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Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

December 2018

Patrick Henry adhered to five ideas that drove him and his neighbors first to resist, and then to declare themselves independent of Great Britain.

Patrick Henry, painted by George Bagby Matthews
Patrick Henry, painted by George Bagby Matthews

After swallowing a dose of liquid mercury on Thursday morning, June 6, 1799, Patrick Henry sat calmly near a window at the northeast corner of his modest house in Charlotte County, Virginia. As he pondered the blood congealing under his fingernails, Henry whispered words of comfort to his wife and children and waited for the mercury to cure him or kill him.

Henry was sixty-three. He had been seriously ill since early April, when he described his symptoms to physician George Cabell, of Lynchburg, as something “like the Gravel.” Kidney stones large and small—the stone and the gravel—were common afflictions in the eighteenth century, painful or annoying but rarely fatal. Pharmacy ads in the Virginia Gazette touted cures and treatments such as tincture of goldenrod, Blackrie’s Lixivium, and Swinsen’s Electuary for the Stone and Gravel.

By the first of June, Dr. Cabell’s diagnosis was more grim. Henry was now suffering from a life-threatening intestinal obstruction called intussusception. Part of his intestine had telescoped into itself, blocking the digestive tract. Infection and death were imminent unless the blockage could be relieved. The remedy was risky. With luck the weight of a large dose of liquid mercury, which is 20 percent heavier than lead, might unravel the intestinal knot, pass through his bowels, and save Henry’s life. If the blockage persisted, however, Henry’s body would absorb the mercury, the muscles of his chest would fail, and he would die by suffocation.

Family members who gathered at Red Hill that morning left a poignant record of the final conversation between the dying patriot and his physician.

“I suppose, doctor, this is your last resort,” Henry said as he accepted the vial of mercury.

“I am sorry to say, governor, that it is,” Dr. Cabell replied. “Acute inflammation of the intestines has already taken place; and unless it is removed mortification will ensue, if it has not already commenced, which I fear.”

“What will be the effect of this medicine?” Henry asked.

“It will give you immediate relief, or . . .” Cabell was unable to finish his sentence.

“You mean,” Henry said, “that it will give relief or will prove fatal immediately?”

“You can only live a very short time without it,” Cabell explained, “and it may possibly relieve you.”

“Excuse me, doctor, for a few minutes,” Henry replied, drawing his silk cap down over his eyes. Holding the vial of mercury in his hand, Henry prayed briefly for his family, his country, and himself. He swallowed the medicine and spoke quietly for a while with his family and physician. Finally he breathed “very softly for some moments” and died.
 

Henry considered his last home, Red Hill, to be "one of the garden spots of the world." Photo courtesy of Red Hill Plantation.
Henry considered his last home, Red Hill, to be "one of the garden spots of the world." Photo courtesy of Red Hill Plantation.

For half a dozen years Patrick Henry had regarded Red Hill, the last of the twelve places he had lived since his birth in Hanover County in 1736, as “one of the garden spots of the world.” Five hundred feet above sea level, the plantation’s 2,900 acres straddled the line between Campbell and Charlotte counties. The southern vista from his house looked down on the ferry across the Staunton River and the wooded hills of Halifax County. Just beyond the southern horizon lay the Virginia—North Carolina border, drawn in a 1728 feat of exploration celebrated in William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line.

Before his death, Henry left a sheet of paper next to his will with the text of his 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act, a starting point of the American Revolution

To the north, through the window nearest the corner where he spent the last hours of his life, Henry could see a century-old osage-orange tree, which has since grown into the gnarled giant designated as an American champion for the species. Visible to his right were young figs ripening along the walkway that linked Henry’s house and its adjacent kitchen, a small clapboard shed dominated by its massive brick fireplace and oven, with the two-room frame structure that served as his law office. There, on his desk, Patrick Henry had left two messages for posterity—testaments both to his private religious faith and his hopes for America’s future.

Patrick Henry’s will, written entirely in his own hand, provided his widow and his seventeen children with legacies sufficient to support them in comfort and independence. After disposing of his property—including nearly eighty slaves—Henry’s will also conveyed a private assurance to his wife and children: “This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family,” its final clause explained. “The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.”

Patrick Henry's desk can still be seen at Red Hill Plantation.
Patrick Henry's desk can still be seen at Red Hill Plantation.

On the desk next to his will Henry had left a sealed envelope addressed to his executors. It contained a single sheet of paper. One side bore the text of his 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act, which men and women of his day acknowledged as a starting point of the American Revolution. The other side offered a message to his fellow citizens that Henry knew could only be read after his death.

Henry’s message to posterity began with a short commentary about the past. His Stamp Act Resolutions had spread an alarm “throughout America with astonishing Quickness,” Henry recalled. They had successfully united the thirteen colonies behind “the great point of resistance to British taxation” that “brought on the War which finally separated the two Countrys and gave Independence to ours.”

Then Henry turned his thoughts toward the future—on a subject he had been thinking about since 1765 or 1766. “Whether [independence] will prove a Blessing or a Curse,” he wrote, “will depend on the Use our people make of the Blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us.” If American citizens act with wisdom, he believed, “they will be great and happy.” If not, he warned, “they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a Nation.” The message closed with a final admonition:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this, and in thy Sphere. practice Virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

If American citizens act with wisdom, Patrick Henry believed, “they will be great and happy.” If not, he warned, “they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a Nation."

At his death as through his life, Patrick Henry affirmed the interaction of personal faith and civic responsibility—Christian virtue and classical-republican virtus—that sustained many eighteenth-century Americans.

Patrick Henry was only sixty-three when he died, but he had outlived virtually all the leaders who had challenged Parliament and the crown in the early 1760s. John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and James Otis, Jr., were dead—as were such Virginia comrades as Richard Bland, Landon Carter, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph. Only three other prominent men from the very earliest controversy over the Stamp Act were still alive when Patrick Henry died: George Washington, George Wythe, and George III. Hundreds of younger American participants in the American Revolution, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and even John Adams, were relative latecomers to the struggle against England—as were such living Virginians as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, Edmund Pendleton, and Edmund Randolph.

The Patrick Henry that most people remember today was the eloquent slaveholder who defied George III and Great Britain with his call for liberty or death in 1775. The spellbinding orator who insisted—a few weeks before the patriots at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, fired the shots heard round the world—that “the war is actually begun!” The man who called Virginians to arm themselves in defiance of Parliament and king by predicting that the next gale that swept from the north would “bring to their ears the clash of resounding arms!”

Students of the Constitution and its ratification by the states also remember Patrick Henry, a dozen years later, as the critic whose thundering arguments nearly kept Virginia from ratifying the plan—and whose political clout kept James Madison out of the new Senate and forced him to promise the voters a Bill of Rights and push it through Congress.

See "Patrick Henry Smells a Rat, by Paul Aron, in the Summer 2017 issue

The great debates of 1787-1788 remind us again of Henry’s long career on the center stage of American history. Of all the major participants in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, only Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin had been prominent in the opposition to the Stamp Act a quarter of a century earlier.

Patrick Henry outlived most of other leaders from the 1760s debate over Independence

Throughout his life, Patrick Henry adhered to a cluster of five tactical ideas that drove him and his neighbors first to resist and then to declare themselves independent of Great Britain. He believed that the burgesses and councilors who comprised Virginia’s legislative assembly spoke for the people of Virginia just as members of the House of Lords and House of Commons served as the constitutional legislature for the people of England, Scotland, and Wales—and that Parliament had no legitimate authority in Virginia’s internal government. Second, he acknowledged allegiance to the British monarch based on the compact, enshrined in the coronation oath, by which kings promised to protect their subjects in exchange for their allegiance—and by which, as John Locke had written, a monarch who broke that promise forfeited his subjects’ allegiance and degenerated from a king into a tyrant. Third, Henry believed that the protection of American liberty demanded unanimity between the people of Virginia and their compatriots in the other colonies or states. Fourth, Henry recognized the necessity of invoking sanctions against enemies of the community in defense of liberty and the common good. And finally, Henry genuinely respected the will of the people when expressed fairly through democratic institutions.

None of these ideas was unique to Henry, and many other ideas figured prominently in his life and career (including concepts of liberty, equality, rule of law, freedom of conscience, religious toleration, representation, federalism, separation of powers, and the list of republican virtues he enshrined in the Virginia Declaration of Rights: justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, virtue, and a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles”). In support of these and other civic principles, nevertheless, the five tactical elements sustained Patrick Henry’s course during Virginia’s transition from the oldest and largest of Great Britain’s American colonies when he was born in 1736 to the largest and arguably still most influential of the American states when he died in 1799.

Patrick Henry's resolutions in 1765 “brought on the War which finally separated the two Countrys.”

When Patrick Henry left the copy of his 1765 resolutions in his law office at Red Hill he was reasonably confident that his contemporaries remembered their back story and recognized their significance. Henry saw no need to explain how his words (or the five concepts behind them) had eventually “brought on the War which finally separated the two Countrys,” for countless Americans equated Virginia’s resistance to the Stamp Act with the beginning of the American Revolution.

Typical was the Harvard-educated author Jeremy Belknap, a founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who believed that his two-volume chronicle, History of New Hampshire, required this grateful nod toward Patrick Henry and the Old Dominion: “The first proposal [for a union of the colonies] came from Virginia,” Belknap declared, “where American liberty was first publicly asserted when it was flagrantly violated by the stamp-act”—a contribution to the destiny of the Granite State for which Belknap believed “the name of Patrick Henry will ever be illustrious.”

Excerpted from Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty by Job Kukla.  Copyright @ 2017 by Jon Kukla.  Used by permission of Simon & Schuster.