Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry Headshot

“… you… may know him by this description as being all tongue without either head or heart.” (1782, Thomas Jefferson)

“… he had a wonderful effect upon the feelings of his audience.” (1817, Spencer Roane)

Biographical Information

Born “Studley,” Hanover Co. Farmer and storekeeper until 1760, when admitted to Virginia bar. Represented Louisa Co., 1765-68, and Hanover Co., 1769-76, in House of Burgesses; Hanover Co. in revolutionary conventions, 1774-76; Henry Co., 1780-84, and Prince Edward Co., 1787-91, in House of Delegates. Delegate to Congress, 1774-75. Commander, Virginia forces, 1775-76. Governor, 1776-79, 1784-86 (did not seek reelection in 1786). Declined appointment to the Constitutional Convention, 1787. Led opposition to the Constitution in Virginia. Represented Prince Edward Co. in state Convention, voted against ratification, 1788. Retired from public life, 1791. Moved to “Red Hill,” Charlotte Co., in 1796. Declined appointments as U.S. Senator, 1794, U.S. Secretary of State, 1795, and Chief Justice of U.S., 1796. Elected Charlotte Co. delegate to the House of Delegates in 1799, but died before taking seat.

Descriptions Patrick Henry

George Mason to Martin Cockburn, 26 May 1774

At the request of the gentlemen concerned, I have spent an evening with them upon the subject, where I had an opportunity of conversing with Mr. Henry, and knowing his sentiments; as well as hearing him speak in the house since, on different occasions. He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard. Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues, and had he lived in Rome about the time of the first Punic war, when the Roman people had arrived at their meridian glory, and their virtue not tarnished, Mr. Henry’s talents must have put him at the head of that glorious Commonwealth.

Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, 10 September 1774

Mr. Henry is also a Lawyer, and the completest Speaker I ever heard. If his future Speeches, are equal to the small Samples he had hitherto given Us, they will be worth preserving, but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his Voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his Style, & Manner.

Thomas Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 26 November 1782

I was not a little surprised however to find one person hostile to you as far as he has personal courage to show hostility to any man. Who he is you will probably have heard, or may know him by this description as being all tongue without either head or heart. In the variety of his crooked [i.e., devious or tortured] schemes however, his interests may probably veer about so as to put it in your power to be useful to him; in which case he certainly will be your friend again if you want him.

John Marshall to James Monroe, 12 December 1783

Henry retorted with a good deal of tartness but with much temper; ’tis his peculiar excellence when he altercates to appear to be drawn unwillingly into the contest & to throw in the eyes of others the whole blame on his adversary. His influence is immense.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 8 December 1784

The proposition for a Convention has had the result I expected. If one could be obtained I do not know whether it would not do more harm than good. While Mr. Henry lives another bad [Virginia] constitution would be formed, & saddled forever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death, in the mean time to keep alive the idea that the present is but an ordinance & to prepare the minds of the young men.

Edmund Randolph to James Madison, 23 October 1788

Mr. Henry, I learn, has been urged to take a seat in the [U.S.] Senate. But he refuses, being unwilling to submit to the oath.

George Washington to James Madison, 17 November 1788

The Accounts from Richmond are indeed, very unpropitious to foederal measures. The whole proceedings of the Assembly, it is said may be summed up in one word—to wit—that the Edicts of Mr. H——— are enregistered with less opposition by the Majority of that body, than those of the Grand Monarch are in the Parliaments of France. He has only to say let this be Law—and it is Law

Henry Lee to James Madison, 19 November 1788

Mr. H is absolute, & every measure succeeds, which menaces the existence of the government.

Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 12 April 1812

Mr. Henry’s ravenous avarice [was] the only passion paramount to his love of popularity.

Spencer Roane, Memorandum, Post 1817

It is to be also observed that although his language was plain, and free from unusual or high-flown words, his ideas were remarkably bold, strong, and striking. By the joint effect of these two faculties, I mean of the power of his tone of voice and the grandness of his conceptions, he had a wonderful effect upon the feelings of his audience.