Peopling the Past Series:
Meet Patrick Henry
by Ed Crews
Patrick Henry became Virginia’s first elected governor during summer 1776, following the flight of the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, in 1775, reinventing the office at the outset of the Revolution. Richard Schumann, who portrays Henry, speaks here as the harried new governor might have.
Congratulations on your election. Let me speak frankly. I did not solicit this position. I will tell you that, sir. I believe there are two reasons the legislature voted for me. First, truth be told, I am extremely popular with the people of Virginia. Second, if I am governor, I cannot be speaker of the house, and that is where the real power is.
You are busy? Busy. Yes, I am that. There is not a minute of the day from morning to night but I am engaged in the commonwealth’s business. There are a thousand things to be done, to mend, to begin. I feel sometimes as though I will sink under my burden. Nobody could be prepared to establish a government, but that is exactly what I am charged with doing. Honestly, I am much surprised at the amount of work to be begun.
What is the most important task? As this is wartime, I have to see to the defense of Virginia. I have to raise an army. I am directly responsible for recruitment. I have two fronts to worry about—invasion by the British from the east, and warring Indians to the west being incited by the English. In addition, one can never be sure of one’s security here. We are aware of many Tories who are conspiring against our cause. When we find them, they will pay the consequences. Yet we are not finding a lot of them.
What else concerns you? Our economy is in ruins. Our money depreciates daily. We have stopped all trade with Great Britain but have not yet begun commerce with any other foreign power. Our citizens also are downhearted at times. Part of my office is to inspire the good people of Virginia, and to reassure them that our cause is just and righteous.
Are there problems with the administration of justice? As an attorney, I am well aware of the grave situation with our judicial branch. When the royal governor fled last year, our courts came to a standstill. People are not getting a speedy trial. Some men have been waiting a year for a court to convene. That is not justice. Everyone has a God-given right to a quick trial. We also have to appoint justices. I’d like to get started on that, but I do not have the energy because I am sick. I contracted the bilious fever when I was in camp with the 1st Virginia Regiment at the College of William and Mary. The disease still plagues me.
You also are dealing with a personal loss. I am still devastated by the death of my dear wife, who perished in 1775. She had suffered from a particular distress that deprived her of her reason for four years. I have six children, whom I have seen very little of. I am pained, too, that as their father I have not been there for them in their deepest hour of need. I feel my wife’s absence in so many ways. For example, as governor, I will be expected to live in the Governor’s Palace here. This is a responsibility, and it calls for the touch of a woman skilled in the social graces and household management. I hope that my daughter, Patsy, despite being only twenty years of age, will be able to assist with these difficult duties.
Anything else on your mind? Well, I hear the British have put a price on my head of £2,000. Dunmore has called me an outlaw. So, there always is the chance that the enemy may come for me.
Editor’s note: Another installment in a series of first person, question-and-answer interviews with historic figures interpreted in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.