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More than the Voice of the Revolution

7 Facts you might not know about Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry is best remembered for his famed “Liberty or Death” speech in 1775, but his contributions to the birth of our nation are immeasurable. He served for more than 20 years as a Burgess, member of Congress, Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia Army, and first governor of Virginia for five terms.

Here are a few things you might not know about this Unsurpassed orator, known by his contemporaries as “the Voice of the Revolution.”

1. Unlike many of his contemporaries who lived in only one place for their entire lives, Mr. Henry was quite the nomad.

Throughout his lifetime, he resided in 14 different homes: Studley, Mt. Brilliant, Pine Slash, Rural Plains, Hanover Tavern, Roundabout, Scotchtown, Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Leatherwood, Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Salisbury, Pleasant Grove, Long Island (not the New York one), and Red Hill. For an excellent discussion on these and other Henry-related places, see Mark Couvillon's “Patrick Henry's Virginia,” Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, 2001. It is a great book to have in your glove compartment since it has driving directions to each site.

2. Patrick Henry was a distiller.

In his last years at Red Hill, Mr. Henry had three licenses to distill whiskey for sale. It is estimated that he was producing between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons per year by the time of his death in 1799, which supplemented his income substantially. Apparently, Mr. Henry did not consume his own product, being “most abstemious as to spiritous drink.” Rye whiskey became very popular after the Revolution because it was cheaper to transport than the bushels of grain from which it was made, and less expensive than imported rum.

3. He was both respected and despised.

From the mid-1770s until his retirement from public life in 1791, Mr. Henry was the most powerful and influential member of the Virginia legislature. As a result, there were some who “devoutly prayed for Mr. Henry's death,” especially when he would use his formidable oratorical prowess in opposition. Despite these political differences, he was held in very high regard personally. Mr. Henry’s first biographer, noted jurist William Wirt, wrote in 1817 that “no man ever passed through so long a life of public service with a reputation more perfectly unspotted.”

4. Here was a fierce defender of religious liberty.

Many Americans remember Mr. Henry as a steadfast proponent of American Independence, but there was another essential freedom that guided him throughout his life — religious liberty. A very pious Christian himself, lawyer Henry defended numerous itinerant Baptist preachers pro bono, securing their releases from jail, and anonymously paying their court and jail costs.

5. He was an early decrier of the crown, accused of treason on multiple occasions.

Mr. Henry, as a freshman Burgess in 1765, elicited cries of “Treason!” after introducing a number of resolutions against the Stamp Act. Thomas Jefferson later wrote that Henry's resolves “set the impetus to the ball of revolution.” But that was not the first time that the shout of treason was hurled at Mr. Henry. That came in December of 1763 during the Parson's Cause, when the young lawyer dared to suggest that the King had degenerated into a Tyrant, and “thus forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience.” Happily, no charges were brought on either occasion.

6. It is probable that Mr. Henry was the first attorney in American legal history to employ the insanity defense.

The exact phrase, used in 1774, was “a moment of temporary impassioned insanity.” He was successful, as the charge of willful murder was reduced to manslaughter, and thus his client (Henry Bullard) avoided the gallows. Many claim that the first application was in 1843 England, almost seven decades after the Bullard case.

7. The man could really talk.

After the War for Independence, Mr. Henry was vigorously opposed to a Federal (centralized) form of government. Though nominated to represent Virginia in the Philadelphia Convention, he declined, saving his strength for the Ratifying Convention in Richmond, June 1788. Of the 23 days the Richmond Convention was sitting, Mr. Henry spoke at length for 18 of those days. In fact, the written record shows that he spoke for a quarter of the entire time that the 168-member assembly was gathered.

If you’re looking for an excellent biography on Patrick Henry, I recommend Champion of Liberty by Jon Kukla.

Richard Schumann has portrayed Patrick Henry at Colonial Williamsburg since 1995. He received his BA from Rutgers in Pre-Law studies, and attended the Herbert Berghoff Acting Studio in New York City. He began his journey into Living History in 1981 in Yorktown. He is, and always will be, an Air Force brat.

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