Patrick Henry was a man who was one of the most eloquent orators at the time of the American War for Independence. In his youth, “He was 'thoughtful,' 'mild,' 'benevolent,' 'humane.'”1 When he was young he certainly was not a model for boys with his slovenly dress and slothfulness, but when he was old he was one of the fire brands in the American War for Independence. Three of the most important things he did were, his speech at the Continental Congress, his presence at the Convention, and his criticism of the Constitution of the United States.
The first of his acts that we will discuss is his celebrated speech in St. Johns Church on the 23rd of March, 1775. This is what Patrick Henry himself said about it, “My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled, and at last I spake with my tongue.”2 In this speech he explained that if the people of America did not want to be slaves they would have to fight the British and drive them out. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God!”3 These were Patrick Henry's words about what he thought that the colonists should do. After his speech, “No applause followed. For some seconds there was silence. Henry's former opponents were dumb; and they were without the wish to be otherwise than dumb.”4 They did not have an answer for what he had said. He inspired many people with this burst of fire from his mouth. “The war is inevitable. And let it come! I repeat it, sir; let it come!”5 These were the words that he spoke about what he thought about the war. He did not think it could be avoided without going into complete slavery. He spoke about those who wanted to wait, “They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction?”6 He thought that if America was going to be a free people they had to fight then or she would never have another chance at liberty. “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery.”7 He said that the only things to do other than fighting and slavery were only illusions of hope. He said that, “I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British Ministry, for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.”8
Another of his important contributions was his presence and his eloquence at the convention. Henry was one of the main contributors in writing the Declaration of Independence, and he was very helpful. Before the Declaration of Independence almost everyone realized the need for one, and Henry saw it too. Henry saw, “that the work of the Convention was to be constructive, and that the unity of the action was a prerequisite to success. To him the Committee of Safety was a failure. Better government was needed.”9 The man appointed to be the president of the convention was one of Henry’s enemies, and he did not fight back for this reason. He believed that the unity of the convention was more important than his beliefs. He knew that the country needed a government, and he also knew that it could not happen in disunity of the makers. “Then, in the Committee of the Whole, at Henry’s request, General Thomas Nelson introduced some ‘rough resolutions’ (still preserved, in Henry’s handwriting enjoining the Virginia delegates in Congress ‘to procure an immediate, clear, and full Declaration of Independence’”10 “‘The party of Henry’ was never better led than now. It cooperated with Pendleton in all pressing matters, and did not raise its voice for independence until the 14th of May, when the delegates were free to give the measure their full and solemn consideration.”11 He was not only helpful in the writing of the Declaration of Independence but also in the writing of the Constitution of the United States.
The next thing important Henry did was his criticism of the Constitution of the United States. “Nor should we forget that Henry’s hostility to the Federal Constitution served a beneficial purpose. It was necessary to put the new instrument through fire in order to test it and temper it. Henry certainly put it through fire. Not only that, he forced the adoption of the first ten amendments, and so, practically, was one of the great makers of the Constitution.”12 Henry was not for the Constitution, and he fought against it, but in the end he was for the Constitution, because it needed to have the dross removed. He did not want a Constitution, so he fought against it, which in the end helped what he had been fighting against. Henry, in looking at the Constitution thought that the government would swallow up all of the state’s rights, which it did at the time of the Civil War. What he feared has happened, a government which is too big. He thought that the Constitution gave the federal government too much power, so they could do anything. What Henry feared has happened, even though he thought it would come through obedience to the Constitution, but it actually came through the breaking of the Constitution.
Here we have a discussion of how his speech at the Continental Congress, his presence at the Convention, and Henry's criticism of the Constitution Of the United States are the most important things he did in his life towards the making of The United States of America. It is hard to say which is the most important of his actions because they all have good things which resulted from them. His speech could easily be said of that it was the most important because it lit up the American War for Independence. But truly, it was only a spark to what was already there. He was one of the important men of the American War for Independence for this, but he probably is not the most important. His criticism of the Constitution, and his work on the Declaration of Independence were important, but not quite as important as his speech.
1Gorge Morgan, The True Patrick Henry, 1st ed. (Virginia: American Foundation Publications) p.25
2 As quoted in Ibid, p. 189
3As quoted in Ibid, p. 191
4Ibid, p. 191
5As quoted in Ibid, p. 191
6As quoted in Ibid, p. 191
7As quoted in Ibid, p. 191
8As quoted in Ibid, p. 189-90
9Ibid, p. 257
10Ibid, p. 258
11Ibid, p. 258
12Ibid, p. 329