Patrick Henry


Moses Coit Tyler


In this book I have tried to embody the chief results derived from a study of all the materials known to me, in print and in manuscript, relating to Patrick Henry,—many of these materials being now used for the first time in any formal presentation of his life.

Notwithstanding the great popular interest attaching to the name of Patrick Henry, he has hitherto been the subject of but one memoir founded on original investigation, and that, of course, is the Life by William Wirt. When it is considered, however, that Wirt’s book was finished as long ago as the year 1817,—before the time had fairly come for the publication of the correspondence, diaries, personal memoranda, and official records of every sort, illustrating the great period covered by Patrick Henry’s career,—it will be easy to infer something as to the quantity and the value of those printed materials bearing upon the subject, which are now to be had by us, but which were not within the reach of Wirt. Accordingly, in his lack of much of the detailed testimony that then lay buried in inaccessible documents, Wirt had to trust largely to the somewhat imaginative traditions concerning Patrick Henry which he found floating in the air of Virginia; and especially to the supposed recollections of old people,—recollections which, in this case, were nearly always vague, not always disinterested, often inaccurate, and generally made up of emotional impressions rather than of facts. Anyone who will take the trouble to ascertain the enormous disadvantages under which Wirt wrote, and which, as we now know, gave him great discouragement, will be inclined to applaud him for making so good a book, rather than to blame him for not making a better one.

It is proper for me to state that, besides the copious printed materials now within reach, I have been able to make use of a large number of manuscripts relating to my subject. Of these may be specified a document, belonging to Cornell University, written by a great-grandson of Patrick Henry, the late Rev. Edward Fontaine, and giving, among other things, several new anecdotes of the great orator, as told to the writer by his own father, Colonel Patrick Henry Fontaine, who was much with Patrick Henry during the later years of his life. I may add that, through the kindness of the Hon. William Wirt Henry of Richmond, I have had access to the manuscripts which were collected by Wirt for the purposes of his book, but were only in part used by him. With unstinted generosity, Mr. Henry likewise placed in my hands all the papers relating to his illustrious grandfather, which, during the past thirty years or more, he has succeeded in bringing together, either from different branches of the family, or from other sources. A portion of the manuscripts thus accumulated by him consists of copies of the letters, now preserved in the Department of State, written by Patrick Henry, chiefly while governor of Virginia, to General Washington, to the president of Congress, to Virginia’s delegation in Congress, and to the Board of War.

In the very front of this book, therefore, I record my grateful acknowledgments to Mr. William Wirt Henry; acknowledgments not alone for the sort of generosity of which I have just spoken, but for another sort, also, which is still more rare, and which I cannot so easily describe,—his perfect delicacy, while promoting my more difficult researches by his invaluable help, in never once encumbering that help with the least effort to hamper my judgment, or to sway it from the natural conclusions to which my studies might lead.

Finally, it gives me pleasure to mention that, in the preparation of this book, I have received courteous assistance from Mr. Theodore F. Dwight and Mr. S. M. Hamilton of the library of the Department of State; from the Rev. Professor W. M. Hughes, of Hobart College; and from the Rev. Stephen H. Synnott, rector of St. John’s, Ithaca.

M. C. T.

Cornell University, 3 June, 1887.


I have gladly used the opportunity afforded by a new edition of this book to give the text a minute revision from beginning to end, and to make numerous changes both in its substance and in its form.

During the eleven years that have passed since it first came from the press, considerable additions have been made to our documentary materials for the period covered by it, the most important for our purpose being the publication, for the first time, of the correspondence and the speeches of Patrick Henry and of George Mason, the former with a life, in three volumes, by William Wirt Henry, the latter also with a life, in two volumes, by Kate Mason Rowland. Besides procuring for my own pages whatever benefit I could draw from these texts, I have tried, while turning over very frequently the writings of Patrick Henry’s contemporaries, to be always on the watch for the means of correcting any mistakes I may have made concerning him, whether as to fact or as to opinion.

In this work of rectification I have likewise been aided by suggestions from many persons, of whom I would particularly mention the Right Rev. Joseph Blount Cheshire, Jr., D. D., Bishop of North Carolina, and Mr. William Wirt Henry.

M. C. T.

Cornell University, 31 March, 1898


On the evening of October 7, 1732, that merry Old Virginian, Colonel William Byrd of Westover, having just finished a journey through King William County for the inspection of his estates, was conducted, for his night’s lodging, to the house of a blooming widow, Mistress Sarah Syme, in the county of Hanover. This lady, at first supposing her guest to be some new suitor for her lately disengaged affections, “put on a Gravity that becomes a Weed;” but so soon as she learned her mistake and the name of her distinguished visitor, she “brighten’d up into an unusual cheerfulness and Serenity. She was a portly, handsome Dame, of the Family of Esau, and seem’d not to pine too much for the Death of her Husband, who was of the Family of the Saracens.… This widow is a person of a lively & cheerful Conversation, with much less Reserve than most of her Countrywomen. It becomes her very well, and sets off her other agreeable Qualities to Advantage. We tost off a Bottle of honest Port, which we relisht with a broil’d Chicken. At Nine I retir’d to my Devotions, And then Slept so Sound that Fancy itself was Stupify’d, else I shou’d have dreamt of my most obliging Landlady.” The next day being Sunday, “the courteous Widow invited me to rest myself there that good day, and go to Church with Her, but I excus’d myself by telling her she wou’d certainly spoil my Devotion. Then she civilly entreated me to make her House my Home whenever I visited my Plantations, which made me bow low, and thank her very kindly.”[1]

Not very long after that notable visit, the sprightly widow gave her hand in marriage to a young Scotchman of good family, John Henry, of Aberdeen, a protégé and probably a kinsman of her former husband; and continuing to reside on her estate of Studley, in the county of Hanover, she became, on May 29, 1736, the mother of Patrick Henry.

Through the lineage of both his parents, this child had some claim to an inheritance of brains. The father, a man of firm and sound intellect, had been liberally educated in Scotland; among the country gentlemen of his neighborhood in Virginia, he was held in high esteem for superior intelligence and character, as is shown by the positions he long held of county surveyor, colonel of his regiment, and presiding judge of the county court; while he could number among his near kinsmen at home several persons of eminence as divines, orators, or men of letters,—such as his uncle, William Robertson, minister of Borthwick in Mid Lothian and afterward of the Old Greyfriars’ Church in Edinburgh; his cousin, David Henry, the successor of Edward Cave in the management of the “Gentleman’s Magazine;” and especially his cousin, William Robertson, principal of the University of Edinburgh, and author of the “History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V.” Moreover, among the later paternal relatives of Patrick Henry may be mentioned one person of oratorical and forensic genius very brilliant and in quality not unlike his own. Patrick Henry’s father was second cousin to that beautiful Eleanor Syme of Edinburgh, who, in 1777, became the wife of Henry Brougham of Brougham Hall, Westmoreland. Their eldest son was Lord Brougham, who was thus the third cousin of Patrick Henry. To some it will perhaps seem not a mere caprice of ingenuity to discover in the fiery, eccentric, and truculent eloquence of the great English advocate and parliamentary orator a family likeness to that of his renowned American kinsman; or to find in the fierceness of the champion of Queen Caroline against George IV., and of English anti-slavery reform and of English parliamentary reform against aristocratic and commercial selfishness, the same bitter and eager radicalism that burned in the blood of him who, on this side of the Atlantic, was, in popular oratory, the great champion of the colonies against George III., and afterward of the political autonomy of the State of Virginia against the all-dominating centralization which he saw coiled up in the projected Constitution of the United States.[2]

Those, however, who knew the mother of Patrick Henry, and her family, the Winstons, were accustomed to think that it was from her side of the house that he derived the most characteristic traits not only of his genius, but of his disposition. The Winstons of Virginia were of Welsh stock; a family marked by vivacity of spirit, conversational talent, a lyric and dramatic turn, a gift for music and for eloquent speech, at the same time by a fondness for country life, for inartificial pleasures, for fishing and hunting, for the solitude and the unkempt charms of nature. It was said, too, of the Winstons that their talents were in excess of their ambition or of their energy, and were not brought into use except in a fitful way, and under the stimulus of some outward and passing occasion. They seem to have belonged to that very considerable class of persons in this world of whom more might have been made. Especially much talk used to be heard, among old men in Virginia, of Patrick Henry’s uncle, his mother’s own brother, William Winston, as having a gift of eloquence dazzling and wondrous like Patrick’s, nay, as himself unsurpassed in oratory among all the great speakers of Virginia except by Patrick himself.[3]

The system of education prevailing in Virginia during Patrick Henry’s early years was extremely simple. It consisted of an almost entire lack of public schools, mitigated by the sporadic and irregular exercise of domestic tuition. Those who could afford to import instruction into their homes got it, if they desired; those who could not, generally went without. As to the youthful Patrick, he and education never took kindly to each other. From nearly all quarters the testimony is to this effect,—that he was an indolent, dreamy, frolicsome creature, with a mortal enmity to books, supplemented by a passionate regard for fishing-rods and shot-guns; disorderly in dress, slouching, vagrant, unambitious; a roamer in woods, a loiterer on river-banks; having more tastes and aspirations in common with trappers and frontiersmen than with the toilers of civilized life; giving no hint nor token, by word or act, of the possession of any intellectual gift that could raise him above mediocrity, or even up to it.

During the first ten years of his life, he seems to have made, at a small school in the neighborhood, some small and reluctant progress into the mysteries of reading, writing, and arithmetic; whereupon his father took personal charge of the matter, and conducted his further education at home, along with that of other children, being aided in the task by the very competent help of a brother, the Rev. Patrick Henry, rector of St. Paul’s parish, in Hanover, and apparently a good Scotch classicist. In this way our Patrick acquired some knowledge of Latin and Greek, and rather more knowledge of mathematics,—the latter being the only branch of book-learning for which, in those days, he showed the least liking. However, under such circumstances, with little real discipline, doubtless, and amid plentiful interruptions, the process of ostensible education went forward with the young man; and even this came to an end by the time that he was fifteen years old.

At that age, he was duly graduated from the domestic schoolroom into the shop of a country tradesman hard by. After an apprenticeship there of a single year, his father set him up in trade, joining with him in the conduct of a country store his elder brother, William, a youth more indolent, if possible, as well as more disorderly and uncommercial, than Patrick himself. One year of this odd partnership brought the petty concern to its inevitable fate. Just one year after that, having attained the ripe age of eighteen, and being then entirely out of employment, and equally out of money, Patrick rounded out his embarrassments, and gave symmetry to them, as it were, by getting married,—and that to a young woman quite as impecunious as himself. The name of this damsel was Sarah Shelton; her father being a small farmer, and afterward a small tavern-keeper in the neighborhood. In the very rashness and absurdity of this proceeding on the part of these two interesting young paupers, irresistibly smitten with each other’s charms, and mutually resolved to defy their own helplessness by doubling it, there seems to have been a sort of semi-ludicrous pathos which constituted an irresistible call for help.

The parents on both sides heard the call, and by their joint efforts soon established the young couple on a little farm near at hand, from which, by their own toil, reënforced by that of half a dozen slaves, they were expected to extort a living. This experiment, the success of which depended on exactly those qualities which Patrick did not then possess,—industry, order, sharp calculation, persistence,—turned out as might have been predicted. At the end of two years he made a forced sale of some of his slaves, and invested the proceeds in the stock of a country store once more. But as he had now proved himself to be a bad farmer, and a still worse merchant, it is not easy to divine by what subtle process of reasoning he had been able to conclude that there would be any improvement in his circumstances by getting out of agriculture and back into merchandise.

When he undertook this last venture he was still but a youth of twenty. By the time that he was twenty-three, that is, by the autumn of 1759, he had become convinced that his little store was to prove for him merely a consumer of capital and a producer of bad debts; and in view of the necessity of soon closing it, he had ample excuse for taking into consideration what he should do next. Already was he the happy father of sundry small children, with the most trustworthy prospect of a steady enlargement and multiplication of his paternal honors. Surely, to a man of twenty-three, a husband and a father, who, from the age of fifteen, had been engaged in a series of enterprises to gain his livelihood, and had perfectly failed in every one of them, the question of his future means of subsistence must have presented itself as a subject of no little pertinence, not to say urgency. However, at that time Patrick seems to have been a young fellow of superabounding health and of inextinguishable spirits, and even in that crisis of his life he was able to deal gayly with its problems. In that very year, 1759, Thomas Jefferson, then a lad of sixteen, and on his way to the College of William and Mary, happened to spend the Christmas holidays at the house of Colonel Nathan Dandridge, in Hanover, and there first met Patrick Henry. Long afterward, recalling these days, Jefferson furnished this picture of him:—

“Mr. Henry had, a little before, broken up his store, or rather it had broken him up; but his misfortunes were not to be traced either in his countenance or conduct.” “During the festivity of the season I met him in society every day, and we became well acquainted, although I was much his junior.… His manners had something of coarseness in them. His passion was music, dancing, and pleasantry. He excelled in the last, and it attached every one to him.”[4]

Shortly after Jefferson left those hilarious scenes for the somewhat more restrained festivities of the little college at Williamsburg, Patrick succeeded in settling in his own mind what he was going to do next. He could not dig, so it seemed, neither could he traffic, but perhaps he could talk. Why not get a living by his tongue? Why not be a lawyer?

But before we follow him through the gates of that superb profession,—gates which, after some preliminary creaking of the hinges, threw open to him the broad pathway to wealth, renown, unbounded influence,—let us stop a moment longer on the outside, and get a more distinct idea, if we can, of his real intellectual outfit for the career on which he was about to enter.


[1] Byrd Manuscripts, ii. 79, 80.

[2] I have from private sources information that Brougham was aware of his relationship to Patrick Henry, and that in recognition of it he showed marked attentions to a grand-nephew of Patrick Henry, the late W. C. Preston, of South Carolina, when the latter was in England. Moreover, in his Life and Times, i. 17, 18, Brougham declares that he derived from his maternal ancestors the qualities which lifted him above the mediocrity that had always attached to his ancestors on the paternal side.

[3] Wirt, 3.

[4] In a letter to Wirt, in 1815, Life of Henry, 14, 15; also Writings of Jefferson, vi. 487, 488, where the letter is given, apparently, from the first draft.


Concerning the quality and extent of Patrick Henry’s early education, it is perhaps impossible now to speak with entire confidence. On the one hand there seems to have been a tendency, in his own time and since, to overstate his lack of education, and this partly, it may be, from a certain instinctive fascination which one finds in pointing to so dramatic a contrast as that between the sway which the great orator wielded over the minds of other men and the untrained vigor and illiterate spontaneity of his own mind. Then, too, it must be admitted that, whatever early education Patrick Henry may have received, he did, in certain companies and at certain periods of his life, rather too perfectly conceal it under an uncouth garb and manner, and under a pronunciation which, to say the least, was archaic and provincial. Jefferson told Daniel Webster that Patrick Henry’s “pronunciation was vulgar and vicious,” although, as Jefferson adds, this “was forgotten while he was speaking.”[5] Governor John Page “used to relate, on the testimony of his own ears,” that Patrick Henry would speak of “the yearth,” and of “men’s naiteral parts being improved by larnin’;”[6] while Spencer Roane mentions his pronunciation of China as “Cheena.”[7] All this, however, it should be noted, does not prove illiteracy. If, indeed, such was his ordinary speech, and not, as some have suggested, a manner adopted on particular occasions for the purpose of identifying himself with the mass of his hearers, the fact is evidence merely that he retained through his mature life, on the one hand, some relics of an old-fashioned good usage, and, on the other, some traces of the brogue of the district in which he was born, just as Edmund Pendleton used to say “scaicely” for scarcely, and as John Taylor, of Caroline, would say “bare” for bar; just as Thomas Chalmers always retained the brogue of Fifeshire, and Thomas Carlyle that of Ecclefechan. Certainly a brogue can never be elegant, but as it has many times coexisted with very high intellectual cultivation, its existence in Patrick Henry does not prove him to have been uncultivated.

Then, too, it must be remembered that he himself had a habit of depreciating his own acquaintance with books, and his own dependence on them. He did this, it would seem, partly from a consciousness that it would only increase his hold on the sympathy and support of the mass of the people of Virginia if they should regard him as absolutely one of themselves, and in no sense raised above them by artificial advantages. Moreover, this habit of self-depreciation would be brought into play when he was in conversation with such professed devourers of books as John Adams and Jefferson, compared with whom he might very properly feel an unfeigned conviction that he was no reader at all,—a conviction in which they would be quite likely to agree with him, and which they would be very likely to express. Thus, John Adams mentions that, in the first intimacy of their friendship begun at the Congress of 1774, the Virginian orator, at his lodgings, confessed one night that, for himself, he had “had no public education;” that at fifteen he had “read Virgil and Livy,” but that he had “not looked into a Latin book since.”[8] Upon Jefferson, who of course knew Henry far longer and far more closely, the impression of his disconnection from books seems to have been even more decided, especially if we may accept the testimony of Jefferson’s old age, when his memory had taken to much stumbling, and his imagination even more to extravagance than in his earlier life. Said Jefferson, in 1824, of his ancient friend: “He was a man of very little knowledge of any sort. He read nothing, and had no books.”[9]

On the other hand, there are certain facts concerning Henry’s early education and intellectual habits which may be regarded as pretty well established. Before the age of ten, at a petty neighborhood school, he had got started upon the three primary steps of knowledge. Then, from ten to fifteen, whatever may have been his own irregularity and disinclination, he was member of a home school, under the immediate training of his father and his uncle, both of them good Scotch classical scholars, and one of them at least a proficient in mathematics. No doubt the human mind, especially in its best estate of juvenile vigor and frivolity, has remarkable aptitude for the repulsion of unwelcome knowledge; but it can hardly be said that even Patrick Henry’s gift in that direction could have prevented his becoming, under two such masters, tolerably well grounded in Latin, if not in Greek, or that the person who at fifteen is able to read Virgil and Livy, no matter what may be his subsequent neglect of Latin authors, is not already imbued with the essential and indestructible rudiments of the best intellectual culture.

It is this early initiation, on the basis of a drill in Latin, into the art and mystery of expression, which Patrick Henry received from masters so competent and so deeply interested in him, which helps us to understand a certain trait of his, which puzzled Jefferson, and which, without this clue, would certainly be inexplicable. From his first appearance as a speaker to the end of his days, he showed himself to be something more than a declaimer,—indeed, an adept in language. “I have been often astonished,” said Jefferson, “at his command of proper language; how he obtained the knowledge of it I never could find out, as he read little, and conversed little with educated men.”[10] It is true, probably, that we have no perfect report of any speech he ever made; but even through the obvious imperfections of his reporters there always gleams a certain superiority in diction,—a mastery of the logic and potency of fitting words; such a mastery as genius alone, without special training, cannot account for. Furthermore, we have in the letters of his which survive, and which of course were generally spontaneous and quite unstudied effusions, absolutely authentic and literal examples of his ordinary use of words. Some of these letters will be found in the following pages. Even as manuscripts, I should insist that the letters of Patrick Henry are witnesses to the fact and quality of real intellectual cultivation: these are not the manuscripts of an uneducated person. In penmanship, punctuation, spelling, syntax, they are, upon the whole, rather better than the letters of most of the great actors in our Revolution. But, aside from the mere mechanics of written speech, there is in the diction of Patrick Henry’s letters the nameless felicity which, even with great natural endowments, is only communicable by genuine literary culture in some form. Where did Patrick Henry get such literary culture? The question can be answered only by pointing to that painful drill in Latin which the book-hating boy suffered under his uncle and his father, when, to his anguish, Virgil and Livy detained him anon from the true joys of existence.

Wirt seems to have satisfied himself, on evidence carefully gathered from persons who were contemporaries of Patrick Henry, that the latter had received in his youth no mean classical education; but, in the final revision of his book for publication, Wirt abated his statements on that subject, in deference to the somewhat vehement assertions of Jefferson. It may be that, in its present lessened form, Wirt’s account of the matter is the more correct one; but this is the proper place in which to mention one bit of direct testimony upon the subject, which, probably, was not known to Wirt. Patrick Henry is said to have told his eldest grandson, Colonel Patrick Henry Fontaine, that he was instructed by his uncle “not only in the catechism, but in the Greek and Latin classics.”[11] It may help us to realize something of the moral stamina entering into the training which the unfledged orator thus got that, as he related, his uncle taught him these maxims of conduct: “To be true and just in all my dealings. To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart. To keep my hands from picking and stealing. Not to covet other men’s goods; but to learn and labor truly to get my own living, and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.”[12]

Under such a teacher Patrick Henry was so thoroughly grounded, at least in Latin and Greek grammar, that when, long afterward, his eldest grandson was a student in Hampden-Sidney College, the latter found “his grandfather’s examinations of his progress in Greek and Latin” so rigorous that he dreaded them “much more than he did his recitations to his professors.”[13] Colonel Fontaine also states that he was present when a certain French visitor, who did not speak English, was introduced to Governor Henry, who did not speak French. During the war of the Revolution and just afterwards a similar embarrassment was not infrequent here in the case of our public men, among whom the study of French had been very uncommon; and for many of them the old colonial habit of fitting boys for college by training them to the colloquial use of Latin proved to be a great convenience. Colonel Fontaine’s anecdote implies, what is altogether probable, that Patrick Henry’s early drill in Latin had included the ordinary colloquial use of it; for he says that in the case of the visitor in question his grandfather was able, by means of his early stock of Latin words, to carry on the conversation in that language.[14]

This anecdote, implying Patrick Henry’s ability to express himself in Latin, I give for what it may be worth. Some will think it incredible, and that impression will be further increased by the fact that Colonel Fontaine names Albert Gallatin as the visitor with whom, on account of his ignorance of English, the conversation was thus carried on in Latin. This, of course, must be a mistake; for, at the time of his first visit to Virginia, Gallatin could speak English very well, so well, in fact, that he went to Virginia expressly as English interpreter to a French gentleman who could not speak our language.[15] However, as, during all that period, Governor Henry had many foreign visitors, Colonel Fontaine, in his subsequent account of that particular visitor, might easily have misplaced the name without thereby discrediting the substance of his narrative. Indeed, the substance of his narrative, namely, that he, Colonel Fontaine, did actually witness, in the case of some foreign visitor, such an exhibition of his grandfather’s good early training in Latin, cannot be rejected without an impeachment of the veracity of the narrator, or at least of that of his son, who has recorded the alleged incident. Of course, if that narrative be accepted as substantially true, it will be necessary to conclude that the Jeffersonian tradition of Patrick Henry’s illiteracy is, at any rate, far too highly tinted.

Thus far we have been dealing with the question of Patrick Henry’s education down to the time of his leaving school, at the age of fifteen. It was not until nine years afterward that he began the study of the law. What is the intellectual record of these nine years? It is obvious that they were years unfavorable to systematic training of any sort, or to any regulated acquisition of knowledge. During all that time in his life, as we now look back upon it, he has for us the aspect of some lawless, unkempt genius, in untoward circumstances, groping in the dark, not without wild joy, towards his inconceivable, true vocation; set to tasks for which he was grotesquely unfit; blundering on from misfortune to misfortune, with an overflow of unemployed energy and vivacity that swept him often into rough fun, into great gusts of innocent riot and horseplay; withal borne along, for many days together, by the mysterious undercurrents of his nature, into that realm of reverie where the soul feeds on immortal fruit and communes with unseen associates, the body meanwhile being left to the semblance of idleness; of all which the man himself might have given this valid justification:—

“I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”

Nevertheless, these nine years of groping, blundering, and seeming idleness were not without their influence on his intellectual improvement even through direct contact with books. While still a boy in his teens, and put prematurely to uncongenial attempts at shopkeeping and farmkeeping, he at any rate made the great discovery that in books and in the gathering of knowledge from books could be found solace and entertainment; in short, he then acquired a taste for reading. No one pretends that Patrick Henry ever became a bookish person. From the first and always the habit of his mind was that of direct action upon every subject that he had to deal with, through his own reflection, and along the broad primary lines of common sense. There is never in his thought anything subtle or recondite,—no mental movement through the media of books; but there is good evidence for saying that this bewildered and undeveloped youth, drifting about in chaos, did in those days actually get a taste for reading, and that he never lost it. The books which he first read are vaguely described as “a few light and elegant authors,”[16] probably in English essays and fiction. As the years passed and the boy’s mind matured, he rose to more serious books. He became fond of geography and of history, and he pushed his readings, especially, into the history of Greece and of Rome. He was particularly fascinated by Livy, which he read in the English translation; and then it was, as he himself related it to Judge Hugh Nelson, that he made the rule to read Livy through “once at least in every year during the early part of his life.”[17] He read also, it is apparent, the history of England and of the English colonies in America, and especially of his own colony; for the latter finding, no doubt, in Beverley and in the grave and noble pages of Stith, and especially in the colonial charters given by Stith, much material for those incisive opinions which he so early formed as to the rights of the colonies, and as to the barriers to be thrown up against the encroaching authority of the mother country.

There is much contemporaneous evidence to show that Patrick Henry was throughout life a deeply religious person. It certainly speaks well for his intellectual fibre, as well as for his spiritual tendencies, that his favorite book, during the larger part of his life, was “Butler’s Analogy,” which was first published in the very year in which he was born. It is possible that even during these years of his early manhood he had begun his enduring intimacy with that robust book. Moreover, we can hardly err in saying that he had then also become a steady reader of the English Bible, the diction of which is stamped upon his style as unmistakably as it is upon that of the elder Pitt.

Such, I think it may fairly be said, was Patrick Henry when, at the age of twenty-four, having failed in every other pursuit, he turned for bread to the profession of the law. There is no evidence that either he or any other mortal man was aware of the extraordinary gifts that lay within him for success in that career. Not a scholar surely, not even a considerable miscellaneous reader, he yet had the basis of a good education; he had the habit of reading over and over again a few of the best books; he had a good memory; he had an intellect strong to grasp the great commanding features of any subject; he had a fondness for the study of human nature, and singular proficiency in that branch of science; he had quick and warm sympathies, particularly with persons in trouble,—an invincible propensity to take sides with the under-dog in any fight. Through a long experience in offhand talk with the men whom he had thus far chiefly known in his little provincial world,—with an occasional clergyman, pedagogue, or legislator, small planters and small traders, sportsmen, loafers, slaves and the drivers of slaves, and, more than all, those bucolic Solons of old Virginia, the good-humored, illiterate, thriftless Caucasian consumers of tobacco and whiskey, who, cordially consenting that all the hard work of the world should be done by the children of Ham, were thus left free to commune together in endless debate on the tavern porch or on the shady side of the country store,—young Patrick had learned somewhat of the lawyer’s art of putting things; he could make men laugh, could make them serious, could set fire to their enthusiasms. What more he might do with such gifts nobody seems to have guessed; very likely few gave it any thought at all. In that rugged but munificent profession at whose outward gates he then proceeded to knock, it was altogether improbable that he would burden himself with much more of its erudition than was really necessary for a successful general practice in Virginia in his time, or that he would permanently content himself with less.


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

[6] Randall, Life of Jefferson, i. 20.

[7] MS.

[8] Works of John Adams, ii. 396.

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

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

[11] MS.

[12] MS.

[13] MS.

[14] MS.

[15] Henry Adams, Life of Gallatin, 59, 60.

[16] Wirt, 9.

[17] Wirt, 13. This is the passage on which Jefferson, in his extreme old age, made the characteristically inaccurate comment: “His biographer says, ‘He read Plutarch every year.’ I doubt if he ever read a volume of it in his life.” Curtis, Life of Webster, i. 585.


Some time in the early spring of 1760, Thomas Jefferson, then a lad in the College of William and Mary, was surprised by the arrival in Williamsburg of his jovial acquaintance, Patrick Henry, and still more by the announcement of the latter that, in the brief interval since their merrymakings together at Hanover, he had found time to study law, and had actually come up to the capital to seek an admission to the bar.

In the accounts that we have from Henry’s contemporaries respecting the length of time during which he was engaged in preparing for his legal examination, there are certain discrepancies,—some of these accounts saying that it was nine months, others six or eight months, others six weeks. Henry himself told a friend that his original study of the law lasted only one month, and consisted in the reading of Coke upon Littleton and of the Virginia laws.[18]

Concerning the encounter of this obscure and raw country youth with the accomplished men who examined him as to his fitness to receive a license to practice law, there are three primary narratives,—two by Jefferson, and a third by Judge John Tyler. In his famous talk with Daniel Webster and the Ticknors at Monticello, in 1824, Jefferson said: “There were four examiners,—Wythe, Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and John Randolph. Wythe and Pendleton at once rejected his application; the two Randolphs were, by his importunity, prevailed upon to sign the license; and, having obtained their signatures, he again applied to Pendleton, and after much entreaty, and many promises of future study, succeeded also in obtaining his. He then turned out for a practicing lawyer.”[19]

In a memorandum[20] prepared nearly ten years before the conversation just mentioned, Jefferson described somewhat differently the incidents of Henry’s examination:—

“Two of the examiners, however, Peyton and John Randolph, men of great facility of temper, signed his license with as much reluctance as their dispositions would permit them to show. Mr. Wythe absolutely refused. Rob. C. Nicholas refused also at first; but on repeated importunities, and promises of future reading, he signed. These facts I had afterwards from the gentlemen themselves; the two Randolphs acknowledging he was very ignorant of law, but that they perceived him to be a young man of genius, and did not doubt he would soon qualify himself.”[21]

Long afterward, and when all this anxious affair had become for Patrick Henry an amusing thing of the past, he himself, in the confidence of an affectionate friendship, seems to have related one remarkable phase of his experience to Judge John Tyler, by whom it was given to Wirt. One of the examiners was “Mr. John Randolph, who was afterwards the king’s attorney-general for the colony,—a gentleman of the most courtly elegance of person and manners, a polished wit, and a profound lawyer. At first, he was so much shocked by Mr. Henry’s very ungainly figure and address, that he refused to examine him. Understanding, however, that he had already obtained two signatures, he entered with manifest reluctance on the business. A very short time was sufficient to satisfy him of the erroneous conclusion which he had drawn from the exterior of the candidate. With evident marks of increasing surprise (produced, no doubt, by the peculiar texture and strength of Mr. Henry’s style, and the boldness and originality of his combinations), he continued the examination for several hours; interrogating the candidate, not on the principles of municipal law, in which he no doubt soon discovered his deficiency, but on the laws of nature and of nations, on the policy of the feudal system, and on general history, which last he found to be his stronghold. During the very short portion of the examination which was devoted to the common law, Mr. Randolph dissented, or affected to dissent, from one of Mr. Henry’s answers, and called upon him to assign the reasons of his opinion. This produced an argument, and Mr. Randolph now played off on him the same arts which he himself had so often practiced on his country customers; drawing him out by questions, endeavoring to puzzle him by subtleties, assailing him with declamation, and watching continually the defensive operations of his mind. After a considerable discussion, he said, ‘You defend your opinions well, sir; but now to the law and to the testimony.’ Hereupon he carried him to his office, and, opening the authorities, said to him: ‘Behold the force of natural reason! You have never seen these books, nor this principle of the law; yet you are right and I am wrong. And from the lesson which you have given me (you must excuse me for saying it) I will never trust to appearances again. Mr. Henry, if your industry be only half equal to your genius, I augur that you will do well, and become an ornament and an honor to your profession.’”[22]

After such an ordeal at Williamsburg, the young man must have ridden back to Hanover with some natural elation over his success, but that elation not a little tempered by serious reflection upon his own deficiencies as a lawyer, and by an honest purpose to correct them. Certainly nearly everything that was dear to him in life must then have risen before his eyes, and have incited him to industry in the further study of his profession.

At that time, his father-in-law had become the keeper of a tavern in Hanover; and for the next two or three years, while he was rapidly making his way as a general practitioner of the law in that neighborhood, Patrick seems occasionally to have been a visitor at this tavern. It was in this way, undoubtedly, that he sometimes acted as host, especially in the absence of his father-in-law,—receiving all comers, and providing for their entertainment; and it was from this circumstance that the tradition arose, as Jefferson bluntly expressed it, that Patrick Henry “was originally a barkeeper,”[23] or, as it is more vivaciously expressed by a recent writer, that “for three years” after getting his license to practice law, he “tended travelers and drew corks.”[24]

These statements, however, are but an exaggeration of the fact that, whenever visiting at the tavern of his father-in-law, he had the good sense and the good feeling to lend a hand, in case of need, in the business of the house; and that no more than this is true may be proved, not only from the written testimony of survivors,[25] who knew him in those days, but from the contemporary records, carefully kept by himself, of his own earliest business as a lawyer. These records show that, almost at once after receiving his license to practice law, he must have been fully occupied with the appropriate business of his profession.

It is quite apparent, also, from the evidence just referred to, that the common history of his life has, in another particular, done great injustice to this period of it. According to the recollection of one old man who outlived him, “he was not distinguished at the bar for near four years.”[26] Wirt himself, relying upon the statements of several survivors of Patrick Henry, speaks of his lingering “in the background for three years,” and of “the profits of his practice” as being so inadequate for the supply of even “the necessaries of life,” that “for the first two or three years” he was living with his family in dependence upon his father-in-law.[27] Fortunately, however, we are not left in this case to grope our way toward the truth amid the ruins of the confused and decaying memories of old men. Since Wirt’s time, there have come to light the fee-books of Patrick Henry, carefully and neatly kept by him from the beginning of his practice, and covering nearly his entire professional life down to old age.[28] The first entry in these books is for September, 1760; and from that date onward to the end of the year 1763,—by which time he had suddenly sprung into great professional prominence by his speech in “the Parsons’ Cause,”—he is found to have charged fees in 1185 suits, besides many other fees for the preparation of legal papers out of court. From about the time of his speech in “the Parsons’ Cause,” as his fee-books show, his practice became enormous, and so continued to the end of his days, excepting when public duties or broken health compelled him to turn away clients. Thus it is apparent that, while the young lawyer did not attain anything more than local professional reputation until his speech against the parsons, he did acquire a very considerable practice almost immediately after his admission to the bar. Moreover, so far from his being a needy dependent on his father-in-law for the first two or three years, the same quiet records show that his practice enabled him, even during that early period, to assist his father-in-law by an important advance of money.

The fiction that Patrick Henry, during the first three or four years of his nominal career as a lawyer, was a briefless barrister,—earning his living at the bar of a tavern rather than at the bar of justice,—is the very least of those disparaging myths, which, through the frailty of human memory and the bitterness of partisan ill-will, have been permitted to settle upon his reputation. Certainly, no one would think it discreditable, or even surprising, if Patrick Henry, while still a very young lawyer, should have had little or no practice, provided only that, when the practice did come, the young lawyer had shown himself to have been a good one. It is precisely this honor which, during the past seventy years, has been denied him. Upon the evidence thus far most prominently before the public, one is compelled to conceive of him as having been destitute of nearly all the qualifications of a good lawyer, excepting those which give success with juries, particularly in criminal practice: he is represented as ignorant of the law, indolent, and grossly negligent of business,—with nothing, in fact, to give him the least success in the profession but an abnormal and quite unaccountable gift of persuasion through speech.

Referring to this period of his life, Wirt says:—

“Of the science of law he knew almost nothing; of the practical part he was so wholly ignorant that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable, it is said, of the most common or simple business of his profession, even of the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court.”[29]

This conception of Henry’s professional character, to which Wirt seems to have come reluctantly, was founded, as is now evident, on the long-suppressed memorandum of Jefferson, who therein states that, after failing in merchandise, Patrick “turned his views to the law, for the acquisition or practice of which however, he was too lazy. Whenever the courts were closed for the winter session, he would make up a party of poor hunters of his neighborhood, would go off with them to the piny woods of Fluvanna, and pass weeks in hunting deer, of which he was passionately fond, sleeping under a tent before a fire, wearing the same shirt the whole time, and covering all the dirt of his dress with a hunting-shirt. He never undertook to draw pleadings, if he could avoid it, or to manage that part of a cause, and very unwillingly engaged but as an assistant to speak in the cause. And the fee was an indispensable preliminary, observing to the applicant that he kept no accounts, never putting pen to paper, which was true.”[30]

The last sentence of this passage, in which Jefferson declares that it was true that Henry “kept no accounts, never putting pen to paper,” is, of course, now utterly set aside by the discovery of the precious fee-books; and these orderly and circumstantial records almost as completely annihilate the trustworthiness of all the rest of the passage. Let us consider, for example, Jefferson’s statement that for the acquisition of the law, or for the practice of it, Henry was too lazy, and that much of the time between the sessions of the courts was passed by him in deer-hunting in the woods. Confining ourselves to the first three and a half years of his actual practice, in which, by the record, his practice was the smallest that he ever had, it is not easy for one to understand how a mere novice in the profession, and one so perfectly ignorant of its most rudimental forms, could have earned, during that brief period, the fees which he charged in 1185 suits, and in the preparation of many legal papers out of court, and still have been seriously addicted to laziness. Indeed, if so much legal business could have been transacted within three years and a half, by a lawyer who, besides being young and incompetent, was also extremely lazy, and greatly preferred to go off to the woods and hunt for deer while his clients were left to hunt in vain for him, it becomes an interesting question just how much legal business we ought to expect to be done by a young lawyer who was not incompetent, was not lazy, and had no inordinate fondness for deer-hunting. It happens that young Thomas Jefferson himself was just such a lawyer. He began practice exactly seven years after Patrick Henry, and at precisely the same time of life, though under external circumstances far more favorable. As a proof of his uncommon zeal and success in the profession, his biographer, Randall, cites from Jefferson’s fee-books the number of cases in which he was employed until he was finally drawn off from the law into political life. Oddly enough, for the first four years of his practice, the cases registered by Jefferson[31] number, in all, but 504. It should be mentioned that this number, as it includes only Jefferson’s cases in the General Court, does not indicate all the business done by him during those first four years; and yet, even with this allowance, we are left standing rather helpless before the problem presented by the fact that this competent and diligent young lawyer—whom, forsooth, the rustling leaves of the forest could never for once entice from the rustle of the leaves of his law-books—did nevertheless transact, during his own first four years of practice, probably less than one half as much business as seems to have been done during a somewhat shorter space of time by our poor, ignorant, indolent, slovenly, client-shunning and forest-haunting Patrick.

But, if Jefferson’s charge of professional indolence and neglect on the part of his early friend fares rather ill when tested by those minute and plodding records of his professional employments which were kept by Patrick Henry, a fate not much more prosperous overtakes Jefferson’s other charge,—that of professional incompetence. It is more than intimated by Jefferson that, even had Patrick been disposed to engage in a general law practice, he did not know enough to do so successfully by reason of his ignorance of the most ordinary legal principles and legal forms. But the intellectual embarrassment which one experiences in trying to accept this view of Patrick Henry arises from the simple fact that these incorrigible fee-books show that it was precisely this general law practice that he did engage in, both in court and out of court; a practice only a small portion of which was criminal, the larger part of it consisting of the ordinary suits in country litigation; a practice which certainly involved the drawing of pleadings, and the preparation of many sorts of legal papers; a practice, moreover, which he seems to have acquired with extraordinary rapidity, and to have maintained with increasing success as long as he cared for it. These are items of history which are likely to burden the ordinary reader with no little perplexity,—a perplexity the elements of which are thus modestly stated by a living grandson of Patrick Henry: “How he acquired or retained a practice so large and continually increasing, so perfectly unfit for it as Mr. Jefferson represents him, I am at a loss to understand.”[32]

As we go further in the study of this man’s life, we shall have before us ample materials for dealing still further and still more definitely with the subject of his professional character, as that character itself became developed and matured. Meantime, however, the evidence already in view seems quite enough to enable us to form a tolerably clear notion of the sort of lawyer he was down to the end of 1763, which may be regarded as the period of his novitiate at the bar. It is perfectly evident that, at the time of his admission to the bar, he knew very little of the law, either in its principles or in its forms: he knew no more than could have been learned by a young man of genius in the course of four weeks in the study of Coke upon Littleton, and of the laws of Virginia. If, now, we are at liberty to suppose that his study of the law then ceased, we may accept the view of his professional incompetence held up by Jefferson; but precisely that is what we are not at liberty to suppose. All the evidence, fairly sifted, warrants the belief that, on his return to Hanover with his license to practice law, he used the next few months in the further study of it; and that thenceforward, just so fast as professional business came to his hands, he tried to qualify himself to do that business, and to do it so well that his clients should be inclined to come to him again in case of need. Patrick Henry’s is not the first case, neither is it the last one, of a man coming to the bar miserably unqualified for its duties, but afterward becoming well qualified. We need not imagine, we do not imagine, that he ever became a man of great learning in the law; but we do find it impossible to believe that he continued to be a man of great ignorance in it. The law, indeed, is the one profession on earth in which such success as he is proved to have had, is impossible to such incompetence as he is said to have had. Moreover, in trying to form a just idea of Patrick Henry, it is never safe to forget that we have to do with a man of genius, and that the ways by which a man of genius reaches his results are necessarily his own,—are often invisible, are always somewhat mysterious, to the rest of us. The genius of Patrick Henry was powerful, intuitive, swift; by a glance of the eye he could take in what an ordinary man might spend hours in toiling for; his memory held whatever was once committed to it; all his resources were at instant command; his faculty for debate, his imagination, humor, tact, diction, elocution, were rich and exquisite; he was also a man of human and friendly ways, whom all men loved, and whom all men wanted to help; and it would not have been strange if he actually fitted himself for the successful practice of such law business as was then to be had in Virginia, and actually entered upon its successful practice with a quickness the exact processes of which were unperceived even by his nearest neighbors.


[18] Wirt, 16.

[19] Curtis, Life of Webster, i. 584.

[20] First printed in the Philadelphia Age, in 1867; and again printed, from the original manuscript, in The Historical Magazine, August, 1867, 90-93. I quote from the latter.

[21] Jefferson’s memorandum, Hist. Mag. for August, 1867, 90.

[22] Wirt, 16, 17.

[23] Curtis, Life of Webster, i. 584.

[24] McMaster, Hist. of U. S. i. 489.

[25] I have carefully examined this testimony, which is still in manuscript.

[26] Judge Winston, MS.

[27] Wirt, 18, 19.

[28] These fee-books are now in the possession of Mr. William Wirt Henry, of Richmond.

[29] Wirt, 18.

[30] Hist. Mag. for 1867, 93.

[31] Randall, Life of Jefferson, i. 47, 48.

[32] William Wirt Henry, Character and Public Career of Patrick Henry, 3.


Thus Patrick Henry had been for nearly four years in the practice of the law, with a vigor and a success quite extraordinary, when, late in the year 1763, he became concerned in a case so charged with popular interest, and so well suited to the display of his own marvellous genius as an advocate, as to make both him and his case immediately celebrated.

The side upon which he was retained happened to be the wrong side,—wrong both in law and in equity; having only this element of strength in it, namely, that by a combination of circumstances there were enlisted in its favor precisely those passions of the multitude which are the most selfish, the most blinding, and at the same time the most energetic. It only needed an advocate skilful enough to play effectively upon these passions, and a storm would be raised before which mere considerations of law and of equity would be swept out of sight.

In order to understand the real issue presented by “the Parsons’ Cause,” and consequently the essential weakness of the side to the service of which our young lawyer was now summoned, we shall need to turn about and take a brief tour into the earlier history of Virginia. In that colony, from the beginning, the Church of England was established by law, and was supported, like any other institution of the government, by revenues derived from taxation,—taxation levied in this case upon nearly all persons in the colony above the age of sixteen years. Moreover, those local subdivisions which, in the Northern colonies, were called towns, in Virginia were called parishes; and accordingly, in the latter, the usual local officers who manage the public business for each civil neighborhood were called, not selectmen or supervisors, as at the North, but vestrymen. Among the functions conferred by the law upon these local officers in Virginia was that of hiring the rector or minister, and of paying him his salary; and the same authority which gave to the vestry this power fixed likewise the precise amount of salary which they were to pay. Ever since the early days of the colony, this amount had been stated, not in money, which hardly existed there, but in tobacco, which was the staple of the colony. Sometimes the market value of tobacco would be very low,—so low that the portion paid to the minister would yield a sum quite insufficient for his support; and on such occasions, prior to 1692, the parishes had often kindly made up for such depreciation by voluntarily paying an extra quantity of tobacco.[33] After 1692, however, for reasons which need not now be detailed, this generous custom seems to have disappeared. For example, from 1709 to 1714, the price of tobacco was so low as to make its shipment to England, in many instances, a positive loss to its owner; while the sale of it on the spot was so disadvantageous as to reduce the minister’s salary to about £25 a year, as reckoned in the depreciated paper currency of the colony. Of course, during those years, the distress of the clergy was very great; but, whatever it may have been, they were permitted to bear it, without any suggestion, either from the legislature or from the vestries, looking toward the least addition to the quantity of tobacco then to be paid them. On the other hand, from 1714 to 1720, the price of tobacco rose considerably above the average, and did something towards making up to the clergy the losses which they had recently incurred. Then, again, from 1720 to 1724, tobacco fell to the low price of the former period, and of course with the same results of unrelieved loss to the clergy.[34] Thus, however, in the process of time, there had become established, in the fiscal relations of each vestry to its minister, a rough but obvious system of fair play. When the price of tobacco was down, the parson was expected to suffer the loss; when the price of tobacco was up, he was allowed to enjoy the gain. Probably it did not then occur to any one that a majority of the good people of Virginia could ever be brought to demand such a mutilation of justice as would be involved in depriving the parson of the occasional advantage of a very good market, and of making up for this by always leaving to him the undisturbed enjoyment of every occasional bad one. Yet it was just this mutilation of justice which, only a few years later, a majority of the good people of Virginia were actually brought to demand, and which, by the youthful genius of Patrick Henry, they were too well aided in effecting.

Returning now from our brief tour into a period of Virginian history just prior to that upon which we are at present engaged, we find ourselves arrived at the year 1748, in which year the legislature of Virginia, revising all previous regulations respecting the hiring and paying of the clergy, passed an act, directing that every parish minister should “receive an annual salary of 16,000 pounds of tobacco, … to be levied, assessed, collected, and paid” by the vestry. “And if the vestry of any parish” should “neglect or refuse to levy the tobacco due to the minister,” they should “be liable to the action of the party grieved … for all damages which he … shall sustain by such refusal or neglect.”[35] This act of the colonial legislature, having been duly approved by the king, became a law, and consequently was not liable to repeal or even to suspension except by the king’s approval. Thus, at the period now reached, there was between every vestry and its minister a valid contract for the annual payment, by the former to the latter, of that particular quantity of tobacco,—the clergy to take their chances as to the market value of the product from year to year.

Thus matters ran on until 1755, when, by reason of a diminished crop of tobacco, the legislature passed an option law,[36] virtually suspending for the next ten months the Act of 1748, and requiring the clergy, at the option of the vestries, to receive their salaries for that year, not in tobacco, but in the depreciated paper currency of the colony, at the rate of two pence for each pound of tobacco due,—a price somewhat below the market value of the article for that year. Most clearly this act, which struck an arbitrary blow at the validity of all contracts in Virginia, was one which exceeded the constitutional authority of the legislature; since it suspended, without the royal approval, a law which had been regularly ratified by the king. However, the operation of this act was shrewdly limited to ten months,—a period just long enough to accomplish its object, but too short for the royal intervention against it to be of any direct avail. Under these circumstances, the clergy bore their losses for that year with some murmuring indeed, but without any formal protest.[37]

Just three years afterward, in 1758, the legislature, with even less excuse than before, passed an act[38] similar to that of 1755,—its force, however, being limited to twelve months. The operation of this act, as affecting each parish minister, may be conveyed in very few words. In lieu of what was due him under the law for his year’s services, namely, 16,000 pounds of tobacco, the market value of which for the year in question proved to be about £400 sterling, it compelled him to take, in the paper money of the colony, the sum of about £133. To make matters still worse, while the tobacco which was due him was an instant and an advantageous medium of exchange everywhere, and especially in England whence nearly all his merchant supplies were obtained, this paper money that was forced upon him was a depreciated currency even within the colony, and absolutely worthless outside of it; so that the poor parson, who could never demand his salary for any year until six full months after its close, would have proffered to him, at the end, perhaps, of another six months, just one third of the nominal sum due him, and that in a species of money of no value at all except in Virginia, and even in Virginia of a purchasing value not exceeding that of £20 sterling in England.[39]

Nor, in justification of such a measure, could it be truthfully said that there was at that time in the colony any general “dearth and scarcity,”[40] or any such public distress of any sort as might overrule the ordinary maxims of justice, and excuse, in the name of humanity, a merely technical violation of law. As a matter of fact, the only “dearth and scarcity” in Virginia that year was “confined to one or two counties on James River, and that entirely owing to their own fault;”[41] wherever there was any failure of the tobacco crop, it was due to the killing of the plants so early in the spring, that such land did not need to lie uncultivated, and in most cases was planted “in corn and pease, which always turned to good account;”


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