Give me liberty….

Recently, on a trip to a conference at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia my travel companion and I stopped at Red Hill the final home and resting place of Patrick Henry, now a national memorial to this man called “Voice of the American Revolution.” Here in 1790 Henry retired from an illustrious career in politics serving the State of Virginia in the colonial cause to break from British rule. He continued his law practice until June 6, 1799 when he died and was buried at Red Hill.

On June 14, 1799 a writer at the Virginia Gazette described why he was so important and revered in the American State’s cause to be free of tyrannical government:

Of the many Americans who were active in the American Revolution at the state level and who generally opposed ratification of the Federal Constitution, Patrick Henry was one of the few who rank among the truly major figures of American history. Unlike most of America’s political heroes, Henry never held high national office. By his oratorical prowess and his unfailing empathy with his constituents and their interests, Henry made the Revolution a more widely popular movement than it might otherwise have become. He explained the revolution to ordinary men and women in words they understood. As an eloquent spokesman for American liberty, Henry also expressed a distrust of centralized political authority that remains a persistent theme in American political culture.

Indeed, Patrick Henry was that and more. His distrust of central government power led him to become a prominent spokesman for the Anti-Federalists that included Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. All parties to the proposition that when government becomes destructive to life, liberty and property “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it” did not agree on how that should be done—true today as in their time.

Prior to the full-blown war with Great Britain, Henry was one of seven Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774. There he announced that: “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more.” In his dramatic style to rally the States Henry declared, “I am not a Virginian, but an American.” But after the second Congress adjourned in 1775, Henry returned to Virginia and never again engaged in national politics—he may have talked about being an “American,” but his heart and loyalties were with his home State of Virginia.

Patrick Henry organized a volunteer militia company in Hanover County. He was also a prominent leader in the second Virginia convention held at Richmond in March 1775. Here he delivered the “legendary… Give me liberty, or give me death,” speech.

Henry was elected to Virginia’s last revolutionary convention held in Williamsburg in May 1776. According to a “Biography of Patrick Henry” published by the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial, “During the next two months the Virginians instructed their delegates at the Continental Congress to declare independence; wrote a new constitution for the state, and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights”—a precursor of the federal Bill of Rights. Virginia adopted its State constitution in June 1776.

Patrick Henry was the first elected governor of Virginia and served three terms from July 1776 to June 1779. During this time “Henry worked closely with George Washington to raise and equip soldiers who won American independence.”

In 1787, Henry’s revolutionary hero, George Washington, sent him a copy of the newly drafted federal constitution with a personal letter supporting it. Henry replied that he could not bring his “Mind to accord” with the proposed document. In fact, he wrote that his negative feelings about it were “greater than I am able to express.” His views threatened ratification by Virginia.

Henry objected to the new Constitution as a delegate to the State ratification convention held at Richmond in 1788. He feared a “consolidated government” that could overpower the authority of the States. He described it as, “extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous…a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain.”

He strongly believed that individual liberties and Virginia’s interests were threatened by the document as written. Virginians ratified the original document by only ten votes: 89 to79. Soon after ratification Henry led a majority of Anti-Federalists in the Virginia General Assembly that forced a second national convention to amend the Federalist Constitution thus, giving us the first ten amendments we call our Bill of Rights.

With his last will Henry left a prescient message to future generations: Whether America’s independence “will prove a Blessing or a Curse,” he wrote “will depend on the Use our people make of the Blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary Character, they will be miserable.”

This and much more information about Patrick Henry’s early life, his family and the amazing role he played in American revolutionary history is presented in the Biography of Patrick Henry available online at http://www.redhill.org/biography.html#constitution

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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