He never became president, never led an army and was actually one of the opponents of the burgeoning U.S. Constitution. He didn’t write any vital documents, only held major public office after the Revolution and wasn’t very well-heeled until after the U.S. became a nation. And yet, Patrick Henry wound up being one of the most influential Founding Fathers for the United States.
Patrick Henry was most known as one of the great orators in the American colonies, and was gifted with words – whether spoken or written – were valuable weapons in drumming up the anger and visceral emotion that carried the colonists through the war for independence from the mighty British Empire. Words are great in developing emotion, and Thomas Paine was known for his written words, and Patrick Henry had a famous speech that catalyzed the bubbling revolution.
Patrick Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses through most of the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, so he was on the front lines of the various tyrannical encroachments of the Crown on the American colonies. Up until 1765, the British Empire had pretty much let the colonies run their own affairs with minimal interference, but at that time the Crown was looking to recoup some of the money that it had spent protecting the colonies during the French and Indian wars, which were fought a decade earlier.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was the start of the revolutionary fervor, as the Crown required every piece of paper in the colonies had to have a stamp on them and colonists were charged for each paper they used. Henry saw this usurpation of independence and became a vocal opponent of the Crown while serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He advocated for the colony’s continued autonomy, and things finally came to a head in 1775.
Finally, Henry moved to approve resolutions that would develop a militia in Virginia to defend the colony from the British. This is where he stood up in the legislative body and gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, which was advocating for independence for the colony and speaking out against the increasing tyrannical pressure of the Crown thousands of miles away.
The Revolution was not only fought on the battlefield, it was also fought politically, and Patrick Henry was one of the most vocal members of the Continental Congress supporting the revolution. He had other eloquent floor speeches, but the “Liberty or Death” speech was the rallying cry as a spoken inspiration, while Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet lit the fire with the written word.
After the Revolution, he served several terms as Governor of Virginia and was a key member of the Anti-Federalists when the U.S. Constitution was being debated through the colonies. Being an Anti-Federalist, he spoke out against centralized power in the proposed new federal government and protested the perceived erosion of state and individual rights in the document. His work helped lead to the adoption of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which gave states and individuals specific liberties and removed federal government interference.
This became ironic, as he eventually flipped his allegiance when Federalist John Adams was elected president in 1797, and he supported his presidency, which included the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which imposed punishments for speaking out against the federal government.
Henry retired from public service in 1794 and passed away at Red Hill Plantation in 1799 at the age of 63.