Patrick Henry Research Paper

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Patrick Henry the Man Who Started the American Revolution

On December 1, 1763 a young relatively unknown lawyer stood in public for the first time and openly defended in court the rights of the American colonies to be free. He started his speech by stuttering and stammering, but that did not last long. And when he was done speaking, cries of treason went up from the crowd, however, his argument was so persuasive, that the jury sided with him on the legal case. The young lawyer's name was Patrick Henry, and while he may have started his speech roughly, by the time he had finished speaking, he had become one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. Patrick Henry is not known as a great warrior, but while he did fight a few battles with muskets and cannons, words were his most effective weapons. And his words, as well as his ability to deliver them in a persuasive manner, is what made his great. Long before others in the colonies were stating their support for independence, Patrick Henry was building the intellectual and legal foundations of the Revolution. In effect, it was Patrick Henry who started the American Revolution.

Born on May 29th 1763, Patrick Henry was the son of a Virginia planter who had emigrated from Scotland. His mother was the daughter of a prominent local family. He received most of his education from his father, who had attended King's College in Aberdeen Scotland. Henry began his career young working as a clerk for a local merchant, but when he attempted to strike out on his own, he failed. Patrick Henry opened a store with his brother that quickly closed down, but next tried his hand as a planter. When Henry was just eighteen, he married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton whose dowry included a 600 acre farm complete with a house and six slaves. ("Biography of Patrick Henry.") Within a few years the house had burned down and the farm was in financial ruin, but Henry, who was working in a tavern near a courthouse, began reading law. By 1760, "Self-taught and barely prepared, Henry persuaded the panel of distinguished Virginia attorneys…that he had the intelligence to warrant admission to the bar." ("Biography of Patrick Henry.")

After just a few short years practicing law, Patrick Henry became involved in a case that no other lawyers in the area would touch, one that became known as the "Parson's Cause" case. This case involved the Reverend James Maury who sued the colony of Virginia for 300 British Pounds. Since the Anglican Church was the official religion of the Colony of Virginia, Anglican ministers were paid by the colony. In 1748 tobacco was a common form of money and "the salary of a parson was set at 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year." ("The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763") But in 1755, and again in 1758, due to drought, the colony was forced to enact laws allowing payment in tobacco to be paid with the colony's paper money. The shortage of tobacco, brought on by the drought, had caused a shortage of tobacco and subsequently prices skyrocketed. The colony then enacted the "Two Penny Act," which set the price for payment to the clergy at two pence per pound of tobacco, even though the market price was closer to four pence per pound. In effect, the clergy were being cheated out of almost half of their wages. (Tyler, 1887, pp. 33-34)

The clergy of Virginia complained to the King of England that they were being treated unfairly by the colony and the King agreed, the clergy was allowed to sue the colony for back wages. One member of the clergy, Reverend James Maury, then sued Virginia for 300 British Pounds in back pay, and while most observers felt this was an open and shut case, and that Maury was clearly entitled to the money, Patrick Henry felt differently. When no one else would argue for the side of the Colony of Virginia, Henry stepped forward and took the case. In court he argued what was known as the "compact theory of government," or a theory that stated while the people had an obligation to obey the laws and dictates given out by the King, the King had certain obligations and responsibilities to the people. Maury himself, in a letter written shortly after the trial, complained that Henry argued that setting the price of a member of the clergy's pay at two pence per pound of tobacco "had ever characteristic of a good law, that it was a law of general utility, and could not, consistently with what he called the original compact between King and people, stipulated protection on the one hand and obedience on the other, be annuled." (Maury, 1763)

In effect, Patrick Henry argued that the law which set the price for the wages of the clergy was a "good law," enacted for the general good of all the people of the colony, and, according to the idea of the social contract between King and people, the King was not permitted to nullify this law, and allow the clergy to sue the colony for back wages. By doing so, the King had broken the contract between people and ruler, and as a result of the actions of the King, the people no longer had any obligation to obey him any longer. Patrick Henry became one of the first American colonists to argue that the people of the colonies had the right to cease their allegiance to the King, because of the tyrannical actions of the King. At the Parson's trial in 1760, fifteen years before the start of the Revolution, Henry stated that when such a thing happens, the King, "instead of being a father to his people, he degenerates into a tyrant." ("The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763- The Suit") It can be argued that this was the true beginning of the American Revolution.

And much like the accusations that would come later, many felt that Henry had spoken treason by using this argument. But the jury agreed with Henry and instead of awarding Maury the 300 British Pounds he asked for, they instead awarded him the amount of just one penny. The jury had obviously accepted with Henry's argument that there was a contract between King and people, and the King had broken it by siding with the clergy. As a result of this victory, Patrick Henry gained fame, prominence, and entered political life.

Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses where just five years later he demonstrated his feelings toward Britain and its rule of the colonies. When Britain enacted the Stamp Act in 1765, many in the colonies were incensed at being taexed. On the floor of the House of Burgesses in Virginia, Patrick Henry once again uttered what many considered to be treasonous words against the King by stating "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…" (Henry, 1765) At which point the chamber burst into chaos at his references to assassinated leaders with members shouting "treason" at Henry. But Henry quietly stood there, accepted the abuse heaped upon him, and then continued, "…may profit from their example." (Henry, 1765) For the second time Patrick Henry openly stated his belief that the King was in violation of the social contract between the King and the people, and therefore, the people were no longer obliged to accept him as their ruler. The breaking of the social contract that bound King and people would become a major argument in the colonies' bid for independence, being incorporated into many documents including the Declaration of Independence.

But before the colonies would officially declare their independence from Britain, they first met at the First Continental Congress to discuss Britain's imposition of the "Coercive Acts" upon the colony of Massachusetts. During this meeting of representatives of all of the colonies, Patrick Henry, representing Virginia, once again gave a stirring speech which summed up the feeling of the colonies toward the actions of the British. But he also encapsulated the new feeling among the colonists that they were all involved in a struggle against Britain together, and that the war against the British had already begun. His speech eloquently explained how the British were now their enemy and they were compelled to fight in order to be free from tyranny. He then concluded his speech with one of the most famous quotes in American history, stating "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty god. I know not what course others may take; but for me, give me liberty of give me death." (Henry, 1775)

Within a year the American Colonies would declare their independence from Britain when they signed the Declaration of Independence. Many of the ideals that Patrick Henry had advocated for years were incorporated into the Declaration. One…

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