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Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry portrait

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

  • Born May 29, 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia
  • Protested British tyranny
  • Symbol of American struggle for liberty
  • Served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress
  • Five-term governor of Virginia
  • Delivered the famous "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech. Listen to the speech.
  • Commissioned as Colonel of the First Virginia regiment on August 26, 1775
  • Died June 6, 1799 at Red Hill Plantation, Virginia

Early Years

Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1736, to John and Sarah Winston Henry. A symbol of America's struggle for liberty and self-government, Patrick Henry was a lawyer, patriot, orator, and willing participant in virtually every aspect of the founding of America. Henry married Sarah Shelton in 1754, and after Sarah’s death, wed Dorothea Dandridge in 1777. With his two wives, he fathered seventeen children.

John Henry, who had attended King's College, University of Aberdeen, educated young Patrick at home, including teaching him to read Latin, but Patrick studied law on his own. In 1760, he appeared in Williamsburg to take his attorney's examination before Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, John and Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe, and from that day forward, Patrick Henry's story is inseparable from the stream of Virginia history.

Powerful words resonated

In 1763, arguing the famed “Parson's Cause” case in Hanover County, Patrick Henry proclaimed that a king who would veto a good and necessary law made by a locally elected representative body was not “the father to his people” but "a Tyrant, and forfeits the allegiance of his subjects." Henry amplified his idea to the point of treason in defending his resolutions against the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses May 30, 1765.

Carried away by the fervor of his own argument, the plainly dressed burgess from Louisa County exclaimed that "Caesar had his Brutus —Charles the First, his Cromwell — and George the Third — " At this point, cries of treason rose from all sides, but with hardly a pause, Henry neatly "baffled the charge vociferated" and won the burgesses for his cause. Five of his resolutions approved, the new leader in Virginia politics saddled his lean horse and took the westward road out of Williamsburg. (After his departure, one of the resolutions was overturned.) Henceforth, Patrick Henry was a leader in every protest against British tyranny and in every movement for colonial rights.

Richard Shumann portrays Patrick Henry

Richard Schumann portrays Patrick Henry.

Richard Shumann portrays Patrick Henry

Richard Schumann portrays Patrick Henry.

Strong believer in citizens' right to bear arms

In March 1775, Patrick Henry urged his fellow Virginians to arm in self-defense, closing his appeal (uttered at St. John's Church in Richmond, where the legislature was meeting) with the immortal words: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death."

Actions marked the beginning of revolution in Virginia

Henry's call to arms was carried over the protests of more conservative patriots and was one of the causes of the order for Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, to remove some gunpowder from the Magazine. Henry, "a Quaker in religion but the very devil in politics," mobilized the militia to force restitution of the powder. Since Henry's action followed the British march on Concord by only a few hours, it is said to mark the beginning of the American Revolution in Virginia.

Served in public office for nearly 30 years

Henry served in the Virginia House of Burgesses; he was a member of the Virginia committee of Correspondence, a delegate to the Virginia Convention, and a delegate to the Virginia Constitution Ratification Convention. Henry was commissioned as Colonel of the First Virginia regiment on Saturday, August 26, 1775, by the third Virginia Convention. Henry was then in Philadelphia, having been elected by the previous Virginia Convention as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He resigned his position of delegate to return to Virginia to begin organizing his regiment.

He played a prominent role in the fifth Virginia convention, which convened on May 6, 1776, and on June 29 was elected the first governor of the Commonwealth under its new constitution, adopted the same day. Patrick Henry served five terms as the first and sixth governor of Virginia. He died in 1799 at his home on Red Hill Plantation in Campbell County.

"Give me liberty..." Speech

Read the text

Richard Schumann interprets the character of Patrick Henry for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Listen as he re-creates Patrick Henry's powerful words spoken March 23, 1775 at St. John's Henrico Parish Church in Richmond.

Listen to the full speech (audio clip 7:05) Download MP3

Listen to closing remarks leading to "Give me liberty or give me death." (audio clip 2:35) Download MP3

For further reading: