Page images

PATRICK HENRY (1736–1799)


ET us view a great historical picture. Its scene is the Assembly L hall of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, its date the year 1765, its occasion the effort of the King and Parliament of England to tax the American colonies without their consent. The Burgesses had met in protest and talked weakly about the Stamp Act, which was stirring up America to its depths, but were on the point of adjourning without taking any action, when a tall and slender man whom few of them knew arose in their midst. It was a new member, a lawyer from Louisa County, Patrick II enry by name. The old and influential members looked with displeasure on the raw newcomer, who ventured to address them on a topic which they had feared to deal with themselves. They were the more annoyed and amazed when he offered a set of resolutions setting forth that the Stamp Act and all acts of Parliament affecting the Colonies were contrary to the Constitution, and therefore null and void, and that the Burgesses and Governor alone had the right to levy taxes upon the people of Virginia.

This daring declaration startled the more timid members and a storm of protests arose, but they failed to silence the young orator, who quickly showed himself master of the situation. Never had the old walls of Virginia's legislative hall rung with such mighty words as those by which he supported his resolution, and his address ended with a thunderbolt of defiant eloquence that startled the world. His vibrant voice rang out with “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third”—Loud cries of “Treason | Treason '" from the frightened Burgesses interrupted the speaker. Heedless of them he completed his sentence, “MAY PROFIT BY THEIR EXAMPLE.


If this be treason, make the most of it.” His words carried the hall by storm; the resolutions were adopted; and from that day to this Patrick Henry has been hailed as one of the greatest of American orators. Henry was sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress, which he electrified with his noble oratory. During most of the Revolution he was Governor of Virginia and again from 1784 to 1786, poverty forcing him to decline other elections and return to his legal practice. In 1788 he opposed the new Constitution, being a strong advocate of State independence. His speeches in this cause were very eloquent, but the Constitution was adopted. In 1795 President Washington offered him the position of Secretary of State, which he declined. The following year he was again elected Governor of Virginia, which position he also declined. During the exciting events of 1798 and 1799 he once more entered the political field, made his final public address, and was elected to the Assembly. He died before he could take his seat.


[As Patrick Henry had hurled the first defiance against Great, Britain in 1765, he was the first to make an open appeal to arms in 1775. This was on March 23d, three weeks before the fight at Lexington precipitated the Revolution. Henry had returned from the Continental Congress and was now a member of the Virginia Convention, with Washington for one of his colleagues. Here he offercd a resolution that the Colony should be “put into a state of defence,” and sustained it by the most brilliant speech to which the Revolution gave rise.]

MR. PRESIDENT : No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights {and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no Ttime for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery i and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. U.Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.)

[subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][ocr errors][graphic]
[subsumed][merged small][merged small][graphic][graphic][graphic][graphic]


Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that sirear-till she transforms us into-beasts. BIs this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty 2 Are we disposed to be of the number of those, who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it. I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided ; and that is the | lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by \ the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received 2 Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Stiffer-not-yourselves-to-be-betrayed—with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation ?\ Have-we shown " illing-to-be-reconciled that force must be called in to win back-our-love? |Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission ? Can gentlemen-assign any other possi-ble-motive-for-it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them *-Shaft we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject 2 Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication ? -What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted 27 Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and

« PreviousContinue »