Patrick Henry: “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!”



Patrick Henry, American Founding Father and first and sixth Governor of Virginia, is best known for his “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. Along with many other Founding Fathers such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, Henry was a strong believer and advocate of Republican values.

On May 29, 1736, Patrick Henry was born to John Henry and Sarah Winston Syme at Studley, his family’s farm, located in Hanover County, Virginia. Henry was the second oldest of the nine children born to the couple. After attending schools in the area for a few years, his father tutored him. He was also skilled at playing the fiddle and described to be a “musical child”. When Henry was fifteen he ran a short-lived business for his father.

At sixteen, the young Sarah Shelton married Patrick Henry, who was about seventeen/eighteen, at her family home in Hanover County, Rural Plains. Sarah’s father, John Armistead Shelton, gave the newlyweds a gift of six slaves and and Pine Slash Farm, a three-hundred acre farm. For three years, Henry worked with his slaves by planting tobacco. However, the house burned down in 1757. With their two eldest children, Martha “Patsy” and John, they lived in a small cottage for awhile before moving into a tavern owned by Sarah’s father. In 1764, Henry began his career as a layer and they sold Pine Slash. In 1771, the Henrys moved to Scotchtown Plantation Hanover County with their six children: Martha “Patsy” (1755), John (1757), William (1763), Anne (1767), Elizabeth “Betsy” (1769), and Edward “Neddie” (1771).

However, Sarah began showing symptoms of mental illness after moving into their new home. Henry had been recommended to move her into a hospital, but was appalled by the facilities. Instead, Henry had a private apartment built for his wife in the basement of their Scotchtown home. He made sure that his wife was always properly cared for during her time of illness. In 1775, Sarah died and was buried at their home with a lilac tree planted beside the grave.

Henry (forty-one) would go onto marry the young Dorothea Dandridge (twenty-two) on October 25, 1777. They moved to Williamsburg, Virginia a year after their marriage. The couple had eleven children: Sarah Butler (1780), Martha Catherina (1781), Patrick Jr. (1783), Fayette (1785), Alexander Spotswood (1788), Dorothea Spotswood (1788), Nathaniel West (1790), Richard (1792, died the following year), Edward Winston (1794), John (1796), and Jane Robertson Henry (1788, did not survive infancy).



From Louisa County, Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1765. He introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions just over a week after being sworn in. Many called it an act of treason because of the extreme language. His proposals were eventually passed through after waiting for when some of the most conservative members were not in attendance. At that point in American history, it was the most anti-British act passed.

Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry all helped to lead the Virginia House of Burgesses to adopting a resolution for a standing committee of correspondence. New York and Boston had previously done so, but all of the colonies did so when Virginia had proposed they all do for intercolonial correspondence. Because of this, the First Continental Congress was formed in 1774. Henry was elected as a Virginian delegate. During his time in the House of Burgesses though, Henry made the famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech that made history.

Henry was commissioned to the 1st Virginia Regiment in August of 1775 as a colonel. He led his small militia in the “Gunpowder Incident” where they tried to remove gunpowder from the hands of Royal Governor Lord Dunmore. That November, Henry was also elected as a founding trustee of Hampden-Sydney College along with James Madison,

In 1776, Henry became Virginia’s first governor post-colonies. At the time, one term lasted a year and he could be elected three times in a row before taking a break for four years. Henry was elected twice more until 1779. While governor, the Virginia militia led many expeditions against the Cherokees, an ally of Britain.

After serving as governor for three years, Henry moved with his family to Leatherwood Plantation located in Henry County, Virginia. The plantation was ten-thousand acres. His cousin, Ann Winston Carr, and her husband, Col. George Waller, owned the property with the Henrys. Martha (Henry’s eldest from his first marriage) and her husband John Fontaine lived on the property as well. Between the three men, there were one-hundred slaves (Henry had sixty-four and both Waller and Fontaine had eighteen) on the property where they grew tobacco. Despite owning many, Henry claimed that slavery was wrong and immoral.

Henry served in the Virginia Assembly while residing at the plantation until he was reelected as governor in 1784. While Henry was in Richmond, Martha and her husband managed the plantation.

Twice more, Henry was reelected as governor and served until 1876. He decided not to serve another term in 1787 so he could attend the Constitutional Convention. Henry had firm beliefs in state rights, and argued against the constitution, becoming an enemy and opponent of James Madison. After spending time at the convention arguing against the constitution, Henry became a supporter of the Bill of Rights because of his beliefs of individual rights. He still did not believe the federal government should be given as much power as it was though. Also, Henry was one of nine men from Campbell County elected as a presidential elector for the first election.

After spending time in politics for many years, henry retired to his Red Hill plantation with his wife Dorothea. Hearing about what was going on in France, Henry began to fear the same would happen in America. He declined many positions President George Washington offered and spoke for the Federalist Party in campaigning for John Marshall. President John Adams offered to make Henry a special emissary to France in 1789. However, Henry’s health had been failing, and he declined the offer. After Washington had spent some time urging Henry to join the Virginia House of Delegates as a federalist, Henry finally decided to, and was elected.

Patrick Henry was three months away from taking his new seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, when he died of stomach cancer on June 6, 1799. In his will, Henry passed his slaves along to many relatives. Dorothea was given the power to even free any f them if she wished. She would eventually remarry his cousin.