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The Life of Patrick Henry, His Famous Speech and the Book about Him

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Becoming a Lawyer

I chose Patrick Henry mainly because I presented a portion of arguably his most famous speech for the Walk Through the American Revolution in fifth grade. In this oration, the very enraged manner of Patrick Henry was exhibited. I assumed this meant he was a very opinionated man who would have led an entertaining life, thus I chose him again for this Alter Ego project. Patrick Henry was born on May 29th, 1736 and was assertive from a young age, valuing liberty and freedom almost excessively. Living in Hanover County, Virginia, he learned many wilderness skills and embraced the lifestyle of independence, far from societal restraints. In 1752, he and his brother opened a store, only for it to fail approximately one year later. In the next year, he married sixteen year old Sarah Shelton at age eighteen and began to farm. However, once his agricultural lifestyle failed miserably, he tried to make another store to support his growing family. Throughout his life, his family would increase rapidly, adding up to two wives, Sarah Shelton and Dorothea Dandridge, seventeen children, and seventy-seven grandchildren. Paralleling his previous attempt, the store once again failed. He transitioned to law, where he finally passed the exams and became a lawyer in 1760. He gained fame for being a powerful speaker and an excellent lawyer after his first case, The Parson’s Cause, which acted as a stepping stone for his future of defending the people and their rights.

Liberty or Death

Although not remembered as much as he should be, Patrick Henry had a number of experiences that were important to both his personal life and America. As mentioned, the Parson’s Cause case boosted Henry’s popularity wildly, leading to a quick ascension of fame and a now developed reputation of being a master orator. Two years after his monumental win for the Parson’s Cause, he was granted a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which was essentially the Virginian legislative before the Revolution. There, he presented one of his most famous speeches, in which he introduced resolutions against the Stamp Act. On May 29th of 1765, Henry declared that, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third… may profit from their example! If this be treason, make the most of it!” Other members of the House cried out that what Henry had said was treachery against the crown. Henry was one of the first of Americans to introduce the idea of complete liberty, something many considered to be unthinkable before the Revolution began. His controversial statements were printed and distributed across the colonies. With this new mentality implemented into American minds, desire for freedom grew, leading to the eventual eruption of Patriots fighting for the very proposition they declared treacherous a few months before. With his character often being described as an opponent to tyranny, he was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774. With his convincing arguments against the British, it is very likely he was vital in getting influential Americans to support the Revolution. Unfortunately, during Henry’s increased involvement in politics, he came home less often, throwing his wife Sarah in a depression whilst dealing with all their six children alone. It is assumed that she killed herself due to her condition, dying in 1775. Henry, miserable because of the passing, began throwing himself into political events, leading to his most famous speech on March 23, 1775. The members of the Second Virginia Convention were optimistic, hoping for peace, but not Henry. He spoke about the crimes the monarchy had done against American rights, and blatantly suggested declaring war on Britain. He ended said speech with his seven most significant words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” News of his statements echoed across the nation, becoming not only a message to the Americans, but a slogan for the Revolution.

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Later Life

Soon after, Henry was chosen as commander of the Virginian forces, but due to his inferior military experience, he was not very sufficient in this position and ended up resigning in 1776. During the Virginia Convention of that year, he helped write the draft for the state constitution. He was also elected as the first governor of Virginia, holding office for two more years due to re-election. As governor, he led the war effort, sending troops to various colonies. Furthermore, he constantly gave supplies and support to his close friend, commander of the Continental Army George Washington. During these years, his help pushed the war forwards, and without him it is possible that the American forces could have lost. In 1777, forty-one year old Patrick Henry married eighteen year old Dorothea Dandridge, whom Henry’s son had also fancied. The pair would have eleven children together, Henry wanting to increase the population to have more volunteers in war. He had retired briefly on his estate, but was called back into political action as a main member of the state legislature from 1780 to 1790. In 1784, Henry once again became governor. He did not attend the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, an unfortunate decision as he had no input on the Constitution, and thus was dissatisfied with how the document created such a strong national government without regarding citizen rights. Had he gone, the Constitution may have ended up a completely different paper. Anti-Federalist papers began to appear in many newspapers, criticizing the overpowered government, many of which were written by Henry himself. Because of the outspoken comments on the imperfections of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights were created, a list of American citizen rights. He was heavily against ratification of the document and demanded a decrease in federal government powers, but because he had not attended the Constitutional Convention, he was not up to date on much of the political realm, thus fell short in his proclamations, resulting in the eventual thirteen state ratification of the Constitution. During this time however, he began to go back to law practice, quitting any political involvement in 1791 to fully focus on law in order to support his large family. With his son-in-law’s death, he took in his daughter and grandchildren, in addition to his ten children he currently had with Dorothea. From 1794 to 1796, Henry turned down a multitude of governmental appointments, including the position of U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. However, due to the disunion caused by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, he ran for a seat in the state legislature in 1799. However, he died on June 6th, 1799 before he could take the position and was buried at his home at Red Hill. Because all I knew about Patrick Henry was his Virginia Convention speech, much of this information was new to me.

Legacy

Despite not being a household name in American history like Washington or Jefferson, Patrick Henry was still an essential component to the founding of this beloved country. Being a Founding Father is already more than enough reason for a person to write a biography about him. Furthermore, Henry was one of the biggest sparks igniting the flame of the Revolution and single-handedly convinced hundreds of others to join the cause with his astounding speeches. While some of his phrases are remembered, he was so much more than a few impactful words. He was a man whose ideologies of liberty encapsulated the ideas of America, even if it was at some times extreme. He was one of the first to declare that Britain was ignoring the rights of Americans, and acted as a major supporter of the war, supplying the army with necessities and soldiers. Because of his work, Americans now live in a democracy and have their rights protected with the amendments. His story deserved to be spread because even with all the aid he provided to the founding of America, he remains underappreciated to this day. The incomprehensible work he did for the nation should have been acknowledged, and through a written biography, this task would be achieved.

The Biography

The book I chose was Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation by Harlow Giles Unger, and at the very least it was a sufficient biography. Potential criticisms could be that there are parts in which Henry was hardly or not even involved in, but this relates to the nation part of the book. Even so, he remains the focus of the chapters, and all the sections that he was not specifically involved in were crucial events from the Revolution or the founding of America, also helping thread in the events Henry was a part of. While the book was somewhat mundane, because I find real life to be boring, I would have ultimately considered any novel from the biography genre to be stale. The novel also avoids the basic format expected in a book that informs readers of a person’s life. It allows for a much more interesting read compared to many other typical biographies because not only did the book present the story of Henry’s life in a unique manner, but it added a flurry of descriptions to increase the suspense and excitement of otherwise lackluster scenes. These adjectives also helped in portraying more vivid scenes in reader’s mind. The language was very advanced, allowing for words to have the correct connotation in each sentence. Also provided early on is a chronological timeline of the main chapter events in case the book ever got too confusing. The constant integration of direct quotes ensured the novel was as accurate as possible, while allowing for some explication and further evaluation from the author. Overall, Lion of Liberty presented the life of Patrick Henry and the forming of the United States in a somewhat engrossing and very sophisticated reading that a person of any age should be able to enjoy.

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