Patrick Henry
by Moses Coit Tyler
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"Resolved unanimously, that a well-regulated militia, composed of the gentlemen freeholders and other freemen, is the natural strength and only stable security of a free government; and that such militia will relieve our mother country from any expense in our protection and defence, will obviate the pretence of a necessity for taxing us on that account, and render it unnecessary to keep any standing army—ever dangerous to liberty—in this province."[145]

The shrewdness of this courteous political thrust on the part of the convention of Maryland seems to have been so heartily relished by others that it was thenceforward used again and again by similar conventions elsewhere; and in fact, for the next few months, these sentences became almost the stereotyped formula by which revolutionary assemblages justified the arming and drilling of the militia,—as, for example, that of Newcastle County, Delaware,[146] on the 21st of December; that of Fairfax County, Virginia,[147] on the 17th of January, 1775; and that of Augusta County, Virginia,[148] on the 22d of February.

In the mean time Lord Dunmore was not blind to all these military preparations in Virginia; and so early as the 24th of December, 1774, he had written to the Earl of Dartmouth: "Every county, besides, is now arming a company of men, whom they call an independent company, for the avowed purpose of protecting their committees, and to be employed against government, if occasion require."[149] Moreover, this alarming fact of military preparation, which Lord Dunmore had thus reported concerning Virginia, could have been reported with equal truth concerning nearly every other colony. In the early part of January, 1775, the Assembly of Connecticut gave order that the entire militia of that colony should be mustered every week.[150] In the latter part of January, the provincial convention of Pennsylvania, though representing a colony of Quakers, boldly proclaimed that, if the administration "should determine by force to effect a submission to the late arbitrary acts of the British Parliament," it would "resist such force, and at every hazard ... defend the rights and liberties of America."[151] On the 15th of February, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts urged the people to "spare neither time, pains, nor expense, at so critical a juncture, in perfecting themselves forthwith in military discipline."[152]

When, therefore, so late as Monday, the 20th of March, 1775, the second revolutionary convention of Virginia assembled at Richmond, its members were well aware that one of the chief measures to come before them for consideration must be that of recognizing the local military preparations among their own constituents, and of placing them all under some common organization and control. Accordingly, on Thursday, the 23d of March, after three days had been given to necessary preliminary subjects, the inevitable subject of military preparations was reached. Then it was that Patrick Henry took the floor and moved the adoption of the following resolutions, supporting his motion, undoubtedly, with a speech:—

"Resolved, That a well-regulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would forever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us for the purpose of our defence any standing army of mercenary forces, always subversive of the quiet and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.

"Resolved, That the establishment of such a militia is at this time peculiarly necessary, by the state of our laws for the protection and defence of the country, some of which have already expired, and others will shortly do so; and that the known remissness of government in calling us together in a legislative capacity, renders it too insecure, in this time of danger and distress, to rely that opportunity will be given of renewing them in general assembly, or making any provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those further violations with which they are threatened.

"Resolved, therefore, That this colony be immediately put into a posture of defence; and that ... be a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose."[153]

No one who reads these resolutions in the light of the facts just given, can find in them anything by which to account for the opposition which they are known to have met with in that assemblage. For that assemblage, it must be remembered, was not the Virginia legislature: it was a mere convention, and a revolutionary convention at that, gathered in spite of the objections of Lord Dunmore, representing simply the deliberate purpose of those Virginians who meant not finally to submit to unjust laws; some of its members, likewise, being under express instructions from their constituents to take measures for the immediate and adequate military organization of the colony. Not a man, probably, was sent to that convention, not a man surely would have gone to it, who was not in substantial sympathy with the prevailing revolutionary spirit.

Of course, even they who were in sympathy with that spirit might have objected to Patrick Henry's resolutions, had those resolutions been marked by any startling novelty in doctrine, or by anything extreme or violent in expression. But, plainly, they were neither extreme nor violent; they were not even novel. They contained nothing essential which had not been approved, in almost the same words, more than three months before, by similar conventions in Maryland and in Delaware; which had not been approved, in almost the same words, many weeks before, by county conventions in Virginia,—in one instance, by a county convention presided over by Washington himself; which had not been approved, in other language, either weeks or months before, by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and other colonies; which was not sanctioned by the plainest prudence on the part of all persons who intended to make any further stand whatsoever against the encroachments of Parliament. It is safe to say that no man who had within him enough of the revolutionary spirit to have prompted his attendance at a revolutionary convention could have objected to any essential item in Patrick Henry's resolutions.

Why, then, were they objected to? Why was their immediate passage resisted? The official journal of the convention throws no light upon the question: it records merely the adoption of the resolutions, and is entirely silent respecting any discussion that they may have provoked. Thirty years afterward, however, St. George Tucker, who, though not a member of this convention, had yet as a visitor watched its proceedings that day, gave from memory some account of them; and to him we are indebted for the names of the principal men who stood out against Patrick Henry's motion. "This produced," he says, "an animated debate, in which Colonel Richard Bland, Mr. Nicholas, the treasurer, and I think Colonel Harrison, of Berkeley, and Mr. Pendleton, were opposed to the resolution, as conceiving it to be premature;"[154] all these men being prudent politicians, indeed, but all fully committed to the cause of the Revolution.

At first, this testimony may seem to leave us as much in the dark as before; and yet all who are familiar with the politics of Virginia at that period will see in this cluster of names some clew to the secret of their opposition. It was an opposition to Patrick Henry himself, and as far as possible to any measure of which he should be the leading champion. Yet even this is not enough. Whatever may have been their private motives in resisting a measure advocated by Patrick Henry, they must still have had some reason which they would be willing to assign. St. George Tucker tells us that they conceived his resolutions to be "premature." But in themselves his resolutions, so far from being premature, were rather tardy; they lagged weeks and even months behind many of the best counties in Virginia itself, as well as behind those other colonies to which in political feeling Virginia was always most nearly akin.

The only possible explanation of the case seems to be found, not in the resolutions themselves, but in the special interpretation put upon them by Patrick Henry in the speech which, according to parliamentary usage, he seems to have made in moving their adoption. What was that interpretation? In the true answer to that question, no doubt, lies the secret of the resistance which his motion encountered. For, down to that day, no public body in America, and no public man, had openly spoken of a war with Great Britain in any more decisive way than as a thing highly probable, indeed, but still not inevitable. At last Patrick Henry spoke of it, and he wanted to induce the convention of Virginia to speak of it, as a thing inevitable. Others had said, "The war must come, and will come,—unless certain things are done." Patrick Henry, brushing away every prefix or suffix of uncertainty, every half-despairing "if," every fragile and pathetic "unless," exclaimed, in the hearing of all men: "Why talk of things being now done which can avert the war? Such things will not be done. The war is coming: it has come already." Accordingly, other conventions in the colonies, in adopting similar resolutions, had merely announced the probability of war. Patrick Henry would have this convention, by adopting his resolutions, virtually declare war itself.

In this alone, it is apparent, consisted the real priority and offensiveness of Patrick Henry's position as a revolutionary statesman on the 23d of March, 1775. In this alone were his resolutions "premature." The very men who opposed them because they were to be understood as closing the door against the possibility of peace, would have favored them had they only left that door open, or even ajar. But Patrick Henry demanded of the people of Virginia that they should treat all further talk of peace as mere prattle; that they should seize the actual situation by a bold grasp of it in front; that, looking upon the war as a fact, they should instantly proceed to get ready for it. And therein, once more, in revolutionary ideas, was Patrick Henry one full step in advance of his contemporaries. Therein, once more, did he justify the reluctant praise of Jefferson, who was a member of that convention, and who, nearly fifty years afterward, said concerning Patrick Henry to a great statesman from Massachusetts: "After all, it must be allowed that he was our leader in the measures of the Revolution in Virginia, and in that respect more is due to him than to any other person.... He left all of us far behind."[155]

Such, at any rate, we have a right to suppose, was the substantial issue presented by the resolutions of Patrick Henry, and by his introductory speech in support of them; and upon this issue the little group of politicians—able and patriotic men, who always opposed his leadership—then arrayed themselves against him, making the most, doubtless, of everything favoring the possibility and the desirableness of a peaceful adjustment of the great dispute. But their opposition to him only produced the usual result,—of arousing him to an effort which simply overpowered and scattered all further resistance. It was in review of their whole quivering platoon of hopes and fears, of doubts, cautions, and delays, that he then made the speech which seems to have wrought astonishing effects upon those who heard it, and which, though preserved in a most inadequate report, now fills so great a space in the traditions of revolutionary eloquence:—

"'No man, Mr. President, thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as the abilities, of the very honorable gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining, as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I should speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery. And in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

"'Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

"'I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And, judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry, for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation,—the last arguments to which kings resort.

"'I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.

"'And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty, and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted?

"'Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.

"'In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained,—we must fight! I repeat it, sir,—we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us.'"

Up to this point in his address, the orator seems to have spoken with great deliberation and self-restraint. St. George Tucker, who was present, and who has left a written statement of his recollections both of the speech and of the scene, says:—

"It was on that occasion that I first felt a full impression of Mr. Henry's powers. In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech. He was calm and collected; touched upon the origin and progress of the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies, the various conciliatory measures adopted by the latter, and the uniformly increasing tone of violence and arrogance on the part of the former."

Then follows, in Tucker's narrative, the passage included in the last two paragraphs of the speech as given above, after which he adds:—

"Imagine to yourself this speech delivered with all the calm dignity of Cato of Utica; imagine to yourself the Roman senate assembled in the capitol when it was entered by the profane Gauls, who at first were awed by their presence as if they had entered an assembly of the gods; imagine that you heard that Cato addressing such a senate; imagine that you saw the handwriting on the wall of Belshazzar's palace; imagine you heard a voice as from heaven uttering the words, 'We must fight!' as the doom of fate,—and you may have some idea of the speaker, the assembly to whom he addressed himself, and the auditory of which I was one."[156]

But, by a comparison of this testimony of St. George Tucker with that of others who heard the speech, it is made evident that, as the orator then advanced toward the conclusion and real climax of his argument, he no longer maintained "the calm dignity of Cato of Utica," but that his manner gradually deepened into an intensity of passion and a dramatic power which were overwhelming. He thus continued:—

"'They tell us, sir, that we are weak,—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

"'Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.

"'Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone: it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. 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 it, sir, let it come!

"'It is in vain, sir, 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!'"

Of this tremendous speech there are in existence two traditional descriptions, neither of which is inconsistent with the testimony given by St. George Tucker. He, as a lawyer and a judge, seems to have retained the impression of that portion of the speech which was the more argumentative and unimpassioned: the two other reporters seem to have remembered especially its later and more emotional passages. Our first traditional description was obtained by Henry Stephens Randall from a clergyman, who had it from an aged friend, also a clergyman, who heard the speech itself:—

"Henry rose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye. He commenced somewhat calmly, but the smothered excitement began more and more to play upon his features and thrill in the tones of his voice. The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whip-cords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building, and all within them, seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations. Finally, his pale face and glaring eye became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats, with their heads strained forward, their faces pale, and their eyes glaring like the speaker's. His last exclamation, 'Give me liberty, or give me death!' was like the shout of the leader which turns back the rout of battle. The old man from whom this tradition was derived added that, 'when the orator sat down, he himself felt sick with excitement. Every eye yet gazed entranced on Henry. It seemed as if a word from him would have led to any wild explosion of violence. Men looked beside themselves.'"[157]

The second traditional description of the speech is here given from a manuscript[158] of Edward Fontaine, who obtained it in 1834 from John Roane, who himself heard the speech. Roane told Fontaine that the orator's "voice, countenance, and gestures gave an irresistible force to his words, which no description could make intelligible to one who had never seen him, nor heard him speak;" but, in order to convey some notion of the orator's manner, Roane described the delivery of the closing sentences of the speech:—

"You remember, sir, the conclusion of the speech, so often declaimed in various ways by school-boys,—'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!' He gave each of these words a meaning which is not conveyed by the reading or delivery of them in the ordinary way. When he said, 'Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?' he stood in the attitude of a condemned galley slave, loaded with fetters, awaiting his doom. His form was bowed; his wrists were crossed; his manacles were almost visible as he stood like an embodiment of helplessness and agony. After a solemn pause, he raised his eyes and chained hands towards heaven, and prayed, in words and tones which thrilled every heart, 'Forbid it, Almighty God!' He then turned towards the timid loyalists of the House, who were quaking with terror at the idea of the consequences of participating in proceedings which would be visited with the penalties of treason by the British crown; and he slowly bent his form yet nearer to the earth, and said, 'I know not what course others may take,' and he accompanied the words with his hands still crossed, while he seemed to be weighed down with additional chains. The man appeared transformed into an oppressed, heart-broken, and hopeless felon. After remaining in this posture of humiliation long enough to impress the imagination with the condition of the colony under the iron heel of military despotism, he arose proudly, and exclaimed, 'but as for me,'—and the words hissed through his clenched teeth, while his body was thrown back, and every muscle and tendon was strained against the fetters which bound him, and, with his countenance distorted by agony and rage, he looked for a moment like Laocoon in a death struggle with coiling serpents; then the loud, clear, triumphant notes, 'Give me liberty,' electrified the assembly. It was not a prayer, but a stern demand, which would submit to no refusal or delay. The sound of his voice, as he spoke these memorable words, was like that of a Spartan paean on the field of Plataea; and, as each syllable of the word 'liberty' echoed through the building, his fetters were shivered; his arms were hurled apart; and the links of his chains were scattered to the winds. When he spoke the word 'liberty' with an emphasis never given it before, his hands were open, and his arms elevated and extended; his countenance was radiant; he stood erect and defiant; while the sound of his voice and the sublimity of his attitude made him appear a magnificent incarnation of Freedom, and expressed all that can be acquired or enjoyed by nations and individuals invincible and free. After a momentary pause, only long enough to permit the echo of the word 'liberty' to cease, he let his left hand fall powerless to his side, and clenched his right hand firmly, as if holding a dagger with the point aimed at his breast. He stood like a Roman senator defying Caesar, while the unconquerable spirit of Cato of Utica flashed from every feature; and he closed the grand appeal with the solemn words, 'or give me death!' which sounded with the awful cadence of a hero's dirge, fearless of death, and victorious in death; and he suited the action to the word by a blow upon the left breast with the right hand, which seemed to drive the dagger to the patriot's heart."[159]

Before passing from this celebrated speech, it is proper to say something respecting the authenticity of the version of it which has come down to us, and which is now so universally known in America. The speech is given in these pages substantially as it was given by Wirt in his "Life of Henry." Wirt himself does not mention whence he obtained his version; and all efforts to discover that version as a whole, in any writing prior to Wirt's book, have thus far been unsuccessful. These facts have led even so genial a critic as Grigsby to incline to the opinion that "much of the speech published by Wirt is apocryphal."[160] It would, indeed, be an odd thing, and a source of no little disturbance to many minds, if such should turn out to be the case, and if we should have to conclude that an apocryphal speech written by Wirt, and attributed by him to Patrick Henry fifteen years after the great orator's death, had done more to perpetuate the renown of Patrick Henry's oratory than had been done by any and all the words actually spoken by the orator himself during his lifetime. On the other hand, it should be said that Grigsby himself admits that "the outline of the argument" and "some of its expressions" are undoubtedly "authentic." That this is so is apparent, likewise, from the written recollections of St. George Tucker, wherein the substance of the speech is given, besides one entire passage in almost the exact language of the version by Wirt. Finally, John Roane, in 1834, in his conversation with Edward Fontaine, is said to have "verified the correctness of the speech as it was written by Judge Tyler for Mr. Wirt."[161] This, unfortunately, is the only intimation that has anywhere been found attributing Wirt's version to the excellent authority of Judge John Tyler. If the statement could be confirmed, it would dispel every difficulty at once. But, even though the statement should be set aside, enough would still remain to justify us in thinking that Wirt's version of the famous speech by no means deserves to be called "apocryphal," in any such sense as that word has when applied, for example, to the speeches in Livy and in Thucydides, or in Botta. In the first place, Wirt's version certainly gives the substance of the speech as actually made by Patrick Henry on the occasion named; and, for the form of it, Wirt seems to have gathered testimony from all available living witnesses, and then, from such sentences or snatches of sentences as these witnesses could remember, as well as from his own conception of the orator's method of expression, to have constructed the version which he has handed down to us. Even in that case, it is probably far more accurate and authentic than are most of the famous speeches attributed to public characters before reporters' galleries were opened, and before the art of reporting was brought to its present perfection.

Returning, now, from this long account of Patrick Henry's most celebrated speech, to the assemblage in which it was made, it remains to be mentioned that the resolutions, as offered by Patrick Henry, were carried; and that the committee, called for by those resolutions, to prepare a plan for "embodying, arming, and disciplining" the militia,[162] was at once appointed. Of this committee Patrick Henry was chairman; and with him were associated Richard Henry Lee, Nicholas, Harrison, Riddick, Washington, Stephen, Lewis, Christian, Pendleton, Jefferson, and Zane. On the following day, Friday, the 24th of March, the committee brought in its report, which was laid over for one day, and then, after some amendment, was unanimously adopted.

The convention did not close its labors until Monday, the 27th of March. The contemporaneous estimate of Patrick Henry, not merely as a leader in debate, but as a constitutional lawyer, and as a man of affairs, may be partly gathered from the fact of his connection with each of the two other important committees of this convention,—the committee "to inquire whether his majesty may of right advance the terms of granting lands in this colony,"[163] on which his associates were the great lawyers, Bland, Jefferson, Nicholas, and Pendleton; and the committee "to prepare a plan for the encouragement of arts and manufactures in this colony,"[164] on which his associates were Nicholas, Bland, Mercer, Pendleton, Cary, Carter of Stafford, Harrison, Richard Henry Lee, Clapham, Washington, Holt, and Newton.


[136] For an example of such overstatement, see Wirt, 114-123. See, also, the damaging comments thereon by Rives, Life of Madison, i. 63, 64.

[137] 4 Am. Arch. i. 928.

[138] 4 Ibid. i. 947.

[139] Ibid.

[140] 4 Am. Arch. i. 949, 950.

[141] Ibid. i. 953.

[142] Ibid. 858.

[143] Ibid. i. 963.

[144] Hildreth, iii. 52.

[145] 4 Am. Arch. i. 1032.

[146] 4 Am. Arch. i. 1022.

[147] Ibid. i. 1145.

[148] Ibid. i. 1254.

[149] Ibid. i. 1062.

[150] Ibid. i. 1139.

[151] Ibid. i. 1171.

[152] 4 Am. Arch. i. 1340.

[153] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 167, 168.

[154] MS.

[155] Curtis, Life of Webster, i. 585.

[156] MS.

[157] Randall, Life of Jefferson, i. 101, 102.

[158] Now in the library of Cornell University.

[159] MS.

[160] Va. Conv. of 1776, 150, note.

[161] MS.

[162] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 168.

[163] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1742.

[164] Ibid. 170.



Several of the famous men of the Revolution, whose distinction is now exclusively that of civilians, are supposed to have cherished very decided military aspirations; to have been rather envious of the more vivid renown acquired by some of their political associates who left the senate for the field; and, indeed, to have made occasional efforts to secure for themselves the opportunity for glory in the same pungent and fascinating form. A notable example of this class of Revolutionary civilians with abortive military desires, is John Hancock. In June, 1775, when Congress had before it the task of selecting one who should be the military leader of the uprisen colonists, John Hancock, seated in the president's chair, gave unmistakable signs of thinking that the choice ought to fall upon himself. While John Adams was speaking in general terms of the military situation, involving, of course, the need of a commander-in-chief, Hancock heard him "with visible pleasure;" but when the orator came to point out Washington as the man best fitted for the leadership, "a sudden and striking change" came over the countenance of the president. "Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his face could exhibit them;"[165] and it is probable that, to the end of his days, he was never able entirely to forgive Washington for having carried off the martial glory that he had really believed to be within his own reach. But even John Adams, who so pitilessly unveiled the baffled military desires of Hancock, was perhaps not altogether unacquainted with similar emotions in his own soul. Fully three weeks prior to that notable scene in Congress, in a letter to his wife in which he was speaking of the amazing military spirit then running through the continent, and of the military appointments then held by several of his Philadelphia friends, he exclaimed in his impulsive way, "Oh that I were a soldier! I will be."[166] And on the very day on which he joined in the escort of the new generals, Washington, Lee, and Schuyler, on their first departure from Philadelphia for the American camp, he sent off to his wife a characteristic letter revealing something of the anguish with which he, a civilian, viewed the possibility of his being at a disadvantage with these military men in the race for glory:—

"The three generals were all mounted on horseback, accompanied by Major Mifflin, who is gone in the character of aide-de-camp. All the delegates from the Massachusetts, with their servants and carriages, attended. Many others of the delegates from the Congress; a large troop of light horse in their uniforms; many officers of militia, besides, in theirs; music playing, etc., etc. Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave to others to wear the laurels which I have sown; others to eat the bread which I have earned."[167]

Of Patrick Henry, however, it may be said that his permanent fame as an orator and a statesman has almost effaced the memory of the fact that, in the first year of the war, he had considerable prominence as a soldier; that it was then believed by many, and very likely by himself, that, having done as much as any man to bring on the war, he was next to do as much as any man in the actual conduct of it, and was thus destined to add to a civil renown of almost unapproached brilliance, a similar renown for splendid talents in the field. At any rate, the "first overt act of war" in Virginia, as Jefferson testifies,[168] was committed by Patrick Henry. The first physical resistance to a royal governor, which in Massachusetts was made by the embattled farmers at Lexington and Concord, was made in Virginia almost as early, under the direction and inspiration of Patrick Henry's leadership. In the first organization of the Revolutionary army in Virginia, the chief command was given to Patrick Henry. Finally, that he never had the opportunity of proving in battle whether or not he had military talents, and that, after some months of nominal command, he was driven by a series of official slights into an abandonment of his military career, may have been occasioned solely by a proper distrust of his military capacity on the part of the Virginia Committee of Safety, or it may have been due in some measure to the unslumbering jealousy of him which was at the time attributed to the leading members of that committee. The purpose of this chapter, and of the next, will be to present a rapid grouping of these incidents in his life,—incidents which now have the appearance of a mere episode, but which once seemed the possible beginnings of a deliberate and conspicuous military career.

Within the city of Williamsburg, at the period now spoken of, had long been kept the public storehouse for gunpowder and arms. In the dead of the night[169] preceding the 21st of April, 1775,—a little less than a month, therefore, after the convention of Virginia had proclaimed the inevitable approach of a war with Great Britain,—a detachment of marines from the armed schooner Magdalen, then lying in the James River, stealthily visited this storehouse, and, taking thence fifteen half-barrels of gunpowder,[170] carried them off in Lord Dunmore's wagon to Burwell's Ferry, and put them on board their vessel. Of course, the news of this exploit flew fast through the colony, and everywhere awoke alarm and exasperation. Soon some thousands of armed men made ready to march to the capital to demand the restoration of the gunpowder. On Tuesday, the 25th of April, the independent company of Fredericksburg notified their colonel, George Washington, that, with his approbation, they would be prepared to start for Williamsburg on the following Saturday, "properly accoutred as light-horsemen," and in conjunction with "any other bodies of armed men who" might be "willing to appear in support of the honor of Virginia."[171]

Similar messages were promptly sent to Washington from the independent companies of Prince William[172] and Albemarle counties.[173] On Wednesday, the 26th of April, the men in arms who had already arrived at Fredericksburg sent to the capital a swift messenger "to inquire whether the gunpowder had been replaced in the public magazine."[174] On Saturday, the 29th,—being the day already fixed for the march upon Williamsburg,—one hundred and two gentlemen, representing fourteen companies of light-horse, met in council at Fredericksburg, and, after considering a letter from the venerable Peyton Randolph which their messenger had brought back with him, particularly Randolph's assurance that the affair of the gunpowder was to be satisfactorily arranged, came to the resolution that they would proceed no further at that time; adding, however, this solemn declaration: "We do now pledge ourselves to each other to be in readiness, at a moment's warning, to reassemble, and by force of arms to defend the law, the liberty, and rights of this or any sister colony from unjust and wicked invasion."[175]

It is at this point that Patrick Henry comes upon the scene. Thus far, during the trouble, he appears to have been watching events from his home in Hanover County. As soon, however, as word was brought to him of the tame conclusion thus reached by the assembled warriors at Fredericksburg, his soul took fire at the lamentable mistake which he thought they had made. To him it seemed on every account the part of wisdom that the blow, which would have to be "struck sooner or later, should be struck at once, before an overwhelming force should enter the colony;" that the spell by which the people were held in a sort of superstitious awe of the governor should be broken; "that the military resources of the country should be developed;" that the people should be made to "see and feel their strength by being brought out together; that the revolution should be set in actual motion in the colony; that the martial prowess of the country should be awakened, and the soldiery animated by that proud and resolute confidence which a successful enterprise in the commencement of a contest never fails to inspire."[176]

Accordingly, he resolved that, as the troops lately rendezvoused at Fredericksburg had forborne to strike this needful blow, he would endeavor to repair the mistake by striking it himself. At once, therefore, he despatched expresses to the officers and men of the independent company of his own county, "requesting them to meet him in arms at New Castle on the second of May, on business of the highest importance to American liberty."[177] He also summoned the county committee to meet him at the same time and place.

At the place and time appointed his neighbors were duly assembled; and when he had laid before them, in a speech of wonderful eloquence, his view of the situation, they instantly resolved to put themselves under his command, and to march at once to the capital, either to recover the gunpowder itself, or to make reprisals on the king's property sufficient to replace it. Without delay the march began, Captain Patrick Henry leading. By sunset of the following day, they had got as far as to Doncastle's Ordinary, about sixteen miles from Williamsburg, and there rested for the night. Meantime, the news that Patrick Henry was marching with armed men straight against Lord Dunmore, to demand the restoration of the gunpowder or payment for it, carried exhilaration or terror in all directions. On the one hand, many prudent and conservative gentlemen were horrified at his rashness, and sent messenger after messenger to beg him to stay his fearful proceeding, to turn about, and to go home.[178] On the other hand, as the word flew from county to county that Patrick Henry had taken up the people's cause in this vigorous fashion, five thousand men sprang to arms, and started across the country to join the ranks of his followers, and to lend a hand in case of need. At Williamsburg, the rumor of his approach brought on a scene of consternation. The wife and family of Lord Dunmore were hurried away to a place of safety. Further down the river, the commander of his majesty's ship Fowey was notified that "his excellency the Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia," was "threatened with an attack at daybreak, ... at his palace at Williamsburg;" and for his defence was speedily sent off a detachment of marines.[179] Before daybreak, however, the governor seems to have come to the prudent decision to avert, by a timely settlement with Patrick Henry, the impending attack; and accordingly, soon after daybreak, a messenger arrived at Doncastle's Ordinary, there to tender immediate satisfaction in money for the gunpowder that had been ravished away.[180] The troops, having already resumed their march, were halted; and soon a settlement of the trouble was effected, according to the terms of the following singular document:—


Received from the Honorable Richard Corbin, Esq., his majesty's receiver-general, L330, as a compensation for the gunpowder lately taken out of the public magazine by the governor's order; which money I promise to convey to the Virginia delegates at the General Congress, to be under their direction laid out in gunpowder for the colony's use, and to be stored as they shall direct, until the next colony convention or General Assembly; unless it shall be necessary, in the mean time, to use the same in defence of this colony. It is agreed, that in case the next convention shall determine that any part of the said money ought to be returned to his majesty's receiver-general, that the same shall be done accordingly.


The chief object for which Patrick Henry and his soldiers had taken the trouble to come to that place having been thus suddenly accomplished, there was but one thing left for them to do before they should return to their homes. Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer of the colony, was at Williamsburg; and to him Patrick Henry at once despatched a letter informing him of the arrangement that had been made, and offering to him any protection that he might in consequence require:—

May 4, 1775.

SIR,—The affair of the powder is now settled, so as to produce satisfaction in me, and I earnestly wish to the colony in general. The people here have it in charge from the Hanover committee, to tender their services to you as a public officer, for the purpose of escorting the public treasury to any place in this colony where the money would be judged more safe than in the city of Williamsburg. The reprisal now made by the Hanover volunteers, though accomplished in a manner least liable to the imputation of violent extremity, may possibly be the cause of future injury to the treasury. If, therefore, you apprehend the least danger, a sufficient guard is at your service. I beg the return of the bearer may be instant, because the men wish to know their destination.

With great regard, I am, sir, Your most humble servant, PATRICK HENRY, JUNIOR.

TO ROBERT CARTER NICHOLAS, Esq., Treasurer.[182]

Patrick Henry's desire for an immediate answer from the respectable Mr. Nicholas was gratified, although it came in the form of a dignified rebuff: Mr. Nicholas "had no apprehension of the necessity or propriety of the proffered service."[183]

No direct communication seems to have been had at that time with Lord Dunmore; but two days afterward his lordship, having given to Patrick Henry ample time to withdraw to a more agreeable distance, sent thundering after him this portentous proclamation:—

Whereas I have been informed from undoubted authority that a certain Patrick Henry, of the county of Hanover, and a number of deluded followers, have taken up arms, chosen their officers, and styling themselves an independent company, have marched out of their county, encamped, and put themselves in a posture of war, and have written and dispatched letters to divers parts of the country, exciting the people to join in these outrageous and rebellious practices, to the great terror of all his majesty's faithful subjects, and in open defiance of law and government; and have committed other acts of violence, particularly in extorting from his majesty's receiver-general the sum of three hundred and thirty pounds, under pretence of replacing the powder I thought proper to order from the magazine; whence it undeniably appears that there is no longer the least security for the life or property of any man: wherefore, I have thought proper, with the advice of his majesty's council, and in his majesty's name, to issue this my proclamation, strictly charging all persons, upon their allegiance, not to aid, abet, or give countenance to the said Patrick Henry, or any other persons concerned in such unwarrantable combinations, but on the contrary to oppose them and their designs by every means; which designs must, otherwise, inevitably involve the whole country in the most direful calamity, as they will call for the vengeance of offended majesty and the insulted laws to be exerted here, to vindicate the constitutional authority of government.

Given under my hand and the seal of the colony, at Williamsburg, this 6th day of May, 1775, and in the fifteenth year of his majesty's reign.


God save the king.[184]

Beyond question, there were in Virginia at that time many excellent gentlemen who still trusted that the dispute with Great Britain might be composed without bloodshed, and to whom Patrick Henry's conduct in this affair must have appeared foolhardy, presumptuous, and even criminal. The mass of the people of Virginia, however, did not incline to take that view of the subject. They had no faith any longer in timid counsels, in hesitating measures. They believed that their most important earthly rights were in danger. They longed for a leader with vigor, promptitude, courage, caring less for technical propriety than for justice, and not afraid to say so, by word or deed, to Lord Dunmore and to Lord Dunmore's master. Such a leader they thought they saw in Patrick Henry. Accordingly, even on his march homeward from Doncastle's Ordinary, the heart of Virginia began to go forth to him in expressions of love, of gratitude, and of homage, such as no American colonist perhaps had ever before received. Upon his return home, his own county greeted him with its official approval.[185] On the 8th of May, the county of Louisa sent him her thanks;[186] and on the following day, messages to the same effect were sent from the counties of Orange and Spottsylvania.[187] On the 19th of May, an address "to the inhabitants of Virginia," under the signature of "Brutus," saluted Patrick Henry as "his country's and America's unalterable and unappalled great advocate and friend."[188] On the 22d of May, Prince William County declared its thanks to be "justly due to Captain Patrick Henry, and the gentlemen volunteers who attended him, for their proper and spirited conduct."[189] On the 26th of May, Loudoun County declared its cordial approval.[190] On the 9th of June, the volunteer company of Lancaster County resolved "that every member of this company do return thanks to the worthy Captain Patrick Henry and the volunteer company of Hanover, for their spirited conduct on a late expedition, and they are determined to protect him from any insult that may be offered him, on that account, at the risk of life and fortune."[191] On the 19th of June, resolutions of gratitude and confidence were voted by the counties of Prince Edward and of Frederick, the latter saying:—

"We should blush to be thus late in our commendations of, and thanks to, Patrick Henry, Esquire, for his patriotic and spirited behavior in making reprisals for the powder so unconstitutionally ... taken from the public magazine, could we have entertained a thought that any part of the colony would have condemned a measure calculated for the benefit of the whole; but as we are informed this is the case, we beg leave ... to assure that gentleman that we did from the first, and still do, most cordially approve and commend his conduct in that affair. The good people of this county will never fail to approve and support him to the utmost of their powers in every action derived from so rich a source as the love of his country. We heartily thank him for stepping forth to convince the tools of despotism that freeborn men are not to be intimidated, by any form of danger, to submit to the arbitrary acts of their rulers."[192]

On the 10th of July, the county of Fincastle prolonged the strain of public affection and applause by assuring Patrick Henry that it would support and justify him at the risk of life and fortune.[193]

In the mean time, the second Continental Congress had already convened at Philadelphia, beginning its work on the 10th of May. The journal mentions the presence, on that day, of all the delegates from Virginia, excepting Patrick Henry, who, of course, had been delayed in his preparations for the journey by the events which we have just described. Not until the 11th of May was he able to set out from his home; and he was then accompanied upon his journey, to a point beyond the borders of the colony, by a spontaneous escort of armed men,—a token, not only of the popular love for him, but of the popular anxiety lest Dunmore should take the occasion of an unprotected journey to put him under arrest. "Yesterday," says a document dated at Hanover, May the 12th, 1775, "Patrick Henry, one of the delegates for this colony, escorted by a number of respectable young gentlemen, volunteers from this and King William and Caroline counties, set out to attend the General Congress. They proceeded with him as far as Mrs. Hooe's ferry, on the Potomac, by whom they were most kindly and hospitably entertained, and also provided with boats and hands to cross the river; and after partaking of this lady's beneficence, the bulk of the company took their leave of Mr. Henry, saluting him with two platoons and repeated huzzas. A guard accompanied that worthy gentleman to the Maryland side, who saw him safely landed; and committing him to the gracious and wise Disposer of all human events, to guide and protect him whilst contending for a restitution of our dearest rights and liberties, they wished him a safe journey, and happy return to his family and friends."[194]


[165] Works of John Adams, ii. 415-417.

[166] Letters of John Adams to his Wife, i. 40.

[167] Letters of John Adams to his Wife, i. 47, 48.

[168] Works of Jefferson, i. 116.

[169] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1227.

[170] Ibid. iii. 390.

[171] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 387.

[172] Ibid. ii. 395.

[173] Ibid. ii. 442, 443.

[174] Ibid. ii. 426.

[175] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 443.

[176] Patrick Henry's reasons were thus stated by him at the time to Colonel Richard Morris and Captain George Dabney, and by the latter were communicated to Wirt, 136, 137.

[177] Wirt, 137, 138.

[178] Wirt, 141.

[179] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 504

[180] Cooke, Virginia, 432.

[181] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 540.

[182] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 541.

[183] Ibid.

[184] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 516.

[185] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 540, 541.

[186] Ibid. ii. 529.

[187] Ibid. ii. 539, 540.

[188] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 641.

[189] Ibid. ii. 667.

[190] Ibid. ii. 710, 711.

[191] Ibid. ii. 938.

[192] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1024.

[193] Ibid. ii. 1620, 1621. For notable comments on Patrick Henry's "striking and lucky coup de main," see Rives, Life of Madison, i. 93, 94; Works of Jefferson, i. 116, 117; Charles Mackay, Founders of the American Republic, 232-234; 327.

[194] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 541.



On Thursday, the 18th of May, Patrick Henry took his seat in the second Continental Congress; and he appears thenceforward to have continued in attendance until the very end of the session, which occurred on the 1st of August. From the official journal of this Congress, it is impossible to ascertain the full extent of any member's participation in its work. Its proceedings were transacted in secret; and only such results were announced to the public as, in the opinion of Congress, it was desirable that the public should know. Then, too, from the private correspondence and the diaries of its members but little help can be got. As affecting Patrick Henry, almost the only non-official testimony that has been found is that of Jefferson, who, however, did not enter this Congress until its session was half gone, and who, forty years afterward, wrote what he probably supposed to be his recollections concerning his old friend's deportment and influence in that body:—

"I found Mr. Henry to be a silent and almost unmeddling member in Congress. On the original opening of that body, while general grievances were the topic, he was in his element, and captivated all by his bold and splendid eloquence. But as soon as they came to specific matters, to sober reasoning and solid argumentation, he had the good sense to perceive that his declamation, however excellent in its proper place, had no weight at all in such an assembly as that, of cool-headed, reflecting, judicious men. He ceased, therefore, in a great measure, to take any part in the business. He seemed, indeed, very tired of the place, and wonderfully relieved when, by appointment of the Virginia convention to be colonel of their first regiment, he was permitted to leave Congress about the last of July."[195]

Perhaps the principal value of this testimony is to serve as an illustration of the extreme fragility of any man's memory respecting events long passed, even in his own experience. Thus, Jefferson here remembers how "wonderfully relieved" Patrick Henry was at being "permitted to leave Congress" on account of his appointment by the Virginia convention "to be colonel of their first regiment." But, from the official records of the time, it can now be shown that neither of the things which Jefferson thus remembers, ever had any existence in fact. In the first place, the journal of the Virginia convention[196] indicates that Patrick Henry's appointment as colonel could not have been the occasion of any such relief from congressional duties as Jefferson speaks of; for that appointment was not made until five days after Congress itself had adjourned, when, of course, Patrick Henry and his fellow delegates, including Jefferson, were already far advanced on their journey back to Virginia. In the second place, the journal of Congress[197] indicates that Patrick Henry had no such relief from congressional duties, on any account, but was bearing his full share in its business, even in the plainest and most practical details, down to the very end of the session.

Any one who now recalls the tremendous events that were taking place in the land while the second Continental Congress was in session, and the immense questions of policy and of administration with which it had to deal, will find it hard to believe that its deliberations were out of the range of Patrick Henry's sympathies or capacities, or that he could have been the listless, speechless, and ineffective member depicted by the later pen of Jefferson. When that Congress first came together, the blood was as yet hardly dry on the grass in Lexington Common; on the very morning on which its session opened, the colonial troops burst into the stronghold at Ticonderoga; and when the session had lasted but six weeks, its members were conferring together over the ghastly news from Bunker Hill. The organization of some kind of national government for thirteen colonies precipitated into a state of war; the creation of a national army; the selection of a commander-in-chief, and of the officers to serve under him; the hurried fortification of coasts, harbors, cities; the supply of the troops with clothes, tents, weapons, ammunition, food, medicine; protection against the Indian tribes along the frontier of nearly every colony; the goodwill of the people of Canada, and of Jamaica; a solemn, final appeal to the king and to the people of England; an appeal to the people of Ireland; finally, a grave statement to all mankind of "the causes and necessity of their taking up arms,"—these were among the weighty and soul-stirring matters which the second Continental Congress had to consider and to decide upon. For any man to say, forty years afterward, even though he say it with all the authority of the renown of Thomas Jefferson, that, in the presence of such questions, the spirit of Patrick Henry was dull or unconcerned, and that, in a Congress which had to deal with such questions, he was "a silent and almost unmeddling member," is to put a strain upon human confidence which it is unable to bear.

The formula by which the daily labors of this Congress are frequently described in its own journal is, that "Congress met according to adjournment, and, agreeable to the order of the day, again resolved itself into a committee of the whole to take into consideration the state of America; and after some time spent therein, the president resumed the chair, and Mr. Ward, from the committee, reported that they had proceeded in the business, but, not having completed it, desired him to move for leave to sit again."[198] And although, from the beginning to the end of the session, no mention is made of any word spoken in debate by any member, we can yet glean, even from that meagre record, enough to prove that upon Patrick Henry was laid about as much labor in the form of committee-work as upon any other member of the House,—a fair test, it is believed, of any man's zeal, industry, and influence in any legislative body.

Further, it will be noted that the committee-work to which he was thus assigned was often of the homeliest and most prosaic kind, calling not for declamatory gifts, but for common sense, discrimination, experience, and knowledge of men and things. He seems, also, to have had special interest and authority in the several anxious phases of the Indian question as presented by the exigencies of that awful crisis, and to have been placed on every committee that was appointed to deal with any branch of the subject. Thus, on the 16th of June, he was placed with General Schuyler, James Duane, James Wilson, and Philip Livingston, on a committee "to take into consideration the papers transmitted from the convention of New York, relative to Indian affairs, and report what steps, in their opinion, are necessary to be taken for securing and preserving the friendship of the Indian nations."[199] On the 19th of June, he served with John Adams and Thomas Lynch on a committee to inform Charles Lee of his appointment as second major-general; and when Lee's answer imported that his situation and circumstances as a British officer required some further and very careful negotiations with Congress, Patrick Henry was placed upon the special committee to which this delicate business was intrusted.[200] On the 21st of June, the very day on which, according to the journal, "Mr. Thomas Jefferson appeared as a delegate for the colony of Virginia, and produced his credentials," his colleague, Patrick Henry, rose in his place and stated that Washington "had put into his hand sundry queries, to which he desired the Congress would give an answer." These queries necessarily involved subjects of serious concern to the cause for which they were about to plunge into war, and would certainly require for their consideration "cool-headed, reflecting, and judicious men." The committee appointed for the purpose consisted of Silas Deane, Patrick Henry, John Rutledge, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee.[201] On the 10th of July, "Mr. Alsop informed the Congress that he had an invoice of Indian goods, which a gentleman in this town had delivered to him, and which the said gentleman was willing to dispose of to the Congress." The committee "to examine the said invoice and report to the Congress" was composed of Philip Livingston, Patrick Henry, and John Alsop.[202] On the 12th of July, it was resolved to organize three departments for the management of Indian affairs, the commissioners to "have power to treat with the Indians in their respective departments, in the name and on behalf of the United Colonies, in order to preserve peace and friendship with the said Indians, and to prevent their taking any part in the present commotions." On the following day the commissioners for the middle department were elected, namely, Franklin, Patrick Henry, and James Wilson.[203] On the 17th of July, a committee was appointed to negotiate with the Indian missionary, the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, respecting his past and future services among the Six Nations, "in order to secure their friendship, and to continue them in a state of neutrality with respect to the present controversy between Great Britain and these colonies." This committee consisted of Thomas Cushing, Patrick Henry, and Silas Deane.[204] Finally, on the 31st of July, next to the last day of the session, a committee consisting of one member for each colony was appointed to serve in the recess of Congress, for the very practical and urgent purpose of inquiring "in all the colonies after virgin lead and leaden ore, and the best methods of collecting, smelting, and refining it;" also, after "the cheapest and easiest methods of making salt in these colonies." This was not a committee on which any man could be useful who had only "declamation" to contribute to its work; and the several colonies were represented upon it by their most sagacious and their weightiest men,—as New Hampshire by Langdon, Massachusetts by John Adams, Rhode Island by Stephen Hopkins, Pennsylvania by Franklin, Delaware by Rodney, South Carolina by Gadsden, Virginia by Patrick Henry.[205]

On the day on which this committee was appointed, Patrick Henry wrote to Washington, then at the headquarters of the army near Boston, a letter which denoted on the part of the writer a perception, unusual at that time, of the gravity and duration of the struggle on which the colonies were just entering:—

PHILADELPHIA, July 31st, 1775.

SIR,—Give me leave to recommend the bearer, Mr. Frazer, to your notice and regard. He means to enter the American camp, and there to gain that experience, of which the general cause may be avail'd. It is my earnest wish that many Virginians might see service. It is not unlikely that in the fluctuation of things our country may have occasion for great military exertions. For this reason I have taken the liberty to trouble you with this and a few others of the same tendency. The public good which you, sir, have so eminently promoted, is my only motive. That you may enjoy the protection of Heaven and live long and happy is the ardent wish of,

Sir, Yr. mo. obt. hbl. serv., P. HENRY, JR.[206]

His Excellency, GENL. WASHINGTON.

On the following day Congress adjourned. As soon as possible after its adjournment, the Virginia delegates seem to have departed for home, to take their places in the convention then in session at Richmond; for the journal of that convention mentions that on Wednesday, August the 9th, "Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Jefferson, Esquires, appeared in convention, and took their seats."[207] On the next day an incident occurred in the convention implying that Patrick Henry, during his absence in Congress, had been able to serve his colony by other gifts as well as by those of "bold and splendid eloquence:" it was resolved that "the powder purchased by Patrick Henry, Esquire, for the use of this colony, be immediately sent for."[208] On the day following that, the convention resolved unanimously that "the thanks of this convention are justly due to his excellency, George Washington, Esquire, Patrick Henry, and Edmund Pendleton, Esquires, three of the worthy delegates who represented this colony in the late Continental Congress, for their faithful discharge of that important trust; and this body are only induced to dispense with their future services of the like kind, by the appointment of the two former to other offices in the public service, incompatible with their attendance on this, and the infirm state of health of the latter."[209]

Of course, the two appointments here referred to are of Washington as commander-in-chief of the forces of the United Colonies, and of Patrick Henry as commander-in-chief of the forces of Virginia,—the latter appointment having been made by the Virginia convention on the 5th of August. The commission, which passed the convention on the 28th of that month, constituted Patrick Henry "colonel of the first regiment of regulars, and commander-in-chief of all the forces to be raised for the protection and defence of this colony;" and while it required "all officers and soldiers, and every person whatsoever, in any way concerned, to be obedient" to him, "in all things touching the due execution of this commission," it also required him to be obedient to "all orders and instructions which, from time to time," he might "receive from the convention or Committee of Safety."[210] Accordingly, Patrick Henry's control of military proceedings in Virginia was, as it proved, nothing more than nominal: it was a supreme command on paper, tempered in actual experience by the incessant and distrustful interference of an ever-present body of civilians, who had all power over him.

A newspaper of Williamsburg for the 23d of September announces the arrival there, two days before, of "Patrick Henry, Esquire, commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. He was met and escorted to town by the whole body of volunteers, who paid him every mark of respect and distinction in their power."[211] Thereupon he inspected the grounds about the city; and as a place suitable for the encampment, he fixed upon a site in the rear of the College of William and Mary. Soon troops began to arrive in considerable numbers, and to prepare themselves for whatever service might be required of them.[212] There was, however, a sad lack of arms and ammunition. On the 15th of October, Pendleton, who was at the head of the Committee of Safety, gave this account of the situation in a letter to Richard Henry Lee, then in Congress at Philadelphia:—

"Had we arms and ammunition, it would give vigor to our measures.... Nine companies of regulars are here, and seem very clever men; others, we hear, are ready, and only wait to collect arms. Lord Dunmore's forces are only one hundred and sixty as yet, intrenched at Gosport, and supported by the ships drawn up before that and Norfolk."[213]

On the 30th of November, Lord Dunmore, who had been compelled by the smallness of his land force to take refuge upon his armed vessels off the coast, thus described the situation, in a letter to General Sir William Howe, then in command at Boston:—

"I must inform you that with our little corps, I think we have done wonders. We have taken and destroyed above four score pieces of ordnance, and, by landing in different parts of the country, we keep them in continual hot water.... Having heard that a thousand chosen men belonging to the rebels, great part of whom were riflemen, were on their march to attack us here, or to cut off our provisions, I determined to take possession of the pass at the Great Bridge, which secures us the greatest part of two counties to supply us with provisions. I accordingly ordered a stockade fort to be erected there, which was done in a few days; and I put an officer and twenty-five men to garrison it, with some volunteers and negroes, who have defended it against all the efforts of the rebels for these eight days. We have killed several of their men; and I make no doubt we shall now be able to maintain our ground there; but should we be obliged to abandon it, we have thrown up an intrenchment on the land side of Norfolk, which I hope they will never be able to force. Here we are, with only the small part of a regiment contending against the extensive colony of Virginia."[214]

But who were these "thousand chosen men belonging to the rebels," who, on their march to attack Lord Dunmore at Norfolk, had thus been held in check by his little fort at the Great Bridge? We are told by Dunmore himself that they were Virginia troops. But why was not Patrick Henry in immediate command of them? Why was Patrick Henry held back from this service,—the only active service then to be had in the field? And why was the direction of this important enterprise given to his subordinate, Colonel William Woodford, of the second regiment? There is abundant evidence that Patrick Henry had eagerly desired to conduct this expedition; that he had even solicited the Committee of Safety to permit him to do so; but that they, distrusting his military capacity, overruled his wishes, and gave this fine opportunity for military distinction to the officer next below him in command. Moreover, no sooner had Colonel Woodford departed upon the service, than he began to ignore altogether the commander-in-chief, and to make his communications directly to the Committee of Safety,—a course in which he was virtually sustained by that body, on appeal being made to them. Furthermore, on the 9th of December, Colonel Woodford won a brilliant victory over the enemy at the Great Bridge,[215] thus apparently justifying to the public the wisdom of the committee in assigning the work to him, and also throwing still more into the background the commander-in-chief, who was then chafing in camp over his enforced retirement from this duty. But this was not the only cup of humiliation which was pressed to his lips. Not long afterward, there arrived at the seat of war a few hundred North Carolina troops, under command of Colonel Robert Howe; and the latter, with the full consent of Woodford, at once took command of their united forces, and thenceforward addressed his official letters solely to the convention of Virginia, or to the Committee of Safety, paying not the slightest attention to the commander-in-chief.[216] Finally, on the 28th of December, Congress decided to raise in Virginia six battalions to be taken into continental pay;[217] and, by a subsequent vote, it likewise resolved to include within these six battalions the first and the second Virginia regiments already raised.[218] A commission was accordingly sent to Patrick Henry as colonel of the first Virginia battalion,[219]—an official intimation that the expected commission of a brigadier-general for Virginia was to be given to some one else.

On receiving this last affront, Patrick Henry determined to lay down his military appointments, which he did on the 28th of February, 1776, and at once prepared to leave the camp. As soon as this news got abroad among the troops, they all, according to a contemporary account,[220] "went into mourning, and, under arms, waited on him at his lodgings," when his officers presented to him an affectionate address:—


Deeply impressed with a grateful sense of the obligations we lie under to you for the polite, humane, and tender treatment manifested to us throughout the whole of your conduct, while we have had the honor of being under your command, permit us to offer to you our sincere thanks, as the only tribute we have in our power to pay to your real merits. Notwithstanding your withdrawing yourself from service fills us with the most poignant sorrow, as it at once deprives us of our father and general, yet, as gentlemen, we are compelled to applaud your spirited resentment to the most glaring indignity. May your merit shine as conspicuous to the world in general as it hath done to us, and may Heaven shower its choicest blessings upon you.

WILLIAMSBURG, February 29, 1776.

His reply to this warm-hearted message was in the following words:—

GENTLEMEN,—I am extremely obliged to you for your approbation of my conduct. Your address does me the highest honor. This kind testimony of your regard to me would have been an ample reward for services much greater than I have had the power to perform. I return you, and each of you, gentlemen, my best acknowledgments for the spirit, alacrity, and zeal you have constantly shown in your several stations. I am unhappy to part with you. I leave the service, but I leave my heart with you. May God bless you, and give you success and safety, and make you the glorious instruments of saving our country.[221]

The grief and indignation thus exhibited by the officers who had served under Patrick Henry soon showed itself in a somewhat violent manner among the men. The "Virginia Gazette" for that time states that, "after the officers had received Colonel Henry's kind answer to their address, they insisted upon his dining with them at the Raleigh Tavern, before his departure; and after the dinner, a number of them proposed escorting him out of town, but were prevented by some uneasiness getting among the soldiery, who assembled in a tumultuous manner and demanded their discharge, and declared their unwillingness to serve under any other commander. Upon which Colonel Henry found it necessary to stay a night longer in town, which he spent in visiting the several barracks; and used every argument in his power with the soldiery to lay aside their imprudent resolution, and to continue in the service, which he had quitted from motives in which his honor alone was concerned."[222] Moreover, several days after he had left the camp altogether and had returned to his home, he was followed by an address signed by ninety officers belonging not only to his own regiment, but to that of Colonel Woodford,—a document which has no little value as presenting strongly one side of contemporary military opinion respecting Patrick Henry's career as a soldier, and the treatment to which he had been subjected.

SIR,—Deeply concerned for the good of our country, we sincerely lament the unhappy necessity of your resignation, and with all the warmth of affection assure you that, whatever may have given rise to the indignity lately offered to you, we join with the general voice of the people, and think it our duty to make this public declaration of our high respect for your distinguished merit. To your vigilance and judgment, as a senator, this United Continent bears ample testimony, while she prosecutes her steady opposition to those destructive ministerial measures which your eloquence first pointed out and taught to resent, and your resolution led forward to resist. To your extensive popularity the service, also, is greatly indebted for the expedition with which the troops were raised; and while they were continued under your command, the firmness, candor, and politeness, which formed the complexion of your conduct towards them, obtained the signal approbation of the wise and virtuous, and will leave upon our minds the most grateful impression.

Although retired from the immediate concerns of war, we solicit the continuance of your kindly attention. We know your attachment to the best of causes; we have the fullest confidence in your abilities, and in the rectitude of your views; and, however willing the envious may be to undermine an established reputation, we trust the day will come when justice shall prevail, and thereby secure you an honorable and happy return to the glorious employment of conducting our councils and hazarding your life in the defence of your country.[223]

The public agitation over the alleged wrong which had thus been done to Patrick Henry during his brief military career, and which had brought that career to its abrupt and painful close, seems to have continued for a considerable time. Throughout the colony the blame was openly and bluntly laid upon the Committee of Safety, who, on account of envy, it was said, had tried "to bury in obscurity his martial talents."[224] On the other hand, the course pursued by that committee was ably defended by many, on the ground that Patrick Henry, with all his great gifts for civil life, really had no fitness for a leading military position. One writer asserted that even in the convention which had elected Patrick Henry as commander-in-chief, it was objected that "his studies had been directed to civil and not to military pursuits; that he was totally unacquainted with the art of war, and had no knowledge of military discipline; and that such a person was very unfit to be at the head of troops who were likely to be engaged with a well-disciplined army, commanded by experienced and able generals."[225] In the very middle of the period of his nominal military service, this opinion of his unfitness was still more strongly urged by the chairman of the Committee of Safety, who, on the 24th of December, 1775, said in a letter to Colonel Woodford:—

"Believe me, sir, the unlucky step of calling that gentleman from our councils, where he was useful, into the field, in an important station, the duties of which he must, in the nature of things, be an entire stranger to, has given me many an anxious and uneasy moment. In consequence of this mistaken step, which can't now be retracted or remedied,—for he has done nothing worthy of degradation, and must keep his rank,—we must be deprived of the service of some able officers, whose honor and former ranks will not suffer them to act under him in this juncture, when we so much need their services."[226]

This seems to have been, in substance, the impression concerning Patrick Henry held at that time by at least two friendly and most competent observers, who were then looking on from a distance, and who, of course, were beyond the range of any personal or partisan prejudice upon the subject. Writing from Cambridge, on the 7th of March, 1776, before he had received the news of Henry's resignation, Washington said to Joseph Reed, then at Philadelphia: "I think my countrymen made a capital mistake when they took Henry out of the senate to place him in the field; and pity it is that he does not see this, and remove every difficulty by a voluntary resignation."[227] On the 15th of that month, Reed, in reply, gave to Washington this bit of news: "We have some accounts from Virginia that Colonel Henry has resigned in disgust at not being made a general officer; but it rather gives satisfaction than otherwise, as his abilities seem better calculated for the senate than the field."[228]

Nevertheless, in all these contemporary judgments upon the alleged military defects of Patrick Henry, no reader can now fail to note an embarrassing lack of definiteness, and a tendency to infer that, because that great man was so great in civil life, as a matter of course, he could not be great, also, in military life,—a proposition that could be overthrown by numberless historical examples to the contrary. It would greatly aid us if we could know precisely what, in actual experience, were the defects found in Patrick Henry as a military man, and precisely how these defects were exhibited by him in the camp at Williamsburg. In the writings of that period, no satisfaction upon this point seems thus far to have been obtained. There is, however, a piece of later testimony, derived by authentic tradition from a prominent member of the Virginia Committee of Safety, which really helps one to understand what may have been the exact difficulty with the military character of Patrick Henry, and just why, also, it could not be more plainly stated at the time. Clement Carrington, a son of Paul Carrington, told Hugh Blair Grigsby that the real ground of the action of the Committee of Safety "was the want of discipline in the regiment under the command of Colonel Henry. None doubted his courage, or his alacrity to hasten to the field; but it was plain that he did not seem to be conscious of the importance of strict discipline in the army, but regarded his soldiers as so many gentlemen who had met to defend their country, and exacted from them little more than the courtesy that was proper among equals. To have marched to the sea-board at that time with a regiment of such men, would have been to insure their destruction; and it was a thorough conviction of this truth that prompted the decision of the committee."[229]

Yet, even with this explanation, the truth remains that Patrick Henry, as commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, never was permitted to take command, or to see any real service in the field, or to look upon the face of an armed enemy, or to show, in the only way in which it could be shown, whether or not he had the gifts of a military leader in action. As an accomplished and noble-minded Virginian of our own time has said:—

"It may be doubted whether he possessed those qualities which make a wary partisan, and which are so often possessed in an eminent degree by uneducated men. Regular fighting there was none in the colony, until near the close of the war.... The most skilful partisan in the Virginia of that day, covered as it was with forests, cut up by streams, and beset by predatory bands, would have been the Indian warrior; and as a soldier approached that model, would he have possessed the proper tactics for the time. That Henry would not have made a better Indian fighter than Jay, or Livingston, or the Adamses, that he might not have made as dashing a partisan as Tarleton or Simcoe, his friends might readily afford to concede; but that he evinced, what neither Jay, nor Livingston, nor the Adamses did evince, a determined resolution to stake his reputation and his life on the issue of arms, and that he resigned his commission when the post of imminent danger was refused him, exhibit a lucid proof that, whatever may have been his ultimate fortune, he was not deficient in two grand elements of military success,—personal enterprise, and unquestioned courage."[230]


[195] Hist. Mag. for Aug. 1867, 92.

[196] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 375.

[197] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1902.

[198] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1834.

[199] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1849.

[200] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1850, 1851.

[201] Ibid. ii. 1852.

[202] Ibid. ii. 1878.

[203] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1879, 1883.

[204] Ibid. ii. 1884, 1885.

[205] 4 Am. Arch. ii. 1902.

[206] MS.

[207] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 377.

[208] Ibid. iii. 377, 378.

[209] Ibid. iii. 378.

[210] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 393. See, also, his oath of office, ibid. iii. 411.

[211] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 776.

[212] Wirt, 159.

[213] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 1067.

[214] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 1713-1715.

[215] Graphic contemporary accounts of this battle may be found in 4 Am. Arch. iv. 224, 228, 229.

[216] Wirt, 178.

[217] 4 Am. Arch. iii. 1962.

[218] Ibid. iv. 1669.

[219] Ibid. iv. 1517.

[220] Ibid. iv. 1515, 1516.

[221] 4 Am. Arch. iv. 1516; also, Wirt, 180, 181.

[222] 4 Am. Arch. iv. 1516.

[223] 4 Am. Arch. iv. 1516, 1517.

[224] Ibid. iv. 1518.

[225] 4 Am. Arch. iv. 1519.

[226] Wirt, 175.

[227] Writings of Washington, iii. 309.

[228] W. B. Reed, Life of Joseph Reed, i. 173.

[229] Grigsby, Va. Conv. of 1776, 52, 53, note.

[230] Grigsby, Va. Conv. of 1776, 151, 152.



Upon this mortifying close of a military career which had opened with so much expectation and even eclat, Patrick Henry returned, early in March, 1776, to his home in the county of Hanover,—a home on which then rested the shadow of a great sorrow. In the midst of the public engagements and excitements which absorbed him during the previous year, his wife, Sarah, the wife of his youth, the mother of his six children, had passed away. His own subsequent release from public labor, however bitter in its occasion, must have brought to him a great solace in the few weeks of repose which he then had under his own roof, with the privilege of ministering to the happiness of his motherless children, and of enjoying once more their loving companionship and sympathy.

But in such a crisis of his country's fate, such a man as Patrick Henry could not be permitted long to remain in seclusion; and the promptness and the heartiness with which he was now summoned back into the service of the public as a civilian, after the recent humiliations of his military career, were accented, perhaps, on the part of his neighbors, by something of the fervor of intended compensation, if not of intended revenge. For, in the mean time, the American colonies had been swiftly advancing, along a path strewn with corpses and wet with blood, towards the doctrine that a total separation from the mother-country,—a thing hitherto contemplated by them only as a disaster and a crime,—might after all be neither, but on the contrary, the only resource left to them in their desperate struggle for political existence. This supreme question, it was plain, was to confront the very next Virginia convention, which was under appointment to meet early in the coming May. Almost at once, therefore, after his return home, Patrick Henry was elected by his native county to represent it in that convention.

On Monday morning, the 6th of May, the convention gathered at Williamsburg for its first meeting. On its roll of members we see many of those names which have become familiar to us in the progress of this history,—the names of those sturdy and well-trained leaders who guided Virginia during all that stormy period,—Pendleton, Cary, Mason, Nicholas, Bland, the Lees, Mann Page, Dudley Digges, Wythe, Edmund Randolph, and a few others. For the first time also, on such a roll, we meet the name of James Madison, an accomplished young political philosopher, then but four years from the inspiring instruction of President Witherspoon at Princeton. But while a few very able men had places in that convention, it was, at the time, by some observers thought to contain an unusually large number of incompetent persons. Three days after the opening of the session Landon Carter wrote to Washington:—

"I could have wished that ambition had not so visibly seized so much ignorance all over the colony, as it seems to have done; for this present convention abounds with too many of the inexperienced creatures to navigate our bark on this dangerous coast; so that I fear the few skilful pilots who have hitherto done tolerably well to keep her clear from destruction, will not be able to conduct her with common safety any longer."[231]

The earliest organization of the House was, on the part of the friends of Patrick Henry, made the occasion for a momentary flash of resentment against Edmund Pendleton, as the man who was believed by them to have been the guiding mind of the Committee of Safety in its long series of restraints upon the military activity of their chief. At the opening of the convention Pendleton was nominated for its president,—a most suitable nomination, and one which under ordinary circumstances would have been carried by acclamation. Thomas Johnson, however, a stanch follower of Patrick Henry, at once presented an opposing candidate; and although Pendleton was elected, he was not elected without a contest, or without this significant hint that the fires of indignation against him were still burning in the hearts of a strong party in that house and throughout the colony.

The convention lasted just two months lacking a day; and in all the detail and drudgery of its business, as the journal indicates, Patrick Henry bore a very large part. In the course of the session, he seems to have served on perhaps a majority of all its committees. On the 6th of May, he was made a member of the committee of privileges and elections; on the 7th, of a committee "to bring in an ordinance to encourage the making of salt, saltpetre, and gunpowder;" on the 8th, of the committee on "propositions and grievances;" on the 21st, of a committee "to inquire for a proper hospital for the reception and accommodation of the sick and wounded soldiers;" on the 22d, of a committee to inquire into the truth of a complaint made by the Indians respecting encroachments on their lands; on the 23d, of a committee to bring in an ordinance for augmenting the ninth regiment, for enlisting four troops of horse, and for raising men for the defence of the frontier counties; on the 4th of June, of a committee to inquire into the causes for the depreciation of paper money in the colony, and into the rates at which goods are sold at the public store; on the 14th of June, of a committee to prepare an address to be sent by Virginia to the Shawanese Indians; on the 15th of June, of a committee to bring in amendments to the ordinance for prescribing a mode of punishment for the enemies of America in this colony; and on the 22d of June, of a committee to prepare an ordinance "for enabling the present magistrates to continue the administration of justice, and for settling the general mode of proceedings in criminal and other cases." The journal also mentions his frequent activity in the House in the presentation of reports from some of these committees: for example, from the committee on propositions and grievances, on the 16th of May, on the 22d of May, and on the 15th of June. On the latter occasion, he made to the House three detailed reports on as many different topics.[232]

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