On this day in 1799, Patrick Henry, the first post-colonial governor of Virginia and, for a time, an outspoken critic of the federal government, died at Red Hill, his 520-acre plantation near Brookneal, Virginia, in Charlotte County. He was 63.
Capitalizing on his courtroom skills, Henry launched his political career in 1765 by winning a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he challenged the British Parliament’s colonial tax policies. In 1774 and 1775, he represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congresses, respectively, in Philadelphia. On the eve of the American Revolution, Henry famously proclaimed: “Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace — but there is not peace. The war is actually begun! … I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
In 1784, Henry was again elected governor of Virginia and served until 1786. He declined to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, reputedly saying that he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”
Henry sought to sway his fellow Virginians against ratifying the U.S. Constitution. He nearly succeeded, arguing that it gave away too much power to the federal government. Once it passed, however, he was instrumental in attaching the Bill of Rights to the founding document.
President George Washington offered him multiple posts, including secretary of state, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and minister to Spain. Henry turned them all down.
In the wake of the French Revolution, which took a radical turn, Henry, fearing a similar fate could befall the new republic, which was beginning to experience popular unrest, altered his views and became a Federalist. He supported the policies of Washington and John Adams and denounced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, which argued that states had the right to nullify federal laws that they regarded as unconstitutional.
As historian Richard Beeman noted in a 1974 biography, Henry was a man who “did not bother to write much of anything down.” The lack of primary source materials regarding Henry — only a handful of papers and a few of his speeches survive — has frustrated Henry’s biographers.
Two years before publishing his biography of Henry in 1817, William Wirt (1772-1834), a historian who also served as a U.S. attorney general, commented, “It is all speaking, speaking, speaking. ‘Tis true he could talk — Gods! how he could talk! but … to make the matter worse, from 1763 to 1789 … not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory.”
For his part, Beeman wrote that “the revolutionary firebrand, whatever his achievements, possessed a miserable sense of history.” By contrast, Beeman noted, Thomas Jefferson, who survived Henry by a quarter century, got to fill the paucity of historical information about Henry with his own largely negative recollections and opinions.