Patrick Henry
by Moses Coit Tyler
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Of course, the question overshadowing all others in that convention was the question of independence. General Charles Lee, whose military duties just then detained him at Williamsburg, and who was intently watching the currents of political thought in all the colonies, assured Washington, in a letter written on the 10th of May, that "a noble spirit" possessed the convention; and that the members were "almost unanimous for independence," the only disagreement being "in their sentiments about the mode."[233] That Patrick Henry was in favor of independence hardly needs to be mentioned; yet it does need to be mentioned that he was among those who disagreed with some of his associates "about the mode." While he was as eager and as resolute for independence as any man, he doubted whether the time had then fully come for declaring independence. He thought that the declaration should be so timed as to secure, beyond all doubt, two great conditions of success,—first, the firm union of the colonies themselves, and secondly, the friendship of foreign powers, particularly of France and Spain. For these reasons, he would have had independence delayed until a confederation of the colonies could be established by written articles, which, he probably supposed, would take but a few weeks; and also until American agents could have time to negotiate with the French and Spanish courts.

On the first day of the session, General Charles Lee, who was hot for an immediate declaration of independence, seems to have had a conversation upon the subject with Patrick Henry, during which the latter stated his reasons for some postponement of the measure. This led General Lee, on the following day, to write to Henry a letter which is really remarkable, some passages from which will help us the better to understand the public situation, as well as Patrick Henry's attitude towards it:—

WILLIAMSBURG, May 7, 1776.

DEAR SIR,—If I had not the highest opinion of your character and liberal way of thinking, I should not venture to address myself to you. And if I were not equally persuaded of the great weight and influence which the transcendent abilities you possess must naturally confer, I should not give myself the trouble of writing, nor you the trouble of reading this long letter. Since our conversation yesterday, my thoughts have been solely employed on the great question, whether independence ought or ought not to be immediately declared. Having weighed the argument on both sides, I am clearly of the opinion that we must, as we value the liberties of America, or even her existence, without a moment's delay declare for independence.... The objection you made yesterday, if I understood you rightly, to an immediate declaration, was by many degrees the most specious, indeed, it is the only tolerable, one that I have yet heard. You say, and with great justice, that we ought previously to have felt the pulse of France and Spain. I more than believe, I am almost confident, that it has been done.... But admitting that we are utter strangers to their sentiments on the subject, and that we run some risk of this declaration being coldly received by these powers, such is our situation that the risk must be ventured.

On one side there are the most probable chances of our success, founded on the certain advantages which must manifest themselves to French understandings by a treaty of alliance with America.... The superior commerce and marine force of England were evidently established on the monopoly of her American trade. The inferiority of France, in these two capital points, consequently had its source in the same origin. Any deduction from this monopoly must bring down her rival in proportion to this deduction. The French are and always have been sensible of these great truths.... But allowing that there can be no certainty, but mere chances, in our favor, I do insist upon it that these chances render it our duty to adopt the measure, as, by procrastination, our ruin is inevitable. Should it now be determined to wait the result of a previous formal negotiation with France, a whole year must pass over our heads before we can be acquainted with the result. In the mean time, we are to struggle through a campaign, without arms, ammunition, or any one necessary of war. Disgrace and defeat will infallibly ensue; the soldiers and officers will become so disappointed that they will abandon their colors, and probably never be persuaded to make another effort.

But there is another consideration still more cogent. I can assure you that the spirit of the people cries out for this declaration; the military, in particular, men and officers, are outrageous on the subject; and a man of your excellent discernment need not be told how dangerous it would be, in our present circumstances, to dally with the spirit, or disappoint the expectations, of the bulk of the people. May not despair, anarchy, and final submission be the bitter fruits? I am firmly persuaded that they will; and, in this persuasion, I most devoutly pray that you may not merely recommend, but positively lay injunctions on, your servants in Congress to embrace a measure so necessary to our salvation.

Yours, most sincerely, CHARLES LEE.[234]

Just eight days after that letter was written, the Virginia convention took what may, at first glance, seem to be the precise action therein described as necessary; and moreover, they did so under the influence, in part, of Patrick Henry's powerful advocacy of it. On the 15th of May, after considerable debate, one hundred and twelve members being present, the convention unanimously resolved,

"That the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances and a confederation of the colonies, at such time, and in the manner, as to them shall seem best: provided, that the power of forming government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of, each colony, be left to the respective colonial legislatures."[235]

On the testimony of Edmund Randolph, who was a member of the convention, it is now known that this momentous resolution "was drawn by Pendleton, was offered in convention by Nelson, and was advocated on the floor by Henry."[236] Any one who will carefully study it, however, will discover that this resolution was the result of a compromise; and especially, that it is so framed as to meet Patrick Henry's views, at least to the extent of avoiding the demand for an immediate declaration, and of leaving it to Congress to determine the time and manner of making it. Accordingly, in letters of his, written five days afterward to his most intimate friends in Congress, we see that his mind was still full of anxiety about the two great prerequisites,—a certified union among the colonies, and a friendly arrangement with France. "Ere this reaches you," he wrote to Richard Henry Lee, "our resolution for separating from Britain will be handed you by Colonel Nelson. Your sentiments as to the necessary progress of this great affair correspond with mine. For may not France, ignorant of the great advantages to her commerce we intend to offer, and of the permanency of that separation which is to take place, be allured by the partition you mention? To anticipate, therefore, the efforts of the enemy by sending instantly American ambassadors to France, seems to me absolutely necessary. Delay may bring on us total ruin. But is not a confederacy of our States previously necessary?"[237]

On the same day, he wrote, also, a letter to John Adams, in which he developed still more vigorously his views as to the true order in which the three great measures,—confederation, foreign alliances, and independence,—should be dealt with:—

"Before this reaches you, the resolution for finally separating from Britain will be handed to Congress by Colonel Nelson. I put up with it in the present form for the sake of unanimity. 'T is not quite so pointed as I could wish. Excuse me for telling you of what I think of immense importance; 't is to anticipate the enemy at the French court. The half of our continent offered to France, may induce her to aid our destruction, which she certainly has the power to accomplish. I know the free trade with all the States would be more beneficial to her than any territorial possessions she might acquire. But pressed, allured, as she will be,—but, above all, ignorant of the great thing we mean to offer,—may we not lose her? The consequence is dreadful. Excuse me again. The confederacy:—that must precede an open declaration of independency and foreign alliances. Would it not be sufficient to confine it, for the present, to the objects of offensive and defensive nature, and a guaranty of the respective colonial rights? If a minute arrangement of things is attempted, such as equal representation, etc., etc., you may split and divide; certainly will delay the French alliance, which with me is everything."[238]

In the mean time, however, many of the people of Virginia had received with enthusiastic approval the news of the great step taken by their convention on the 15th of May. Thus "on the day following," says the "Virginia Gazette," published at Williamsburg, "the troops in this city, with the train of artillery, were drawn up and went through their firings and various other military manoeuvres, with the greatest exactness; a continental union flag was displayed upon the capitol; and in the evening many of the inhabitants illuminated their houses."[239] Moreover, the great step taken by the Virginia convention, on the day just mentioned, committed that body to the duty of taking at once certain other steps of supreme importance. They were about to cast off the government of Great Britain: it was necessary for them, therefore, to provide some government to be put in the place of it. Accordingly, in the very same hour in which they instructed their delegates in Congress to propose a declaration of independence, they likewise resolved, "That a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration of rights, and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people."[240]

Of this committee, Patrick Henry was a member; and with him were associated Archibald Cary, Henry Lee, Nicholas, Edmund Randolph, Bland, Dudley Digges, Paul Carrington, Mann Page, Madison, George Mason, and others. The two tasks before the committee—that of drafting a statement of rights, and that of drafting a constitution for the new State of Virginia—must have pressed heavily upon its leading members. In the work of creating a new state government, Virginia was somewhat in advance of the other colonies; and for this reason, as well as on account of its general preeminence among the colonies, the course which it should take in this crisis was watched with extraordinary attention. John Adams said, at the time, "We all look up to Virginia for examples."[241] Besides, in Virginia itself, as well as in the other colonies, there was an unsettled question as to the nature of the state governments which were then to be instituted. Should they be strongly aristocratic and conservative, with a possible place left for the monarchical feature; or should the popular elements in each colony be more largely recognized, and a decidedly democratic character given to these new constitutions? On this question, two strong parties existed in Virginia. In the first place, there were the old aristocratic families, and those who sympathized with them. These people, numerous, rich, cultivated, influential, in objecting to the unfair encroachments of British authority, had by no means intended to object to the nature of the British constitution, and would have been pleased to see that constitution, in all its essential features, retained in Virginia. This party was led by such men as Robert Carter Nicholas, Carter Braxton, and Edmund Pendleton. In the second place, there were the democrats, the reformers, the radicals,—who were inclined to take the opportunity furnished by Virginia's rejection of British authority as the occasion for rejecting, within the new State of Virginia, all the aristocratic and monarchical features of the British Constitution itself. This party was led by such men as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason. Which party was to succeed in stamping its impress the more strongly on the new plan for government in Virginia?

Furthermore, it is important to observe that, on this very question then at issue in Virginia, two pamphlets, taking opposite sides, were, just at that moment, attracting the notice of Virginians,—both pamphlets being noble in tone, of considerable learning, very suggestive, and very well expressed. The first, entitled "Thoughts on Government," though issued anonymously, was soon known to be by John Adams. It advocated the formation of state constitutions on the democratic model; a lower house elected for a single year by the people; this house to elect an upper house of twenty or thirty members, who were to have a negative on the lower house, and to serve, likewise, for a single year; these two houses to elect a governor, who was to have a negative on them both, and whose term of office should also end with the year; while the judges, and all other officers, civil or military, were either to be appointed by the governor with the advice of the upper house, or to be chosen directly by the two houses themselves.[242] The second pamphlet, which was in part a reply to the first, was entitled "Address to the Convention of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, on the subject of Government in general, and recommending a particular form to their consideration." It purported to be by "A native of the Colony." Although the pamphlet was sent into Virginia under strong recommendations from Carter Braxton, one of the Virginian delegates in Congress, the authorship was then unknown to the public. It advocated the formation of state constitutions on a model far less democratic: first, a lower house, the members of which were to be elected for three years by the people; secondly, an upper house of twenty-four members, to be elected for life by the lower house; thirdly, a governor, to be elected for life by the lower house; fourthly, all judges, all military officers, and all inferior civil ones, to be appointed by the governor.[243]

Such was the question over which the members of the committee, appointed on the 15th of May, must soon have come into sharp conflict. At its earliest meetings, apparently, Henry found the aristocratic tendencies of some of his associates so strong as to give him considerable uneasiness; and by his letter to John Adams, written on the 20th of the month, we may see that he was then complaining of the lack of any associate of adequate ability on his own side of the question. When we remember, however, that both James Madison and George Mason were members of that committee, we can but read Patrick Henry's words with some astonishment.[244] The explanation is probably to be found in the fact that Madison was not placed on the committee until the 16th, and, being very young and very unobtrusive, did not at first make his true weight felt; while Mason was not placed on the committee until the working day just before Henry's letter was written, and very likely had not then met with it, and may not, at the moment, have been remembered by Henry as a member of it. At any rate, this is the way in which our eager Virginia democrat, in that moment of anxious conflict over the form of the future government of his State, poured out his anxieties to his two most congenial political friends in Congress. To Richard Henry Lee he wrote:—

"The grand work of forming a constitution for Virginia is now before the convention, where your love of equal liberty and your skill in public counsels might so eminently serve the cause of your country. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I fear too great a bias to aristocracy prevails among the opulent. I own myself a democratic on the plan of our admired friend, J. Adams, whose pamphlet I read with great pleasure. A performance from Philadelphia is just come here, ushered in, I'm told, by a colleague of yours, B——, and greatly recommended by him. I don't like it. Is the author a Whig? One or two expressions in the book make me ask. I wish to divide you, and have you here to animate, by your manly eloquence, the sometimes drooping spirits of our country, and in Congress to be the ornament of your native country, and the vigilant, determined foe of tyranny. To give you colleagues of kindred sentiments, is my wish. I doubt you have them not at present. A confidential account of the matter to Colonel Tom,[245] desiring him to use it according to his discretion, might greatly serve the public and vindicate Virginia from suspicions. Vigor, animation, and all the powers of mind and body must now be summoned and collected together into one grand effort. Moderation, falsely so called, hath nearly brought on us final ruin. And to see those, who have so fatally advised us, still guiding, or at least sharing, our public counsels, alarms me."[246]

On the same day, he wrote as follows to John Adams:—

WILLIAMSBURG, May 20, 1776.

MY DEAR SIR,—Your favor, with the pamphlet, came safe to hand. I am exceedingly obliged to you for it; and I am not without hopes it may produce good here, where there is among most of our opulent families a strong bias to aristocracy. I tell my friends you are the author. Upon that supposition, I have two reasons for liking the book. The sentiments are precisely the same I have long since taken up, and they come recommended by you. Go on, my dear friend, to assail the strongholds of tyranny; and in whatever form oppression may be found, may those talents and that firmness, which have achieved so much for America, be pointed against it....

Our convention is now employed in the great work of forming a constitution. My most esteemed republican form has many and powerful enemies. A silly thing, published in Philadelphia, by a native of Virginia, has just made its appearance here, strongly recommended, 't is said, by one of our delegates now with you,—Braxton. His reasonings upon and distinction between private and public virtue, are weak, shallow, evasive, and the whole performance an affront and disgrace to this country; and, by one expression, I suspect his whiggism.

Our session will be very long, during which I cannot count upon one coadjutor of talents equal to the task. Would to God you and your Sam Adams were here! It shall be my incessant study so to form our portrait of government that a kindred with New England may be discerned in it; and if all your excellences cannot be preserved, yet I hope to retain so much of the likeness, that posterity shall pronounce us descended from the same stock. I shall think perfection is obtained, if we have your approbation.

I am forced to conclude; but first, let me beg to be presented to my ever-esteemed S. Adams. Adieu, my dear sir; may God preserve you, and give you every good thing.


P. S. Will you and S. A. now and then write?[247]

To this hearty and even brotherly letter John Adams wrote from Philadelphia, on the 3d of June, a fitting reply, in the course of which he said, with respect to Henry's labors in making a constitution for Virginia: "The subject is of infinite moment, and perhaps more than adequate to the abilities of any man in America. I know of none so competent to the task as the author of the first Virginia resolutions against the Stamp Act, who will have the glory with posterity of beginning and concluding this great revolution. Happy Virginia, whose constitution is to be framed by so masterly a builder!" Then, with respect to the aristocratic features in the Constitution, as proposed by "A Native of the Colony," John Adams exclaims:—

"The dons, the bashaws, the grandees, the patricians, the sachems, the nabobs, call them by what name you please, sigh, and groan, and fret, and sometimes stamp, and foam, and curse, but all in vain. The decree is gone forth, and it cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth, must be established in America. That exuberance of pride which has produced an insolent domination in a few, a very few, opulent, monopolizing families, will be brought down nearer to the confines of reason and moderation than they have been used to.... I shall ever be happy in receiving your advice by letter, until I can be more completely so in seeing you here in person, which I hope will be soon."[248]

On the 12th of June, the convention adopted without a dissenting voice its celebrated "declaration of rights," a compact, luminous, and powerful statement, in sixteen articles, of those great fundamental rights that were henceforth to be "the basis and foundation of government" in Virginia, and were to stamp their character upon that constitution on which the committee were even then engaged. Perhaps no political document of that time is more worthy of study in connection with the genesis, not only of our state constitutions, but of that of the nation likewise. That the first fourteen articles of the declaration were written by George Mason has never been disputed: that he also wrote the fifteenth and the sixteenth articles is now claimed by his latest and ablest biographer,[249] but in opposition to the testimony of Edmund Randolph, who was a member both of the convention itself and of the particular committee in charge of the declaration, and who has left on record the statement that those articles were the work of Patrick Henry.[250] The fifteenth article was in these words: "That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." The sixteenth article is an assertion of the doctrine of religious liberty,—the first time that it was ever asserted by authority in Virginia. The original draft, in which the writer followed very closely the language used on that subject by the Independents in the Assembly of Westminster, stood as follows:—

"That religion, or the duty we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, and not by force or violence; and, therefore, that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless, under color of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or the safety of society; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."[251]

The historic significance of this stately assertion of religious liberty in Virginia can be felt only by those who remember that, at that time, the Church of England was the established church of Virginia, and that the laws of Virginia then restrained the exercise there of every form of religious dissent, unless compliance had been made with the conditions of the toleration act of the first year of William and Mary. At the very moment, probably, when the committee were engaged in considering the tremendous innovation contained in this article, "sundry persons of the Baptist church in the county of Prince William" were putting their names to a petition earnestly imploring the convention, "That they be allowed to worship God in their own way, without interruption; that they be permitted to maintain their own ministers and none others; that they may be married, buried, and the like, without paying the clergy of other denominations;" and that, by the concession to them of such religious freedom, they be enabled to "unite with their brethren, and to the utmost of their ability promote the common cause" of political freedom.[252] Of course the adoption of the sixteenth article virtually carried with it every privilege which these people asked for. The author of that article, whether it was George Mason or Patrick Henry, was a devout communicant of the established church of Virginia; and thus, the first great legislative act for the reform of the civil constitution of that church, and for its deliverance from the traditional duty and curse of persecution, was an act which came from within the church itself.

On Monday, the 24th of June, the committee, through Archibald Cary, submitted to the convention their plan of a constitution for the new State of Virginia; and on Saturday, the 29th of June, this plan passed its third reading, and was unanimously adopted. A glance at the document will show that in the sharp struggle between the aristocratic and the democratic forces in the convention, the latter had signally triumphed. It provided for a lower House of Assembly, whose members were to be elected annually by the people, in the proportion of two members from each county; for an upper House of Assembly to consist of twenty-four members, who were to be elected annually by the people, in the proportion of one member from each of the senatorial districts into which the several counties should be grouped; for a governor, to be elected annually by joint ballot of both houses, and not to "continue in that office longer than three years successively," nor then to be eligible again for the office until after the lapse of four years from the close of his previous term; for a privy council of eight members, for delegates in Congress, and for judges in the several courts, all to be elected by joint ballot of the two Houses; for justices of the peace to be appointed by the governor and the privy council; and, finally, for an immediate election, by the convention itself, of a governor, and a privy council, and such other officers as might be necessary for the introduction of the new government.[253]

In accordance with the last provision of this Constitution, the convention at once proceeded to cast their ballots for governor, with the following result:—

For Patrick Henry 60 For Thomas Nelson 45 For John Page 1

By resolution, Patrick Henry was then formally declared to be the governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, to continue in office until the close of that session of the Assembly which should be held after the end of the following March.

On the same day on which this action was taken, he wrote, in reply to the official notice of his election, the following letter of acceptance,—a graceful, manly, and touching composition:—


GENTLEMEN,—The vote of this day, appointing me governor of this commonwealth, has been notified to me, in the most polite and obliging manner, by George Mason, Henry Lee, Dudley Digges, John Blair, and Bartholomew Dandridge, Esquires.

A sense of the high and unmerited honor conferred upon me by the convention fills my heart with gratitude, which I trust my whole life will manifest. I take this earliest opportunity to express my thanks, which I wish to convey to you, gentlemen, in the strongest terms of acknowledgment.

When I reflect that the tyranny of the British king and parliament hath kindled a formidable war, now raging throughout the wide-extended continent, and in the operations of which this commonwealth must bear so great a part, and that from the events of this war the lasting happiness or misery of a great proportion of the human species will finally result; that, in order to preserve this commonwealth from anarchy, and its attendant ruin, and to give vigor to our councils and effect to all our measures, government hath been necessarily assumed and new modelled; that it is exposed to numberless hazards and perils in its infantine state; that it can never attain to maturity or ripen into firmness, unless it is guarded by affectionate assiduity, and managed by great abilities,—I lament my want of talents; I feel my mind filled with anxiety and uneasiness to find myself so unequal to the duties of that important station to which I am called by favor of my fellow citizens at this truly critical conjuncture. The errors of my conduct shall be atoned for, so far as I am able, by unwearied endeavors to secure the freedom and happiness of our common country.

I shall enter upon the duties of my office whenever you, gentlemen, shall be pleased to direct, relying upon the known wisdom and virtue of your honorable house to supply my defects, and to give permanency and success to that system of government which you have formed, and which is so wisely calculated to secure equal liberty, and advance human happiness.

I have the honor to be, gentlemen, your most obedient and very humble servant,


WILLIAMSBURG, June 29, 1776.[254]


[231] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 390.

[232] The journal of this convention is in 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1509-1616.

[233] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 406.

[234] 5 Am. Arch. i. 95-97. Campbell, in his History of Virginia, 645, 646, commits a rather absurd error in attributing this letter to Thomas Nelson, Jr.

[235] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1524.

[236] Randolph's address at the funeral of Pendleton, in Va. Gazette for 2 Nov. 1803, and cited by Grigsby, Va. Conv. of 1776, 203, 204.

[237] S. Lit. Messenger for 1842; thence given in Campbell, Hist. Va. 647, 648.

[238] Works of John Adams, iv. 201.

[239] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 462.

[240] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1524.

[241] Works of John Adams, ix. 387.

[242] John Adams's pamphlet is given in his Works, iv. 189-200.

[243] The pamphlet is given in 4 Am. Arch. vi. 748-754.

[244] See the unfavorable comment of Rives, Life and Times of Madison, i. 147, 148.

[245] Probably Thomas Ludwell Lee.

[246] S. Lit. Messenger for 1842. Reprinted in Campbell, Hist. Va. 647.

[247] Works of John Adams, iv. 201, 202.

[248] Works of John Adams, ix. 386-388.

[249] Kate Mason Rowland, Life of Mason, i. 228-241.

[250] Edmund Randolph, MS. Hist. Va. See, also, W. W. Henry, Life of P. Henry, i. 422-436.

[251] Edmund Randolph, MS. Hist. Va. See, also, W. W. Henry, Life of P. Henry, i. 422-436.

[252] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1582.

[253] Am. Arch. vi. 1598-1601, note.

[254] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1129, 1130.



On Friday, the 5th of July, 1776, Patrick Henry took the oath of office,[255] and entered upon his duties as governor of the commonwealth of Virginia. The salary attached to the position was fixed at one thousand pounds sterling for the year; and the governor was invited to take up his residence in the palace at Williamsburg. No one had resided in the palace since Lord Dunmore had fled from it; and the people of Virginia could hardly fail to note the poetic retribution whereby the very man whom, fourteen months before, Lord Dunmore had contemptuously denounced as "a certain Patrick Henry of Hanover County," should now become Lord Dunmore's immediate successor in that mansion of state, and should be able, if he chose, to write proclamations against Lord Dunmore upon the same desk on which Lord Dunmore had so recently written the proclamation against himself.

Among the first to bring their congratulations to the new governor, were his devoted friends, the first and second regiments of Virginia, who told him that they viewed "with the sincerest sentiments of respect and joy" his accession to the highest office in the State, and who gave to him likewise this affectionate assurance: "our hearts are willing, and arms ready, to maintain your authority as chief magistrate."[256] On the 29th of July, the erratic General Charles Lee, who was then in Charleston, sent on his congratulations in a letter amusing for its tart cordiality and its peppery playfulness:—

"I most sincerely congratulate you on the noble conduct of your countrymen; and I congratulate your country on having citizens deserving of the high honor to which you are exalted. For the being elected to the first magistracy of a free people is certainly the pinnacle of human glory; and I am persuaded that they could not have made a happier choice. Will you excuse me,—but I am myself so extremely democratical, that I think it a fault in your constitution that the governor should be eligible for three years successively. It appears to me that a government of three years may furnish an opportunity of acquiring a very dangerous influence. But this is not the worst.... A man who is fond of office, and has his eye upon reelection, will be courting favor and popularity at the expense of his duty.... There is a barbarism crept in among us that extremely shocks me: I mean those tinsel epithets with which (I come in for my share) we are so beplastered,—'his excellency,' and 'his honor,' 'the honorable president of the honorable congress,' or 'the honorable convention.' This fulsome, nauseating cant may be well enough adapted to barbarous monarchies, or to gratify the adulterated pride of the 'magnifici' in pompous aristocracies; but in a great, free, manly, equal commonwealth, it is quite abominable. For my own part, I would as lief they would put ratsbane in my mouth as the 'excellency' with which I am daily crammed. How much more true dignity was there in the simplicity of address amongst the Romans,—'Marcus Tullius Cicero,' 'Decimo Bruto Imperatori,' or 'Caio Marcello Consuli,'—than to 'his excellency Major-General Noodle,' or to 'the honorable John Doodle.' ... If, therefore, I should sometimes address a letter to you without the 'excellency' tacked, you must not esteem it a mark of personal or official disrespect, but the reverse."[257]

Of all the words of congratulation which poured in upon the new governor, probably none came so straight from the heart, and none could have been quite so sweet to him, as those which, on the 12th of August, were uttered by some of the persecuted dissenters in Virginia, who, in many an hour of need, had learned to look up to Patrick Henry as their strong and splendid champion, in the legislature and in the courts. On the date just mentioned, "the ministers and delegates of the Baptist churches" of the State, being met in convention at Louisa, sent to him this address:—

MAY IT PLEASE YOUR EXCELLENCY,—As your advancement to the honorable and important station as governor of this commonwealth affords us unspeakable pleasure, we beg leave to present your excellency with our most cordial congratulations.

Your public virtues are such that we are under no temptation to flatter you. Virginia has done honor to her judgment in appointing your excellency to hold the reins of government at this truly critical conjuncture, as you have always distinguished yourself by your zeal and activity for her welfare, in whatever department has been assigned you.

As a religious community, we have nothing to request of you. Your constant attachment to the glorious cause of liberty and the rights of conscience, leaves us no room to doubt of your excellency's favorable regards while we worthily demean ourselves.

May God Almighty continue you long, very long, a public blessing to this your native country, and, after a life of usefulness here, crown you with immortal felicity in the world to come.

Signed by order: JEREMIAH WALKER, Moderator. JOHN WILLIAMS, Clerk.

To these loving and jubilant words, the governor replied in an off-hand letter, the deep feeling of which is not the less evident because it is restrained,—a letter which is as choice and noble in diction as it is in thought:—


GENTLEMEN,—I am exceedingly obliged to you for your very kind address, and the favorable sentiments you are pleased to entertain respecting my conduct and the principles which have directed it. My constant endeavor shall be to guard the rights of all my fellow-citizens from every encroachment.

I am happy to find a catholic spirit prevailing in our country, and that those religious distinctions, which formerly produced some heats, are now forgotten. Happy must every friend to virtue and America feel himself, to perceive that the only contest among us, at this most critical and important period, is, who shall be foremost to preserve our religious and civil liberties.

My most earnest wish is, that Christian charity, forbearance, and love, may unite all our different persuasions, as brethren who must perish or triumph together; and I trust that the time is not far distant when we shall greet each other as the peaceable possessors of that just and equal system of liberty adopted by the last convention, and in support of which may God crown our arms with success.

I am, gentlemen, your most obedient and very humble servant,

P. HENRY, JUN.[258]

August 13, 1776.

On the day on which Governor Henry was sworn into office, the convention finally adjourned, having made provision for the meeting of the General Assembly on the first Monday of the following October. In the mean time, therefore, all the interests of the State were to be in the immediate keeping of the governor and privy council; and, for a part of that time, as it turned out, the governor himself was disabled for service. For we now encounter in the history of Patrick Henry, the first mention of that infirm health from which he seems to have suffered, in some degree, during the remaining twenty-three years of his life. Before taking full possession of the governor's palace, which had to be made ready for his use, he had likewise to prepare for this great change in his life by returning to his home in the county of Hanover. There he lay ill for some time;[259] and upon his recovery he removed with his family to Williamsburg, which continued to be their home for the next three years.

The people of Virginia had been accustomed, for more than a century, to look upon their governors as personages of very great dignity. Several of those governors had been connected with the English peerage; all had served in Virginia in a vice-regal capacity; many had lived there in a sort of vice-regal pomp and magnificence. It is not to be supposed that Governor Henry would be able or willing to assume so much state and grandeur as his predecessors had done; and yet he felt, and the people of Virginia felt, that in the transition from royal to republican forms the dignity of that office should not be allowed to decline in any important particular. Moreover, as a contemporary observer mentions, Patrick Henry had been "accused by the big-wigs of former times as being a coarse and common man, and utterly destitute of dignity; and perhaps he wished to show them that they were mistaken."[260] At any rate, by the testimony of all, he seems to have displayed his usual judgment and skill in adapting himself to the requirements of his position; and, while never losing his gentleness and his simplicity of manner, to have borne himself as the impersonation, for the time being, of the executive authority of a great and proud commonwealth. He ceased to appear frequently upon the streets; and whenever he did appear, he was carefully arrayed in a dressed wig, in black small-clothes, and in a scarlet cloak; and his presence and demeanor were such as to sustain, in the popular mind, the traditional respect for his high office.

He had so far recovered from the illness which had prostrated him during the summer, as to be at his post of duty when the General Assembly of the State began its first session, on Monday, the 7th of October, 1776. His health, however, was still extremely frail; for on the 30th of that month he was obliged to notify the House "that the low state of his health rendered him unable to attend to the duties of his office, and that his physicians had recommended to him to retire therefrom into the country, till he should recover his strength."[261] His absence seems not to have been very long. By the 16th of November, as one may infer from entries in the journal of the House,[262] he was able to resume his official duties.

The summer and autumn of that year proved to be a dismal period for the American cause. Before our eyes, as we now look back over those days, there marches this grim procession of dates: August 27, the battle of Long Island; August 29, Washington's retreat across East River; September 15, the panic among the American troops at Kip's Bay, and the American retreat from New York; September 16, the battle of Harlem Plains; September 20, the burning of New York; October 28, the battle of White Plains; November 16, the surrender of Fort Washington; November 20, the abandonment of Fort Lee, followed by Washington's retreat across the Jerseys. In the midst of these disasters, Washington found time to write, from the Heights of Harlem, on the 5th of October, to his old friend, Patrick Henry, congratulating him on his election as governor of Virginia and on his recovery from sickness; explaining the military situation at headquarters; advising him about military appointments in Virginia; and especially giving to him important suggestions concerning the immediate military defence of Virginia "against the enemy's ships and tenders, which," as Washington says to the governor, "may go up your rivers in quest of provisions, or for the purpose of destroying your towns."[263] Indeed, Virginia was just then exposed to hostile attacks on all sides;[264] and it was so plain that any attack by water would have found an easy approach to Williamsburg, that, in the course of the next few months, the public records and the public stores were removed to Richmond, as being, on every account, a "more secure site."[265] Apparently, however, the prompt recognition of this danger by Governor Henry, early in the autumn of 1776, and his vigorous military preparations against it, were interpreted by some of his political enemies as a sign both of personal cowardice and of official self-glorification,—as is indicated by a letter written by the aged Landon Carter to General Washington, on the 31st of October, and filled with all manner of caustic garrulity and insinuation,—a letter from which it may be profitable for us to quote a few sentences, as qualifying somewhat that stream of honeyed testimony respecting Patrick Henry which commonly flows down upon us so copiously from all that period.

"If I don't err in conjecture," says Carter, "I can't help thinking that the head of our Commonwealth has as great a palace of fear and apprehension as can possess the heart of any being; and if we compare rumor with actual movements, I believe it will prove itself to every sensible man. As soon as the Congress sent for our first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth regiments to assist you in contest against the enemy where they really were ... there got a report among the soldiery that Dignity had declared it would not reside in Williamsburg without two thousand men under arms to guard him. This had like to have occasioned a mutiny. A desertion of many from the several companies did follow; boisterous fellows resisting, and swearing they would not leave their county.... What a finesse of popularity was this?... As soon as the regiments were gone, this great man found an interest with the council of state, perhaps timorous as himself, to issue orders for the militia of twenty-six counties, and five companies of a minute battalion, to march to Williamsburg, to protect him only against his own fears; and to make this the more popular, it was endeavored that the House of Delegates should give it a countenance, but, as good luck would have it, it was with difficulty refused.[266] ... Immediately then, ... a bill is brought in to remove the seat of government,—some say, up to Hanover, to be called Henry-Town."[267]

This gossip of a disappointed Virginian aristocrat, in vituperation of the public character of Governor Henry, naturally leads us forward in our story to that more stupendous eruption of gossip which relates, in the first instance, to the latter part of December, 1776, and which alleges that a conspiracy was then formed among certain members of the General Assembly to make Patrick Henry the dictator of Virginia. The first intimation ever given to the public concerning it, was given by Jefferson several years afterward, in his "Notes on Virginia," a fascinating brochure which was written by him in 1781 and 1782, was first printed privately in Paris in 1784, and was first published in England in 1787, in America in 1788.[268] The essential portions of his statement are as follows:—

"In December, 1776, our circumstances being much distressed, it was proposed in the House of Delegates to create a dictator, invested with every power legislative, executive, and judiciary, civil and military, of life and death, over our persons and over our properties.... One who entered into this contest from a pure love of liberty, and a sense of injured rights, who determined to make every sacrifice and to meet every danger, for the reestablishment of those rights on a firm basis, ... must stand confounded and dismayed when he is told that a considerable portion of" the House "had meditated the surrender of them into a single hand, and in lieu of a limited monarchy, to deliver him over to a despotic one.... The very thought alone was treason against the people; was treason against man in general; as riveting forever the chains which bow down their necks, by giving to their oppressors a proof, which they would have trumpeted through the universe, of the imbecility of republican government, in times of pressing danger, to shield them from harm.... Those who meant well, of the advocates of this measure (and most of them meant well, for I know them personally, had been their fellow-laborer in the common cause, and had often proved the purity of their principles), had been seduced in their judgment by the example of an ancient republic, whose constitution and circumstances were fundamentally different."[269]

With that artistic tact and that excellent prudence which seem never to have failed Jefferson in any of his enterprises for the disparagement of his associates, he here avoids, as will be observed, all mention of the name of the person for whose fatal promotion this classic conspiracy was formed,—leaving that interesting item to come out, as it did many years afterward, when the most of those who could have borne testimony upon the subject were in their graves, and when the damning stigma could be comfortably fastened to the name of Patrick Henry without the direct intervention of Jefferson's own hands. Accordingly, in 1816, a French gentleman, Girardin, a near neighbor of Jefferson's, who enjoyed "the incalculable benefit of a free access to Mr. Jefferson's library,"[270] and who wrote the continuation of Burk's "History of Virginia" under Jefferson's very eye,[271] gave in that work a highly wrought account of the alleged conspiracy of December, 1776, as involving "nothing less than the substitution of a despotic in lieu of a limited monarch;" and then proceeded to bring the accusation down from those lurid generalities of condemnation in which Jefferson himself had cautiously left it, by adding this sentence: "That Mr. Henry was the person in view for the dictatorship, is well ascertained."[272]

Finally, in 1817, William Wirt, whose "Life of Henry" was likewise composed under nearly the same inestimable advantages as regards instruction and oversight furnished by Jefferson, repeated the fearful tale, and added some particulars; but, in doing so, Wirt could not fail—good lawyer and just man, as he was—to direct attention to the absence of all evidence of any collusion on the part of Patrick Henry with the projected folly and crime.

"Even the heroism of the Virginia legislature," says Wirt, "gave way; and, in a season of despair, the mad project of a dictator was seriously meditated. That Mr. Henry was thought of for this office, has been alleged, and is highly probable; but that the project was suggested by him, or even received his countenance, I have met with no one who will venture to affirm. There is a tradition that Colonel Archibald Cary, the speaker of the Senate, was principally instrumental in crushing this project; that meeting Colonel Syme, the step-brother of Colonel Henry, in the lobby of the House, he accosted him very fiercely in terms like these: 'I am told that your brother wishes to be dictator. Tell him from me, that the day of his appointment shall be the day of his death;—for he shall feel my dagger in his heart before the sunset of that day.' And the tradition adds that Colonel Syme, in great agitation, declared that 'if such a project existed, his brother had no hand in it; for that nothing could be more foreign to him, than to countenance any office which could endanger, in the most distant manner, the liberties of his country.' The intrepidity and violence of Colonel Cary's character renders the tradition probable; but it furnishes no proof of Mr. Henry's implication in the scheme."[273]

A disinterested study of this subject, in the light of all the evidence now attainable, will be likely to convince any one that this enormous scandal must have been very largely a result of the extreme looseness at that time prevailing in the use of the word "dictator," and of its being employed, on the one side, in an innocent sense, and, on the other side, in a guilty one. In strict propriety, of course, the word designates a magistrate created in an emergency of public peril, and clothed for a time with unlimited power. It is an extreme remedy, and in itself a remedy extremely dangerous, and can never be innocently resorted to except when the necessity for it is indubitable; and it may well be questioned whether, among people and institutions like our own, a necessity can ever arise which would justify the temporary grant of unlimited power to any man. If this be true, it follows that no man among us can, without dire political guilt, ever consent to bestow such power; and that no man can, without the same guilt, ever consent to receive it.

Yet it is plain that even among us, between the years 1776 and 1783, emergencies of terrific public peril did arise, sufficient to justify, nay, even to compel, the bestowment either upon the governor of some State, or upon the general of the armies, not of unlimited power, certainly, but of extraordinary power,—such extraordinary power, for example, as was actually conferred by the Continental Congress, more than once, on Washington; as was conferred by the legislature of South Carolina on Governor John Rutledge; as was repeatedly conferred by the legislature of Virginia upon Governor Patrick Henry; and afterward, in still higher degree, by the same legislature, on Governor Thomas Jefferson himself. Nevertheless, so loose was the meaning then attached to the word "dictator," that it was not uncommon for men to speak of these very cases as examples of the bestowment of a dictatorship, and of the exercise of dictatorial power; although, in every one of the cases mentioned, there was lacking the essential feature of a true dictatorship, namely, the grant of unlimited power to one man. It is perfectly obvious, likewise, that when, in those days, men spoke thus of a dictatorship, and of dictatorial power, they attached no suggestion of political guilt either to the persons who bestowed such power, or to the persons who severally accepted it,—the tacit understanding being that, in every instance, the public danger required and justified some grant of extraordinary power; that no more power was granted than was necessary; and that the man to whom, in any case, the grant was made, was a man to whom, there was good reason to believe, the grant could be made with safety. Obviously, it was upon this tacit understanding of its meaning that the word was used, for instance, by Edmund Randolph, in 1788, in the Virginia Constitutional Convention, when, alluding to the extraordinary power bestowed by Congress on Washington, he said: "We had an American dictator in 1781." Surely, Randolph did not mean to impute political crime, either to the Congress which made Washington a dictator, or to Washington himself who consented to be made one. It was upon the same tacit understanding, also, that Patrick Henry, in reply to Randolph, took up the word, and extolled the grant of dictatorial power to Washington on the occasion referred to: "In making a dictator," said Henry, "we followed the example of the most glorious, magnanimous, and skilful nations. In great dangers, this power has been given. Rome has furnished us with an illustrious example. America found a person for that trust: she looked to Virginia for him. We gave a dictatorial power to hands that used it gloriously, and which were rendered more glorious by surrendering it up."[274]

Thus it is apparent that the word "dictator" was frequently used in those times in a sense perfectly innocent. As all men know, however, the word is one capable of suggesting the possibilities of dreadful political crime; and it is not hard to see how, when employed by one person to describe the bestowment and acceptance of extraordinary power,—implying a perfectly innocent proposition, it could be easily taken by another person as describing the bestowment and acceptance of unlimited power,—implying a proposition which among us, probably, would always be a criminal one.

With the help which this discussion may give us, let us now return to the General Assembly of Virginia, at Williamsburg, approaching the close of its first session, in the latter part of December, 1776. It was on the point of adjourning, not to meet again until the latter part of March, 1777. At that moment, by the arrival of most alarming news from the seat of war, it was forced to make special provision for the public safety during the interval which must elapse before its next session. Its journal indicates that, prior to the 20th of December, it had been proceeding with its business in a quiet way, under no apparent consciousness of imminent peril. On that day, however, there are traces of a panic; for, on that day, "The Virginia Gazette" announced to them the appalling news of "the crossing of the Delaware by the British forces, from twelve to fifteen thousand strong; the position of General Washington, at Bristol, on the south side of the river, with only six thousand men;" and the virtual flight of Congress from Philadelphia.[275] At this rate, how long would it be before the Continental army would be dispersed or captured, and the troops of the enemy sweeping in vengeance across the borders of Virginia? Accordingly, the House of Delegates immediately resolved itself into "a committee to take into their consideration the state of America;" but not being able to reach any decision that day, it voted to resume the subject on the day following, and for that purpose to meet an hour earlier than usual. So, on Saturday, the 21st of December, the House passed a series of resolutions intended to provide for the crisis into which the country was plunged, and, among the other resolutions, this:—

"And whereas the present imminent danger of America, and the ruin and misery which threatens the good people of this Commonwealth, and their posterity, calls for the utmost exertion of our strength, and it is become necessary for the preservation of the State that the usual forms of government be suspended during a limited time, for the more speedy execution of the most vigorous and effectual measures to repel the invasion of the enemy;

"Resolved, therefore, That the governor be, and he is hereby fully authorized and empowered, by and with the advice and consent of the privy council, from henceforward, until ten days next after the first meeting of the General Assembly, to carry into execution such requisitions as may be made to this Commonwealth by the American Congress for the purpose of encountering or repelling the enemy; to order the three battalions on the pay of this Commonwealth to march, if necessary, to join the Continental army, or to the assistance of any of our sister States; to call forth any and such greater military force as they shall judge requisite, either by embodying and arraying companies or regiments of volunteers, or by raising additional battalions, appointing and commissioning the proper officers, and to direct their operations within this Commonwealth, under the command of the Continental generals or other officers according to their respective ranks, or order them to march to join and act in concert with the Continental army, or the troops of any of the American States; and to provide for their pay, supply of provisions, arms, and other necessaries, at the charge of this Commonwealth, by drawing on the treasurer for the money which may be necessary from time to time; and the said treasurer is authorized to pay such warrants out of any public money which may be in his hands, and the General Assembly will, at their next session, make ample provision for any deficiency which may happen. But that this departure from the constitution of government, being in this instance founded only on the most evident and urgent necessity, ought not hereafter to be drawn into precedent."

These resolutions, having been pressed rapidly through the forms of the House, were at once carried up to the Senate for its concurrence. The answer of the Senate was promptly returned, agreeing to all the resolutions of the lower House, but proposing an important amendment in the phraseology of the particular resolution which we have just quoted. Instead of this clause—"the usual forms of government should be suspended," it suggested the far more accurate and far more prudent expression which here follows,—"additional powers be given to the governor and council." This amendment was assented to by the House; and almost immediately thereafter it adjourned until the last Thursday in March, 1777, "then to meet in the city of Williamsburg, or at such other place as the governor and council, for good reasons, may appoint."[276]

Such, undoubtedly, was the occasion on which, if at any time during that session, the project for a dictatorship in Virginia was under consideration by the House of Delegates. The only evidence for the reality of such a project is derived from the testimony of Jefferson; and Jefferson, though a member of the House, was not then in attendance, having procured, on the 29th of the previous month, permission to be absent during the remainder of the session.[277] Is it not probable that the whole terrible plot, as it afterward lay in the mind of Jefferson, may have originated in reports which reached him elsewhere, to the effect that, in the excitement of the House over the public danger and over the need of energetic measures against that danger, some members had demanded that the governor should be invested with what they perhaps called dictatorial power, meaning thereby no more than extraordinary power; and that all the criminal accretions to that meaning, which Jefferson attributed to the project, were simply the work of his own imagination, always sensitive and quick to take alarm on behalf of human liberty, and, on such a subject as this, easily set on fire by examples of awful political crime which would occur to him from Roman history? This suggestion, moreover, is not out of harmony with one which has been made by a thorough and most candid student of the subject, who says: "I am very much inclined to think that some sneering remark of Colonel Cary, on that occasion, has given rise to the whole story about a proposed dictator at that time."[278]

At any rate, this must not be forgotten: if the project of a dictatorship, in the execrable sense affirmed by Jefferson, was, during that session, advocated by any man or by any cabal in the Assembly, history must absolve Patrick Henry of all knowledge of it, and of all responsibility for it. Not only has no tittle of evidence been produced, involving his connivance at such a scheme, but the Assembly itself, a few months later, unwittingly furnished to posterity the most conclusive proof that no man in that body could have believed him to be smirched with even the suggestion of so horrid a crime. Had Patrick Henry been suspected, during the autumn and early winter of 1776, of any participation in the foul plot to create a despotism in Virginia, is it to be conceived that, at its very next session, in the spring of 1777, that Assembly, composed of nearly the same members as before, would have reelected to the governorship so profligate and dangerous a man, and that too without any visible opposition in either House? Yet that is precisely what the Virginia Assembly did in May, 1777. Moreover, one year later, this same Assembly reelected this same profligate and dangerous politician for his third and last permissible year in the governorship, and it did so with the same unbroken unanimity. Moreover, during all that time, Thomas Jefferson was a member, and a most conspicuous and influential member, of the Virginia Assembly. If, indeed, he then believed that his old friend, Patrick Henry, had stood ready in 1776, to commit "treason against the people" of America, and "treason against mankind in general," why did he permit the traitor to be twice reelected to the chief magistracy, without the record of even one brave effort against him on either occasion?

On the 26th of December, 1776, in accordance with the special authority thus conferred upon him by the General Assembly, Governor Henry issued a vigorous proclamation, declaring that the "critical situation of American affairs" called for "the utmost exertion of every sister State to put a speedy end to the cruel ravages of a haughty and inveterate enemy, and secure our invaluable rights," and "earnestly exhorting and requiring" all the good people of Virginia to assist in the formation of volunteer companies for such service as might be required.[279] The date of that proclamation was also the date of Washington's famous matutinal surprise of the Hessians at Trenton,—a bit of much-needed good luck, which was followed by his fortunate engagement with the enemy near Princeton, on the 3d of January, 1777. On these and a very few other extremely small crumbs of comfort, the struggling revolutionists had to nourish their burdened hearts for many a month thereafter; Washington himself, during all that time, with his little army of tattered and barefoot warriors, majestically predominating over the scene from the heights of Morristown; while the good-humored British commander, Sir William Howe, considerately abstained from any serious military disturbance until the middle of the following summer. Thus the chief duty of the governor of Virginia, during the winter and spring of 1777, as it had been in the previous autumn, was that of trying to keep in the field Virginia's quota of troops, and of trying to furnish Virginia's share of military supplies,—no easy task, it should seem, in those times of poverty, confusion, and patriotic languor. The official correspondence of the governor indicates the unslumbering anxiety, the energy, the fertility of device with which, in spite of defective health, he devoted himself to these hard tasks.[280]

In his great desire for exact information as to the real situation at headquarters, Governor Henry had sent to Washington a secret messenger by the name of Walker, who was to make his observations at Morristown and to report the results to himself. Washington at once perceived the embarrassments to which such a plan might lead; and accordingly, on the 24th of February, 1777, he wrote to the governor, gently explaining why he could not receive Mr. Walker as a mere visiting observer:—

"To avoid the precedent, therefore, and from your character of Mr. Walker, and the high opinion I myself entertain of his abilities, honor, and prudence, I have taken him into my family as an extra aide-de-camp, and shall be happy if, in this character, he can answer your expectations. I sincerely thank you, sir, for your kind congratulations on the late success of the Continental arms (would to God it may continue), and for your polite mention of me. Let me earnestly entreat that the troops raised in Virginia for this army be forwarded on by companies, or otherwise, without delay, and as well equipped as possible for the field, or we shall be in no condition to open the campaign."[281]

On the 29th of the following month, the governor wrote to Washington of the overwhelming difficulty attending all his efforts to comply with the request mentioned in the letter just cited:—

"I am very sorry to inform you that the recruiting business of late goes on so badly, that there remains but little prospect of filling the six new battalions from this State, voted by the Assembly. The Board of Council see this with great concern, and, after much reflection on the subject, are of opinion that the deficiency in our regulars can no way be supplied so properly as by enlisting volunteers. There is reason to believe a considerable number of these may be got to serve six or eight months.... I believe you can receive no assistance by drafts from the militia. From the battalions of the Commonwealth none can be drawn as yet, because they are not half full.... Virginia will find some apology with you for this deficiency in her quota of regulars, when the difficulties lately thrown in our way are considered. The Georgians and Carolinians have enlisted [in Virginia] probably two battalions at least. A regiment of artillery is in great forwardness. Besides these, Colonels Baylor and Grayson are collecting regiments; and three others are forming for this State. Add to all this our Indian wars and marine service, almost total want of necessaries, the false accounts of deserters,—many of whom lurk here,—the terrors of the smallpox and the many deaths occasioned by it, and the deficient enlistments are accounted for in the best manner I can. As no time can be spared, I wish to be honored with your answer as soon as possible, in order to promote the volunteer scheme, if it meets your approbation. I should be glad of any improvements on it that may occur to you. I believe about four of the six battalions may be enlisted, but have seen no regular [return] of their state. Their scattered situation, and being many of them in broken quotas, is a reason for their slow movement. I have issued repeated orders for their march long since."[282]

The General Assembly of Virginia, at its session in the spring of 1777, was required to elect a governor, to serve for one year from the day on which that session should end. As no candidate was named in opposition to Patrick Henry, the Senate proposed to the House of Delegates that he should be reappointed without ballot. This, accordingly, was done, by resolution of the latter body on the 29th of May, and by that of the Senate on the 1st of June. On the 5th of June, the committee appointed to inform the governor of this action laid before the House his answer:—

GENTLEMEN,—The signal honor conferred on me by the General Assembly, in their choice of me to be governor of this Commonwealth, demands my best acknowledgments, which I beg the favor of you to convey to them in the most acceptable manner.

I shall execute the duties of that high station to which I am again called by the favor of my fellow-citizens, according to the best of my abilities, and I shall rely upon the candor and wisdom of the Assembly to excuse and supply my defects. The good of the Commonwealth shall be the only object of my pursuit, and I shall measure my happiness according to the success which shall attend my endeavors to establish the public liberty. I beg to be presented to the Assembly, and that they and you will be assured that I am, with every sentiment of the highest regard, their and your most obedient and very humble servant,

P. HENRY.[283]

After a perusal of this nobly written letter, the gentle reader will have no difficulty in concluding that, if indeed the author of it was then lying in wait for an opportunity to set up a despotism in Virginia, he had already become an adept in the hypocrisy which enabled him, not only to conceal the fact, but to convey an impression quite the opposite.


[255] Burk, Hist. Va. iv. 154.

[256] 4 Am. Arch. vi. 1602, 1603, note.

[257] 5 Am. Arch. i. 631.

[258] 5 Am. Arch. i. 905, 906.

[259] George Rogers Clark's Campaign in the Illinois, 11.

[260] Spencer Roane, MS.

[261] Jour. Va. House Del. 32.

[262] Ibid. 57-59.

[263] Writings of Washington, iv. 138.

[264] See Letters from the president of Va. Privy Council and from General Lewis, in 5 Am. Arch. i. 736.

[265] Burk, Hist. Va. iv. 229.

[266] Compare Jour. Va. House Del. 8.

[267] 5 Am. Arch. ii. 1305-1306.

[268] Randall, Life of Jefferson, i. 363, 413; and Hist. Mag. i. 52.

[269] Writings of Jefferson, viii. 368-371; also Phila. ed. of Notes, 1825, 172-176.

[270] Burk, Hist. Va. iv. Pref. Rem. vi.

[271] See Jefferson's explicit endorsement of Girardin's book in his own Writings, i. 50.

[272] Burk, Hist. Va. 189, 190.

[273] Wirt, Life of Henry, 204-205.

[274] Elliot's Debates, iii. 160.

[275] Cited by William Wirt Henry, Hist. Mag. for 1873, 349.

[276] Jour. Va. House of Del. 106-108.

[277] Jour. Va. H. Del. 75; and Randall, Life of Jefferson, i. 205.

[278] William Wirt Henry, Hist. Mag. for 1873, 350.

[279] 5 Am. Arch. iii. 1425-1426.

[280] I refer, for example, to his letters of Oct. 11, 1776; of Nov. 19, 1776; of Dec. 6, 1776; of Jan. 8, 1777; of March 20, 1777; of March 28, 1777; of June 20, 1777; besides the letters cited in the text.

[281] Writings of Washington, iv. 330.

[282] Sparks, Corr. Rev. i. 361, 362.

[283] Jour. Va. House Del. 61.



Patrick Henry's second term as governor extended from the 28th of June, 1777, to the 28th of June, 1778: a twelvemonth of vast and even decisive events in the struggle for national independence,—its awful disasters being more than relieved by the successes, both diplomatic and military, which were compressed within that narrow strip of time. Let us try, by a glance at the chief items in the record of that year, to bring before our eyes the historic environment amid which the governor of Virginia then wrought at his heavy tasks: July 6, 1777, American evacuation of Ticonderoga at the approach of Burgoyne; August 6, defeat of Herkimer by the British under St. Leger; August 16, Stark's victory over the British at Bennington; September 11, defeat of Washington at Brandywine; September 27, entrance of the British into Philadelphia; October 4, defeat of Washington at Germantown; October 16, surrender of Burgoyne and his entire army; December 11, Washington's retirement into winter quarters at Valley Forge; February 6, 1778, American treaty of alliance with France; May 11, death of Lord Chatham; June 13, Lord North's peace commissioners propose to Congress a cessation of hostilities; June 18, the British evacuate Philadelphia; June 28, the battle of Monmouth.

The story of the personal life of Patrick Henry during those stern and agitating months is lighted up by the mention of his marriage, on the 9th of October, 1777, to Dorothea Dandridge, a granddaughter of the old royal governor, Alexander Spotswood,—a lady who was much younger than her husband, and whose companionship proved to be the solace of all the years that remained to him on earth.

The pressure of official business upon him can hardly have been less than during the previous year. The General Assembly was in session from the 20th of October, 1777, until the 24th of January, 1778, and from the 4th of May to the 1st of June, 1778,—involving, of course, a long strain of attention by the governor to the work of the two houses. Moreover, the prominence of Virginia among the States, and, at the same time, her exemption from the most formidable assaults of the enemy, led to great demands being made upon her both for men and for supplies. To meet these demands, either by satisfying them or by explaining his failure to do so, involved a copious and laborious correspondence on the part of Governor Henry, not only with his own official subordinates in the State, but with the president of Congress, with the board of war, and with the general of the army. The official letters which he thus wrote are a monument of his ardor and energy as a war governor, his attention to details, his broad practical sense, his hopefulness and patience under galling disappointments and defeats.[284]

Perhaps nothing in the life of Governor Henry during his second term of office has so touching an interest for us now, as has the course which he took respecting the famous intrigue, which was developed into alarming proportions during the winter of 1777 and 1778, for the displacement of Washington, and for the elevation of the shallow and ill-balanced Gates to the supreme command of the armies. It is probable that several men of prominence in the army, in Congress, and in the several state governments, were drawn into this cabal, although most of them had too much caution to commit themselves to it by any documentary evidence which could rise up and destroy them in case of its failure. The leaders in the plot very naturally felt the great importance of securing the secret support of men of high influence in Washington's own State; and by many it was then believed that they had actually won over no less a man than Richard Henry Lee. Of course, if also the sanction of Governor Patrick Henry could be secured, a prodigious advantage would be gained. Accordingly, from the town of York, in Pennsylvania, whither Congress had fled on the advance of the enemy towards Philadelphia, the following letter was sent to him,—a letter written in a disguised hand, without signature, but evidently by a personal friend, a man of position, and a master of the art of plausible statement:—

YORKTOWN, 12 January, 1778.

DEAR SIR,—The common danger of our country first brought you and me together. I recollect with pleasure the influence of your conversation and eloquence upon the opinions of this country in the beginning of the present controversy. You first taught us to shake off our idolatrous attachment to royalty, and to oppose its encroachments upon our liberties with our very lives. By these means you saved us from ruin. The independence of America is the offspring of that liberal spirit of thinking and acting, which followed the destruction of the sceptres of kings, and the mighty power of Great Britain.

But, Sir, we have only passed the Red Sea. A dreary wilderness is still before us; and unless a Moses or a Joshua are raised up in our behalf, we must perish before we reach the promised land. We have nothing to fear from our enemies on the way. General Howe, it is true, has taken Philadelphia, but he has only changed his prison. His dominions are bounded on all sides by his out-sentries. America can only be undone by herself. She looks up to her councils and arms for protection; but, alas! what are they? Her representation in Congress dwindled to only twenty-one members; her Adams, her Wilson, her Henry are no more among them. Her councils weak, and partial remedies applied constantly for universal diseases. Her army, what is it? A major-general belonging to it called it a few days ago, in my hearing, a mob. Discipline unknown or wholly neglected. The quartermaster's and commissary's departments filled with idleness, ignorance, and peculation; our hospitals crowded with six thousand sick, but half provided with necessaries or accommodations, and more dying in them in one month than perished in the field during the whole of the last campaign. The money depreciating, without any effectual measures being taken to raise it; the country distracted with the Don Quixote attempts to regulate the price of provisions; an artificial famine created by it, and a real one dreaded from it; the spirit of the people failing through a more intimate acquaintance with the causes of our misfortunes; many submitting daily to General Howe; and more wishing to do it, only to avoid the calamities which threaten our country. But is our case desperate? By no means. We have wisdom, virtue and strength enough to save us, if they could be called into action. The northern army has shown us what Americans are capable of doing with a General at their head. The spirit of the southern army is no way inferior to the spirit of the northern. A Gates, a Lee, or a Conway, would in a few weeks render them an irresistible body of men. The last of the above officers has accepted of the new office of inspector-general of our army, in order to reform abuses; but the remedy is only a palliative one. In one of his letters to a friend he says, 'A great and good God hath decreed America to be free, or the [General] and weak counsellors would have ruined her long ago.' You may rest assured of each of the facts related in this letter. The author of it is one of your Philadelphia friends. A hint of his name, if found out by the handwriting, must not be mentioned to your most intimate friend. Even the letter must be thrown into the fire. But some of its contents ought to be made public, in order to awaken, enlighten, and alarm our country. I rely upon your prudence, and am, dear Sir, with my usual attachment to you, and to our beloved independence,

Yours sincerely.

How was Patrick Henry to deal with such a letter as this? Even though he should reject its reasoning, and spurn the temptation with which it assailed him, should he merely burn it, and be silent? The incident furnished a fair test of his loyalty in friendship, his faith in principle, his soundness of judgment, his clear and cool grasp of the public situation,—in a word, of his manliness and his statesmanship. This is the way in which he stood the test:—


WILLIAMSBURG, 20 February, 1778.

DEAR SIR,—You will, no doubt, be surprised at seeing the enclosed letter, in which the encomiums bestowed on me are as undeserved, as the censures aimed at you are unjust. I am sorry there should be one man who counts himself my friend, who is not yours.

Perhaps I give you needless trouble in handing you this paper. The writer of it may be too insignificant to deserve any notice. If I knew this to be the case, I should not have intruded on your time, which is so precious. But there may possibly be some scheme or party forming to your prejudice. The enclosed leads to such a suspicion. Believe, me, Sir, I have too high a sense of the obligations America has to you, to abet or countenance so unworthy a proceeding. The most exalted merit has ever been found to attract envy. But I please myself with the hope that the same fortitude and greatness of mind, which have hitherto braved all the difficulties and dangers inseparable from your station, will rise superior to every attempt of the envious partisan. I really cannot tell who is the writer of this letter, which not a little perplexes me. The handwriting is altogether strange to me.

To give you the trouble of this gives me pain. It would suit my inclination better to give you some assistance in the great business of the war. But I will not conceal anything from you, by which you may be affected; for I really think your personal welfare and the happiness of America are intimately connected. I beg you will be assured of that high regard and esteem with which I ever am, dear sir, your affectionate friend and very humble servant.

Fifteen days passed after the dispatch of that letter, when, having as yet no answer, but with a heart still full of anxiety respecting this mysterious and ill-boding cabal against his old friend, Governor Henry wrote again:—


WILLIAMSBURG, 5 March, 1778.

DEAR SIR,—By an express, which Colonel Finnie sent to camp, I enclosed to you an anonymous letter which I hope got safe to hand. I am anxious to hear something that will serve to explain the strange affair, which I am now informed is taken up respecting you. Mr. Custis has just paid us a visit, and by him I learn sundry particulars concerning General Mifflin, that much surprised me. It is very hard to trace the schemes and windings of the enemies to America. I really thought that man its friend; however, I am too far from him to judge of his present temper.

While you face the armed enemies of our liberty in the field, and by the favor of God have been kept unhurt, I trust your country will never harbor in her bosom the miscreant, who would ruin her best supporter. I wish not to flatter; but when arts, unworthy honest men, are used to defame and traduce you, I think it not amiss, but a duty, to assure you of that estimation in which the public hold you. Not that I think any testimony I can bear is necessary for your support, or private satisfaction; for a bare recollection of what is past must give you sufficient pleasure in every circumstance of life. But I cannot help assuring you, on this occasion, of the high sense of gratitude which all ranks of men in this our native country bear to you. It will give me sincere pleasure to manifest my regards, and render my best services to you or yours. I do not like to make a parade of these things, and I know you are not fond of it; however, I hope the occasion will plead my excuse. Wishing you all possible felicity, I am, my dear Sir, your ever affectionate friend and very humble servant.

Before Washington received this second letter, he had already begun to write the following reply to the first:—


VALLEY FORGE, 27 March, 1778.

DEAR SIR,—About eight days ago I was honored with your favor of the 20th ultimo. Your friendship, sir, in transmitting to me the anonymous letter you had received, lays me under the most grateful obligations, and if my acknowledgments can be due for anything more, it is for the polite and delicate terms in which you have been pleased to communicate the matter.

I have ever been happy in supposing that I had a place in your esteem, and the proof you have afforded on this occasion makes me peculiarly so. The favorable light in which you hold me is truly flattering; but I should feel much regret, if I thought the happiness of America so intimately connected with my personal welfare, as you so obligingly seem to consider it. All I can say is, that she has ever had, and I trust she ever will have, my honest exertions to promote her interest. I cannot hope that my services have been the best; but my heart tells me they have been the best that I could render.

That I may have erred in using the means in my power for accomplishing the objects of the arduous, exalted station with which I am honored, I cannot doubt; nor do I wish my conduct to be exempted from reprehension farther than it may deserve. Error is the portion of humanity, and to censure it, whether committed by this or that public character, is the prerogative of freemen. However, being intimately acquainted with the man I conceive to be the author of the letter transmitted, and having always received from him the strongest professions of attachment and regard, I am constrained to consider him as not possessing, at least, a great degree of candor and sincerity, though his views in addressing you should have been the result of conviction, and founded in motives of public good. This is not the only secret, insidious attempt that has been made to wound my reputation. There have been others equally base, cruel, and ungenerous, because conducted with as little frankness, and proceeding from views, perhaps, as personally interested. I am, dear sir, with great esteem and regard, your much obliged friend, etc.

The writing of the foregoing letter was not finished, when Governor Henry's second letter reached him; and this additional proof of friendship so touched the heart of Washington that, on the next day, he wrote again, this time with far less self-restraint than before:—


CAMP, 28 March, 1778.

DEAR SIR,—Just as I was about to close my letter of yesterday, your favor of the 5th instant came to hand. I can only thank you again, in the language of the most undissembled gratitude, for your friendship; and assure you, that the indulgent disposition, which Virginia in particular, and the States in general, entertain towards me, gives me the most sensible pleasure. The approbation of my country is what I wish; and as far as my abilities and opportunities will permit, I hope I shall endeavor to deserve it. It is the highest reward to a feeling mind; and happy are they, who so conduct themselves as to merit it.

The anonymous letter with which you were pleased to favor me, was written by Dr. Rush, so far as I can judge from a similitude of hands. This man has been elaborate and studied in his professions of regard for me; and long since the letter to you. My caution to avoid anything which could injure the service, prevented me from communicating, but to a very few of my friends, the intrigues of a faction which I know was formed against me, since it might serve to publish our internal dissensions; but their own restless zeal to advance their views has too clearly betrayed them, and made concealment on my part fruitless. I cannot precisely mark the extent of their views, but it appeared, in general, that General Gates was to be exalted on the ruin of my reputation and influence. This I am authorized to say, from undeniable facts in my own possession, from publications, the evident scope of which could not be mistaken, and from private detractions industriously circulated. General Mifflin, it is commonly supposed, bore the second part in the cabal; and General Conway, I know, was a very active and malignant partisan; but I have good reason to believe that their machinations have recoiled most sensibly upon themselves. With sentiments of great esteem and regard, I am, dear sir, your affectionate humble servant.[285]

This incident in the lives of Washington and Patrick Henry is to be noted by us, not only for its own exquisite delicacy and nobility, but likewise as the culminating fact in the growth of a very deep and true friendship between the two men,—a friendship which seems to have begun many years before, probably in the House of Burgesses, and which lasted with increasing strength and tenderness, and with but a single episode of estrangement, during the rest of their lives. Moreover, he who tries to interpret the later career of Patrick Henry, especially after the establishment of the government under the Constitution, and who leaves out of the account Henry's profound friendship for Washington, and the basis of moral and intellectual congeniality on which that friendship rested, will lose an important clew to the perfect naturalness and consistency of Henry's political course during his last years. A fierce partisan outcry was then raised against him in Virginia, and he was bitterly denounced as a political apostate, simply because, in the parting of the ways of Washington and of Jefferson, Patrick Henry no longer walked with Jefferson. In truth, Patrick Henry was never Washington's follower nor Jefferson's: he was no man's follower. From the beginning, he had always done for himself his own thinking, whether right or wrong. At the same time, a careful student of the three men may see that, in his thinking, Patrick Henry had a closer and a truer moral kinship with Washington than with Jefferson. At present, however, we pause before the touching incident that has just been narrated in the relations between Washington and Henry, in order to mark its bearing on their subsequent intercourse. Washington, in whose nature confidence was a plant of slow growth, and who was quick neither to love nor to cease from loving, never forgot that proof of his friend's friendship. Thenceforward, until that one year in which they both died, the letters which passed between them, while never effusive, were evidently the letters of two strong men who loved and trusted each other without reserve.

Not long before the close of the governor's second term in office, he had occasion to write to Richard Henry Lee two letters, which are of considerable interest, not only as indicating the cordial intimacy between these two great rivals in oratory, but also for the light they throw both on the under-currents of bitterness then ruffling the politics of Virginia, and on Patrick Henry's attitude towards the one great question at that time uppermost in the politics of the nation. During the previous autumn, it seems, also, Lee had fallen into great disfavor in Virginia, from which he had so far emerged by the 23d of January, 1778, as to be then reelected to Congress, to fill out an unexpired term.[286] Shortly afterward, however, harsh speech against him was to be heard in Virginia once more, of which his friend, the governor, thus informed him, in a letter dated April 4, 1778:—

"You are again traduced by a certain set who have drawn in others, who say that you are engaged in a scheme to discard General Washington. I know you too well to suppose that you would engage in anything not evidently calculated to serve the cause of whiggism.... But it is your fate to suffer the constant attacks of disguised Tories who take this measure to lessen you. Farewell, my dear friend. In praying for your welfare, I pray for that of my country, to which your life and service are of the last moment."[287]

Furthermore, on the 30th of May, the General Assembly made choice of their delegates in Congress for the following year. Lee was again elected, but by so small a vote that his name stood next to the lowest on the list.[288] Concerning this stinging slight, he appears to have spoken in his next letters to the governor; for, on the 18th of June, the latter addressed to him, from Williamsburg, this reply:—

MY DEAR SIR,—Both your last letters came to hand to-day. I felt for you, on seeing the order in which the balloting placed the delegates in Congress. It is an effect of that rancorous malice that has so long followed you, through that arduous path of duty which you have invariably travelled, since America resolved to resist her oppressors.

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