How Patrick Henry got his start

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

William Lecky explains how Patrick Henry got his start, in Colonial Virginia:

A large number of the planters appear to have been warmly attached to England, but much discontent was produced by the interference of the mother country in the quarrel, to which I have already referred, between the laity and the clergy of this State. The sixty or seventy clergymen of the Established Church received, in addition to a house and to some glebe lands, an annual stipend in the form of tobacco, which was delivered to them packed in hogsheads for exportation at the nearest warehouse. In a year when the tobacco crop failed, the Assembly passed a law obliging the clergy to receive their stipends in money instead of tobacco, and enforced it without waiting for the royal assent. The clergy complained that no allowance having been made for the low price of tobacco in good years, it was unfair that they should be deprived of the benefit of its high price in a bad year, and they sent over an agent to England and induced the English Government to disallow the law. Actions were brought by the clergy to recover the sums out of which they had been defrauded, but although the law was indisputably on their side they found it impossible to obtain verdicts from Virginian juries.

It was in pleading against them that Patrick Henry, the greatest of American orators, first exhibited his eloquence and his antipathy to England. He had been successively a storekeeper, a farmer, and a shopkeeper, but had failed in all these pursuits, had become bankrupt, and at last, with a very tarnished reputation, had entered the law courts, where he soon displayed a power of popular eloquence which had never yet been equalled, or perhaps approached, in America. He openly told the juries that the act of the English Government in disallowing the proceedings of the Virginian Assembly was an instance of tyranny and misgovermnent that dissolved the political compact, and speaking in a popular cause he created so fierce a spirit in the colony that the clergy gave up all attempts to obtain what was due to them.

Leave a Reply