parliament who had passed it. "Caesar had his Brutus," he cried, "Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—"

"Treason! Treason!" rose on all sides.

"And George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it," added Henry; and without another word he took his seat.

Now followed argument after argument for and against Patrick Henry's resolutions. And gradually, one by one, the members of the Virginia House of Burgesses began to see the situation with Henry's eyes.

Finally came the deciding vote. When it was counted, it was found that Patrick Henry's resolutions, in a slightly modified form, had been adopted.

Henry, content with the result, threw his saddlebags over his arm and set off for home, leading his horse. He had made his fight and won. Compared with this, it mattered little to him that he had been charged with treason. And yet to be charged with treason was no small affair. Treason means an attempt to betray one's country, or one's king. It is still considered the greatest crime that a soldier or a citizen can commit; and in Patrick Henry's day its punishment was death.

Troublous times followed. Into the peaceful relations with England a breach had come. Wider and wider it grew. Still, as at the beginning, the conservatives were in favor of patching up the gap and holding to the mother country. Patrick Henry, on the other hand, felt that only galling chains could now tie the American colonies to England. Hear his words to the members of the House of Burgesses assembled in Richmond, when the crisis came in 1775:

"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. 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!"