Patrick Henry was an early friend and companion of Thomas Jefferson. He was a jovial young fellow noted for mimicry, practical jokes, fiddling and dancing. Jefferson’s holidays were sometimes spent with Henry, and the two together would go off on hunting excursions of which each was passionately fond. Both were swift of foot and sound of wind.
Deer, turkey, foxes and other game were eagerly pursued. Jefferson looked upon Patrick Henry as the moving spirit of all the fun of the younger circle, and had not the faintest idea of the wonderful talents that lay latent in his companion’s mind.See also: Patrick Henry may well be proved a Prophet as well as a Statesman
And, Henry too, did not see in the slender, freckled, sandy-haired Jefferson, the coming man who was to be united with him in some of the most stirring and important events in American history.
Jefferson did not realize that this rustic youngster, careless of dress, and apparently thoughtless in manner, and sometimes, to all appearance, so unconcerned that he was taken by some to be an idiot, was to be the flaming .tongue of a coming Revolution. Henry did not dream that this fiddling boy, Jefferson, was to be the potent pen of a Declaration which was to emancipate a hemisphere.
One day in 176o, just after Jefferson had entered upon his college studies at Williamsburg, Henry came to his room to tell him,that since their parting of a few months before, after the Christmas holidays, he had studied law, and had come to Williamsburg to get a license to practice. The fact was he had studied law but six weeks, and yet felt himself able to pass the examination. The examination was conducted by four examiners. Three of them signed the license. The fourth, George Wythe, refused his signature. But Henry was now duly admitted to the bar. He went back, however, to assist his father-in-law, Mr. Shelton, in tending his tavern, and for four years, practicing occasionally, he waited his time.
In May, 1765, Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses which met at Williamsburg. While in attendance as a member Henry was the guest of young Jefferson. Henry presented a rustic appearance. His dress was coarse and worn. His fame had not become fully known at Williamsburg, “and he moved about the streets unrecognized though not unmarked. The very oddity of his appearance provoked comment.”
In the Assembly were some of the most brilliant and distinguished men in the Colony. Among them were Peyton Randolph, George Wythe, John Robinson, Richard Henry Lee, and Edmund Pendleton.
Dignified manners prevailed among the members. An elaborate and formal courtesy characterized them in their proceedings. They were polished and aristocratic men, not specially interested in the welfare of the common people. They were strongly desirous of perpetuating the class distinctions observed in Virginia society. A very marked contrast was apparent between them and the tall, gaunt, coarse-attired, unpolished member from Louisa.
Not being personally known to the majority of the House, little notice was taken of him, and no expectations of any particular influence to be exercised by him upon its deliberations were expected. When the news of the passage of the Stamp Act reached the assembly, amazement and indignation were felt by the Royalist leaders, at the folly of the English ministry. But there seemed no way before them but submission to the Imperial decree. But Henry saw that the hour had come for meeting the issue between the King and the Colonies.The Greatest Speech in American History (Give me Liberty or Give me Death)
He rose in his seat and offered his famous Five Resolutions, which in substance declared that Englishmen living in America had all the rights of Englishmen living in England, and that all attempts to impose taxes upon them without the consent of their own representatives, had “a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.”
These resolutions provoked an animated and exciting debate. There is a strong probability that Jefferson knew the intentions of Henry, for he was present on that ever memorable occasion in the House.
No provision was made in the Assembly chamber for spectators. There was no gallery from which they could look down upon the contestants. In the doorway between the lobby and the chamber Jefferson took his stand, intently watching Henry’s attitude and actions.
In a hesitating way, stammering in his utterances, he began reading his Resolutions. Then followed the opening sentences of the magnificent oration of this “Demosthenes of the woods,” as Byron termed him.
No promise did they give of what was to follow. Very soon the transformation came. Jefferson saw him draw himself to his full height and sweep with a conqueror’s gaze the entire audience before and about him.
No impediment now; no inarticulate utterances now. With a voice rich and full, and musical, he poured out his impassioned plea for the liberties of the people. Then soaring to one of his boldest flights, he cried out in electric tones:
“Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third ______.” The Speaker sprang to his feet, crying, “Treason! treason!” The whole assembly was in an uproar, shouting with the Speaker, “Treason! treason!” Not only the royalists, but others who were thoroughly alarmed by the orator’s audacious words, joined in the cry. But never for a moment did Henry flinch. Fixing his eye upon the Speaker, and throwing his arm forward from his dilating form, as though to hurl the words with the power of a thunderbolt, he added in a tone none but he himself could command,______ “May profit by their example.”
Then, with a defiant look around the room, he said, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Fifty-nine years afterwards Jefferson continued to speak of that great occasion with unabated enthusiasm. He narrated anew the stirring scenes when the shouts of “treason, treason,” echoed through the Hall.
In his record of the debate which followed the speech of Henry he described it as “most bloody.” The arguments against the resolutions, he said were swept away by the “torrents of sublime eloquence” from the lips of Patrick Henry. With breathless interest, Jefferson, standing in the doorway, watched the taking of the vote on the last resolution. It was upon this resolution that the battle had been waged the hottest. It was carried by a majority of a single vote. When the result was announced, Peyton Randolph, the King’s Attorney General, brushed by Jefferson, in going out of the House, exclaiming bitterly with an oath as he went, “I would have given five hundred guineas for a single vote.”
The next day, in the absence of the mighty orator, the timid Assembly expunged the fifth resolution and modified the others. The Governor, however, dissolved the House for daring to pass at all the resolutions. But he could not dissolve the spirit of Henry nor the magical effect of the resolutions which had been offered. By his intrepid action Henry took the leadership of the Assembly out of the hands which hitherto had controlled it.
The resolutions as originally passed were sent to Philadelphia. There they were printed, and from that center of energetic action were widely circulated throughout the Colonies. The heart of Samuel Adams and the Boston patriots were filled with an unspeakable joy as they read them. The drooping spirits of the people were revived and the doom of the Stamp Act was sealed.
In 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets and broadsides, all kinds of legal documents, insurance policies, ship’s papers, licenses, dice and playing cards. This led to widespread protest in the American colonies, and to the slogan, “No taxation without representation!”
The Virginia legislature did not actually adopt the fifth and sixth resolves, which were seen as quite radical, but this document, including all six resolves, was published widely in newspapers across the colonies. Therefore, colonists were exposed to Henry’s radical ideas, and this document served as influential propaganda for the cause. Eight other colonies followed suit and had adopted similar resolves by the end of 1765.
The cry of “treason” in the Assembly of Virginia, although followed by the strong remonstrance of the burgesses, was a manifestation of the desire which then almost universally prevailed amongst the colonists to regard themselves as bound in allegiance to the British crown. It was a result, of that system of parliamentary corruption and of court influence which at that time entered so largely into the government of England
Virginia Resolves. On May 30, 1765, the House of Burgesses of Virginia came to the following resolutions:
Whereas the honorable House of Commons in England have late drawn into question how far the general assembly of this colony has power to enact laws for laying taxes and imposing duties payable to the pope of this his majesty’s most ancient colony — For settling and ascertaining the same to all future times, the House of Burgesses of this present general assembly have come to the several following resolutions:
Resolved, that the first adventurers and settlers of His Majesty’s colony and dominion of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity, and all other His Majesty’s subjects since inhabiting in this His Majesty’s said colony, all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.
Resolved, that by two royal charters, granted by King James I, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.
Resolved, that the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burdensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Resolved, that His Majesty’s liege people of this his most ancient and loyal colony have without interruption enjoyed the inestimable right of being governed by such laws, respecting their internal policy and taxation, as are derived from their own consent, with the approbation of their sovereign, or his substitute; and that the same has never been forfeited or yielded up, but has been constantly recognized by the kings and people of Great Britain.
The fifth item, following, was rescinded the next day. Henry, perhaps believing that the matter would stand, had departed. The loyalist members reformed on May 31st for the purpose of removing all five resolutions, but succeeded only in removing this one. The text of it was found with Patrick Henry’s will:
Resolved, therefor that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.
The following resolves were not passed, though drawn up by the committee.They are inserted as a specimen of the first and early energies of the Old Dominion, as Virginia is often called.
Resolved, That his majesty’s liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatsoever designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the laws and ordinances of the general assembly aforesaid.
Resolved, That any person who shall by speaking or writing maintain that any person or persons other than the general assembly of this colony have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation whatsoever on the people here shall be deemed an enemy to this his majesty’s colony.
Version published widely in newspapers, with additional resolution. There were also some variations from publication to publication:
Resolved, That the first adventurers and settlers of this His Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia brought with them, and transmitted to their posterity, and all other of His Majesty’s subjects since inhabiting this His Majesty’s said Colony, all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities, that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the people of Great Britain.
Resolved, That by two royal charters, granted by King James the First, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects, to all intents and purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.
Resolved, That the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burthensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Resolved, That His Majesty’s liege people of this his most ancient and loyal Colony have without interruption enjoyed the inestimable right of being governed by such laws, respecting their internal polity and taxation, as are derived from their own consent, with the approbation of their sovereign, or his substitute; and that the same hath never been forfeited or yielded up, but hath been constantly recognized by the kings and people of Great Britain.
Resolved therefore, That the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony, and that every attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.
Resolved, That His Majesty’s liege people, the inhabitants of this Colony are not bound to yield obediance to any law or ordinance whatever, designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them other than the laws or ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.
Resolved, That any person who shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any person or persons other than the General Assembly of this Colony, have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to His Majesty’s Colony.