Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry

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Frontispiece from William Wirt's Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817).

William Wirt (1772 – 1834) was admitted to the bar in 1792, and began to practice law at Culpeper Courthouse (now Culpeper), Virginia, at the age of 20, residing near Charlottesville.[1] In 1799 he was elected clerk of the House of Delegates, and moved to Richmond. He was made Chancellor of the Eastern District of Virginia in 1802, and proceded to Williamsburg, where he was an "occasional attendant" of the lectures of St. George Tucker at the College of William & Mary.[2]

Wirt resigned his chancellorship after six months and in 1803 moved to Norfolk. In 1806, he returned to Richmond, where he successfully defended George Wythe Sweeney of the charge of murdering his uncle, George Wythe. In 1807, President Jefferson requested him for the prosecution of Aaron Burr for treason. In 1816, he was appointed by Madison as the United States Attorney for the District of Virginia, and in 1817, he became the ninth Attorney General of the United States by President Monroe. He was Attorney General for twelve years until 1829, through the administration of President Adams, and afterward retired to Baltimore.[3]

Wirt wrote a series of essays for the Richmond Enquirer which were published as The Rainbow (1803) and The Old Batchelor (1810). His popular "Letters of the British Spy" for the Virginia Argus were collected into book form and published in 1803. The Two Principal Arguments in the Trial of Aaron Burr was published in 1808.

Wythe makes several appearances in Wirt's Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, published in 1817, and which Wirt worked on for more than a decade.[4] Wirt says of Wythe: "He knew nothing, even in his profession, and never would know any thing of 'crooked and indirect by-ways.' Whatever he had to do, was to be done openly, avowedly and above board. He would not, even at the bar, have accepted of success on any other terms" (p. 48).

A biography of Wirt, written by John P. Kennedy, was published in 1850.[5]

Section I

Page 15

It was now, when all other experiments had failed, that, as a last effort, he determined, of his own accord, to make a trial of the law. No one expected him to succeed in any eminent degree. His unfortunate habits were, by no means, suited to so laborious a profession: and even if it were not too late in life for him to hope

Page 16

to master its learning, the situation of his affairs forbade an extensive course of reading. In addition to these obstacles, the business of the profession, in that quarter, was already in hands from which it was not easily to be taken; for (to mention no others) judge Lyons, the late president of the court of appeals, was then at the bar of Hanover and the adjacent counties, with an unrivalled reputation for legal learning; and Mr. John Lewis, a man, also, of very respectable legal attainments, occupied the whole field of forensic eloquence. Mr. Henry, himself, seems to have hoped for nothing more from the profession than a scanty subsistence for himself and his family, and his preparation was suited to these humble expectations; for to the study of a profession, which is said to require the lucubrations of twenty years, Mr. Henry devoted not more than six weeks.* On this preparation, however, he obtained a license to practise the law. How he passed with two of the examiners, I have no intelligence; but he himself used to relate his interview with the third. This was no other than Mr. John Randolph, who was afterwards the king's attorney general for the colony; a gentleman of the most courtly elegance of person and manners, a polished wit, and a profound lawyer. At first, he was so much shocked by Mr. Henry's very ungainly figure and address, that he refused to examine him: understanding, however, that he had already obtained two signatures, he entered, with manifest reluctance, on the business. A very short time was sufficient to satisfy him of the erroneous conclusion which he had drawn from the exterior of the candidate. With evident marks

* So say Mr. Jefferson and judge Winston. Mr. Pope says nine months. Col. Meredith and Capt. Dabney, six or eight months. Judge Tyler, one month; and he adds, "This I had from his own lips. In this time, he read Coke upon Littleton, and the Virginia laws."

Page 17

of increasing surprise (produced no doubt by the peculiar texture and strength of Mr. Henry's style, and the boldness and originality of his combinations) he continued the examination for several hours: interrogating the candidate, not on the principles of municipal law, in which he no doubt soon discovered his deficiency, but on the laws of nature and of nations, on the policy of the feudal system, and on general history, which last he found to be his strong hold. During the very short portion of the examination which was devoted to the common law, Mr. Randolph dissented, or affected to dissent, from one of Mr. Henry's answers, and called upon him to assign the reasons of his opinion. This produced an argument; and Mr. Randolph now played off on him, the same arts which he himself, had so often practised on his country customers; drawing him out by questions, endeavouring to puzzle him by subtleties, assailing him with declamation, and watching continually, the defensive operations of his mind. After a considerable discussion, he said, "you defend your opinions well, sir; but now to the law and to the testimony." Hereupon he carried him to his office, and opening the authorities, said to him, "behold the force of natural reason; you have never seen these books, nor this principle of the law; yet you are right and I am wrong; and from the lesson which you have given me (you must excuse me for saying it) I will never trust to appearances again. Mr. Henry, if your industry be only half equal to your genius, I augur that you will do well, and become an ornament and an honour to your profession." It was always Mr. Henry's belief that Mr. Randolph had affected this difference of opinion, merely to afford him the pleasure of a triumph, and to make some atonement for the wound which his first repulse had in-

Page 18

flicted. Be this as it may, the interview was followed by the most marked and permanent respect on the part of Mr. Randolph, and the most sincere good will and gratitude, on that of Mr. Henry.*

It was at the age of four and twenty that Mr. Henry obtained his license. Of the science of law, he knew almost nothing: of the practical part he was so wholly ignorant, that he was not only unable to draw a declaration or a plea, but incapable it is said, of the most common and simple business of his profession, even of the mode of ordering a suit, giving a notice, or making a motion in court. It is not at all wonderful therefore, that such a novice, opposed as he was by veterans, covered with the whole armour of the law, should linger in the back ground, for three years.

* This account of Mr. Henry's examination is given by judge Tyler, who states it as coming from Mr. Henry himself. It was written before I had received the following statement from Mr. Jefferson; and although there is some difference in the circumstances, it has not been thought important enough to make an alteration of the text necessary. This is Mr. Jefferson's statement. "In the spring of 1760, he came to Williamsburg to obtain a license as a lawyer, and he called on me at college. He told me he had been reading law only six weeks. Two of the examiners, however, Peyton and John Randolph, men of great facility of temper, signed his license with as much reluctance as their dispositions would permit them to show. Mr. Wythe absolutely refused. Robert C.Nicholas refused also at first; but on repeated importunities and promises of future reading, he signed. These facts I had afterwards from the gentlemen themselves; the two Randolphs acknowledging he was very ignorant of the law, but that they perceived him to be a young man of genius, and did not doubt that he would soon qualify himself.

Section II

Page 46

Edward Pendleton, the protege of the speaker Robinson, was also, among the most prominent members in the house. He had, in a great measure, overcome the disadvantages of an extremely defective education, and, by the force of good company and the study of correct authors, had attained to great accuracy and perspicuity of style. The patronage of the speaker had introduced him to the first circles, and his manners were elevated, graceful and insinuating. His person was spare, but well proportioned; and his countenance one of the finest in the world: serene—contemplative—benignant—with

Page 47

that expression of unclouded intelligence and extensive reach, which seemed to denote him capable of any thing, that could be effected by the power of the human mind. His mind itself, was of a very fine order. It was clear, comprehensive, sagacious and correct; with a most acute and subtle faculty of discrimination; a fertility of expedient which could never be exhausted; a dexterity of address which never lost an advantage and never gave one; and a capacity for continued and unremitting application, which was perfectly invincible. As a lawyer and a stateman, he had few equals; no superiors. For parliamentary management, he was without a rival. With all these advantages of person, manners, address and intellect, he was also a speaker of distinguished eminence. He had that silver voice* of which Cicero makes such frequent and honourable mention—an articulation uncommonly distinct—a perennial stream of transparent, cool and sweet elocution; and the power of presenting his arguments with great simplicity, and striking effect. He was always graceful, argumentative, persuasive: never vehement, rapid, or abrupt. He could instruct and delight; but he had no pretensions to those high powers which are calculated to "shake the human soul." George Wythe, also, a member of the House, was confessedly among the first in point of abilities. There is a story circulated, as upon his own authority, that he was initiated by his mother, in the Latin classics.† Be this as it may, it is certain that he had raised upon the original foundation, whencesoever acquired, a superstructure of ancient literature which has been rarely equalled in this country. He was perfectly familiar with the authors of Greece

* Vox Argentea, see the Brutus, passim.
† I heard it from the late judge Nelson, his relation.

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and Rome; read them with the same ease and quoted them with the same promptitude that he could the authors in his native tongue. He carried his love of antiquity rather too far; for he frequently subjected himself to the charge of pedantry; and his admiration of the gigantic writers of Queen Elizabeth's reign, had unfortunately betrayed him into an imitation of their quaintness. Yet, with all this singularity of taste, he was a man of great capacity; powerful in argument; frequently pathetic; and elegantly keen and sarcastic in repartee. He was long the rival of Mr. Pendleton at the bar, whom he equalled as a common lawyer, and greatly surpassed as a civilian: but he was too open and direct in his conduct, and possessed too little management either with regard to his own temper or those of other men, to cope with so cool and skilful an adversary. Though a full match for Mr. Pendleton in the powers of fair and solid reasoning, Mr. Pendleton could whenever he pleased, and would whenever it was necessary, tease him with quibbles, and vex him with sophistries, until he destroyed the composure of his mind and robbed him of his strength. No man was ever more entirely destitute of art than Mr. Wythe. He knew nothing, even in his profession, and never would know any thing of "crooked and indirect by-ways." Whatever he had to do, was to be done openly, avowedly and above board. He would not, even at the bar, have accepted of success on any other terms. This simplicity and integrity of character, although it sometimes exposed him to the arts and sneers of the less scrupulous, placed him before his countrymen, on the ground which Caesar wished his wife to occupy; he was not only pure, but above all suspicion. The unaffected sanctity of his principles, united with his modesty and simple elegance of manners,

Page 49

his attic wit, his stores of rare knowledge, his capacity for business, and the real power of his intellect, not only raised him to great eminence in public, but rendered him a delightful companion, and a most valuable friend.

Section II

Page 60

"Mr. Henry moved and Mr. Johnston seconded these resolutions successively. They were opposed by Messrs. Randolph, Bland, Pendleton, Wythe, and all the old members whose influence in the house had, till then, been unbroken. They did it, not from any question of our rights, but on the ground that the same sentiments had been, at their preceding session, expressed in a more conciliatory form, to which the answers were not yet received. But torrents of sublime eloquence from Henry j backed by the solid reasoning of Johnston, pre-

Page 61

vailed. The last, however, and strongest resolution was carried but by a single vote. The debate on it was most bloody. I was then but a student, and stood at the door of communication between the house and the lobby (for as yet there was no gallery,) during the whole debate and vote; and I well remember that, after the numbers on the division were told and declared from the chair, Peyton Randolph (the attorney general) came out at the door where I was standing, and said as he entered the lobby,'by God I would have given 500 guineas for a single vote:' for one vote would have divided the house, and Robinson was in the chair, who he knew would have negatived the resolution. Mr. Henry left town that evening; and the next morning before the meeting of the house, col. Peter Randolph, then of the council, came to the hall of burgesses, and sat at the clerk's table till the house bell rang, thumbing over the volumes of journals, to find a precedent of expunging a vote of the house, which he said, had taken place while he was a member or clerk of the house, I do not recollect which. I stood by him at the end of the table, a considerable part of the time, looking on, as he turned over the leaves; but I do not recollect whether he found the erasure. In the mean time, some of the timid members who had voted for the strongest resolution, had become alarmed; and as soon as the house met, a motion was made and carried to expunge it from the journals. There being at that day but one printer, and he entirely under controul of the governor, I do not know that this resolution ever appeared in print. I write this from memory: but the impression made on me at the time was such as to fix the facts indelibly in my mind. I suppose the original journal was among those destroyed by the British, or its obliterated face might be ap-

Page 62

pealed to. And here I will state that Burk's statement of Mr. Henry's consenting to withdraw two resolutions, by way of compromise with his opponents, is entirely erroneous."

Page 64

"By these resolutions," says Mr. Jefferson, "and his manner of supporting them, Mr. Henry took the lead out of the hands of those who had, theretofore, guided the proceedings of the house; that is to say, of Pendleton, Wythe, Bland, Randolph." It was, indeed, the measure which raised him to the zenith of his glory. He had never before had a subject which entirely matched his genius, and was capable of drawing out all the powers of his mind. It was remarked of him, throughout his life, that his talents never failed to rise with the occasion, and in proportion with the resistance which he had to encounter. The nicety of the vote on his last resolution, proves that this was not a time to hold in reserve, any part of his forces. It was, indeed, an alpine passage, under circumstances even more unpropitious than those of Hanibal; for he had not only to fight, hand to hand, the powerful party who were already in possession of the heights, but at the same instant,

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to cheer and animate the timid band of followers, that were trembling, fainting, and drawing back, below him. It was an occasion that called upon him to put forth all his strength, and he did put it forth, in such a manner, as man never did before. The cords of argument, with which his adversaries frequently flattered themselves they had bound him fast, became packthreads in his hands. He burst them, with as much ease, as the unshorn Sampson did the bands of the Philistines. He seized the pillars of the temple, shook them terribly, and seemed to threaten his opponents with ruin. It was an incessant storm of lightning and thunder, which struck them aghast. The faint-hearted gathered courage from his countenance, and cowards became heroes, while they gazed upon his exploits.

Section III

Page 70

At this bar, he entered into competition with all the first legal characters in the colony, some of whom had been educated at the Temple. Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Wythe have been already mentioned: but in addition to these he had to encounter Mr. John Randolph, Mr. Thompson Mason, Mr. Robert C. Nicholas, Mr. Mer-

Page 71

cer, Mr. Blair, and Mr. Jefferson; all of them masters of the learning of their profession, and all of them, men of preeminent abilities.

Page 85

The house of burgesses of Virginia, which had led the opposition to the stamp act, kept their high ground during the whole of the ensuing contest. Mr. Henry, having removed again from Louisa to his native county,

Page 86

in the year 1767 or 1768, continued a member of that house, till the close of the revolution; and there could be no want of boldness in any body, of which he was a member. The session of 1768-9, was marked by a set of resolutions so strong as to have excited even the amiable and popular Bottetourt to displeasure. By those resolutions they re-asserted, in the most emphatic terms, the exclusive right of the colony to tax themselves in all cases whatever; complained of the recent acts of parliament, as so many violations of the British constitution; and remonstrated vigorously, against the right of transporting the free-born subjects of these colonies to England, to take their trial before prejudiced tribunals, for offences alleged to be committed in the colonies. The tradition with regard to these resolutions, is, that they were agreed to in a committee of the whole on one day, but not reported to the house, with the view of preventing their appearance on the journal of the next day, before they could be completely passed through the forms of the house; apprehending, from the fate of the Massachusetts legislature, that a knowledge of these resolutions on the part of the governor, would produce an immediate dissolution of the house. When the house rose for the evening, however, the fact of their having passed such resolutions was whispered to the governor; and he endeavoured in vain, to procure a copy of them from the clerk.* On the next day, the house foreseeing the event, met on the instant of the ringing of the bell, and with closed doors, received the report of their resolutions, considered, adopted, and ordered them to be entered upon their journals; which they had scarcely done, when they were summoned to attend the governor, and were dissolved. "Mr. Speaker," said he, "and

* Mr. Wythe.

Page 87

gentleman of the house of representatives, I have heard of your resolves, and augur ill of their effects; you have made it my duty to dissolve you, and you are accordingly dissolved."

Page 125

The constitution of this committee proves, that in those days of genuine patriotism, there existed a mutual and noble confidence, which deemed the opponents of a measure no less worthy than its friends, to assist in its execution. A correspondent,* who bore himself a most distinguished part in our revolution, in speaking of the gentlemen whom I have just named as having opposed Mr. Henry's resolutions, and of Mr. Wythe who acted with them, says—" these were honest and able men, who had begun the opposition on the same grounds, but with a moderation more adapted to their age and experience. Subsequent events favoured the bolder spirits of Henry, the Lees, Pages, Mason, &c. with whom I went in all points. Sensible, however, of the importance of unanimity among our constituents, although we often wished to have gone on faster, we slackened our pace, that our less ardent colleagues might keep up with us; and they on their part differing nothing from us in principle, quickened their gait somewhat beyond that which their prudence might, of itself, have advised, and thus consolidated the phalanx which breasted the power of Britain. By this harmony of the bold with the cautious, we advanced, with our constituents, in undivided mass, and with fewer examples of separation than, perhaps, existed in any other part of the union."

* Mr. Jefferson

Section VI

Page 193

On the fifteenth of May, Mr. Cary reported from the committee of the whole house on the state of the colony, the following preamble and resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

"Forasmuch as all the endeavours of the United Colonies, by the most decent representations and petitions to the king and parliament of Great Britain, to restore peace and security to America under the British government, and a re-union with that people upon just and liberal terms, instead of a redress of grievances, have produced, from an imperious and vindictive administration, increased insult, oppression, and a vigorous attempt to effect our total destruction. By a late act, all these colonies are declared to be in rebellion, and out of the protection of the British crown; our properties subjected to confiscation; our people, when captivated, compelled to join in the murder and plunder of their relations and countrymen; and all former rapine and oppression of Americans declared legal and just. Fleets and armies are raised, and the aid of foreign troops engaged to assist these destructive purposes. The king's representative in this colony hath not only withheld all the powers of government, from operating for our safety, but, having retired on board an armed ship, is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us, tempting our slaves, by every artifice, to resort to him, and training and employing them against their

Page 194

masters. In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left, but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the crown and government of Great Britain: Uniting and exerting the strength of all America for defence, and forming alliances with foreign powers for commerce and aid in war. Wherefore, appealing to the Searcher of hearts for the sincerity of former declarations, expressing our desire to preserve the connexion with that nation, and that we are driven from that inclination by their wicked councils, and the eternal laws of self-preservation,

"Resolved, unanimously, That the delegates appointed to represent this colony in general congress, be instructed to propose to that respectable body, TO DECLARE THE UNITED COLONIES FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the congress for forming foreign alliances, and A CONFEDERATION OF THE COLONIES, at such time, and in the manner, as to them shall seem best. Provided, that the power of forming government for, and the regulations of, the internal concerns of each colony, be left to the respective colonial legislatures.

"Resolved, unanimously, That a committee be appointed to prepare A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS, and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony, and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people."

This measure was followed by the most lively demonstrations of joy. The spirit of the times is interestingly

Page 195

manifested by the following paragraph from Purdie's paper of the 17th of May, which immediately succeeds the annunciation of the resolutions.

"In consequence of the above resolutions, universally regarded as the only door which will lead to safety and prosperity, some gentlemen made a handsome collection for the purpose of treating the soldiery, who next day were paraded in Waller's grove, before brigadier-general Lewis, attended by the gentlemen of the committee of safety, the members of the general convention, the inhabitants of this city, &c. &c. The resolutions being read aloud to the army, the following toasts were given, each of them accompanied by a discharge of the artillery and small arms, and the acclamations of all present:—

"1. The American Independent States.

"2. The grand Congress of the United States, and their respective legislatures.

"3. General Washington, and victory to the American arms.

"The Union Flag of the American states waved upon the capitol during the whole of this ceremony; which being ended, the soldiers partook of the refreshments prepared for them by the affection of their countrymen, and the evening concluded with illuminations, and other demonstrations of joy; every one seeming pleased that the domination of Great Britain was now at an end, so wickedly and tyrannically exercised for these twelve or thirteen years past, notwithstanding our repeated prayers and remonstrances for redress."

The committee appointed to prepare the declaration and plan of government, called for by the last resolution, were the following: Mr. Archibald Cary, Mr. Meriwe-

Page 196

ather Smith, Mr. Mercer, Mr. Henry Lee, Mr. Treasurer, Mr. Henry, Mr. Dandridge, Mr. Gilmer, Mr. Bland, Mr. Digges, Mr. Carrington, Mr. Thomas Ludwell Lee, Mr. Cabell, Mr. Jones, Mr. Blair, Mr. Fleming, Mr. Tazewell, Mr. Bichard Cary, Mr. Bullitt, Mr. Watts, Mr. Banister, Mr. Page, Mr. Starke, Mr. David Mason, Mr. Adams, Mr. Read, and Mr. Thomas Lewis; to whom were afterwards successively added, Mr. Madison, Mr. Rutherford, Mr. Watkins, Mr. George Mason, Mr. Harvie, Mr. Curie, and Mr. Holt.

On Wednesday, the 12th of June following, that declaration of rights which stands prefixed to our statutes, was reported and adopted without a dissenting voice; as was also, on Saturday the 29th of the same month, the present plan of our government.*

* The striking similitude between the recital of wrongs prefixed to the constitution of Virginia, and that which was afterwards prefixed to the declaration of independence of the United States, is of itself sufficient to establish the fact that they are from the same pen. But the constitution of Virginia preceded the declaration of independence, by nearly a month; and was wholly composed and adopted while Mr. Jefferson is known to have been out of the state, attending the session of congress at Philadelphia. From these facts alone, a doubt might naturally arise whether he was, as he has always been reputed, the author of that celebrated instrument, the declaration of American independence, or at least a recital of grievances which ushers it in; or whether this part of it at least, had not been borrowed from the preamble to the constitution of Virginia. To remove this doubt, it is proper to state, that there now exists among the archives of this state, an original rough draught of a constitution for Virginia, in the hand-writing of Mr. Jefferson, containing this identical preamble, and which was forwarded by him from Philadelphia, to his friend Mr. Wythe, to be submitted to the committee of the house of delegates. The body of the constitution is taken principally from a plan proposed by Mr. George Mason; and had been adopted by the committee before the arrival of Mr. Jefferson's plan: his preamble however, was prefixed to the instrument; and some of the modifications proposed by him, introduced into the body of it.

Section VII

Page 237

The force of this figure, and the energy with which it was brought out, are said to have produced an effect, that made the house start simultaneously. It continued to be admired, long after the occasion which gave it birth had passed away, and was frequently quoted by Mr. Wythe to his students, while professor of law at William and Mary College, as a happy specimen of those valuable figures, which unite the beauty of decoration with the effect of argument.

Page 259

On the fourth of December in the same year,[6] Mr. Henry was appointed by the legislature, one of seven deputies from this commonwealth to meet a convention proposed to be held in Philadelphia, on the following May, for the purpose of revising the federal constitution. On this list of deputies, his name stands next to that of him, who stood of right before all others in America; the order of appointment, as exhibited by the

Page 260

journal, being as follows: George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, and George Wythe. The same cause, however, which had constrained Mr. Henry's retirement from the executive chair of the state, disabled him now from obeying this honourable call of his country. On his resigning the government, he retired to Prince Edward county, and endeavoured to cast about for the means of extricating himself from his debts. At the age of fifty years, worn down by more than twenty years of arduous service in the cause of his country, eighteen of which had been occupied by the toils and tempests of the revolution, it was natural for him to wish for rest, and to seek some secure and placid port in which he might repose himself from the fatigues of the storm. This however was denied him; and after having devoted the bloom of youth and the maturity of manhood to the good of his country, he had now in his old age to provide for his family.

Section VIII

Page 263

THE convention met in Richmond on the 2d of June, 1788, and exhibited such an array of variegated talents, as had never been collected before within the limits of the state, and such an one as it may well be feared we shall never see again. A few of the most eminent of these statesmen, are still alive; of whom, therefore, delicacy forbids us to speak as they deserve. Their powers however, and the peculiar characters of their intellectual excellence are so well known, that their names will be sufficient to speak their respective eulogies. We may mention, therefore, Mr. Madison, the late president of the United States; Mr. Marshall, the chief justice; and Mr. Monroe, now the president. What will the reader think of a body, in which men like these were only among their equals! Yet such is the fact; for there, were those sages of other days, Pendleton and Wythe; there was seen displayed, the Spartan vigour and compactness of George Nicholas; and there shone the radiant genius and sensibility of Grayson; the Roman energy and the Attic wit of George Mason was there; and there, also, the classic taste and harmony of Edmund Randolph; "the splendid conflagration" of the high minded Innis; and the matchless eloquence of the immortal Henry!*

* The debates and proceedings of this convention, by Mr. David Robertson of Petersburg, have passed through two editions; yet it is believed, that their circulation has been principally confined to Virginia; and even in this state, from the rapid progress of our population, that book is supposed to be in, comparatively, few hands. Hence it has been thought proper to give a

Page 264

It was not until the 4th, that the preliminary arrangements for the discussion were settled. Mr. Pendleton had been unanimously elected the president of the convention; but it having been determined that the subject should be debated in committee of the whole, the house on that day, resolved itself into committee, and the venerable Mr. Wythe was called to the chair. In conformity with the order which had been taken, to discuss the constitution, clause by clause, the clerk now read the preamble and the two first sections; and the debate was opened by Mr. George Nicholas. He confined himself strictly to the sections under consideration, and maintained their policy with great cogency of argument. Mr. Henry rose next, and soon demonstrated that his excursions were not to be restrained by the rigour of rules. Instead of proceeding to answer Mr. Nicholas, he commenced by sounding an alarm calculated to produce a most powerful impression. The effect, however, will be entirely lost upon the reader, unless he shall associate with the speech, which I am about to lay before him, that awful solemnity and look of fearful portent, by which Mr. Henry could imply

short sketch of Mr. Henry's course in this body. It ought to be premised, however, that the published debates have been said by those who attended the convention, to present but an imperfect view of the discussions of that body. In relation to Mr. Henry, they are confessedly imperfect; the reporter having sometimes dropped him in those passages, in which the reader would be most anxious to follow him. From the skill and ability of the reporter, there can be no doubt that the substance of the debates, as well as their general course, are accurately preserved. The work is, therefore, a valuable repository of the arguments by which the constitution was opposed on one hand, and supported on the other; but it must have been utterly impossible for a man, who possesses the sensibility and high relish for eloquence which distinguish the reporter, not to have been so far transported by the excursions of Mr. Henry's genius, as sometimes, unconsciously, to have laid down his pen.

Page 265

even more than he expressed; and that slow, distinct, emphatic enunciation, by which he never failed to move the souls of his hearers.

Page 270

He then proceeded to set forth, in terrible array, his various objections to the constitution; not confining himself to the clauses under debate, but ranging through the whole instrument, and passing from objection to objection, as they followed each other in his mind. This departure from the rule of the house, although at first view censurable, was insisted upon by himself and his colleagues, as being indispensable to a just examination of the particular clause under consideration; because the policy or impolicy of any provision, did not always depend upon itself alone, but on other provisions with which it stood connected, and indeed, upon the whole system of powers and checks that were associated with it in the same instrument, and thus formed only parts of one entire whole. The truth of this position, in relation to some of the provisions, could not be justly denied; and a departure once made from the rigour of the rule, the debate became at large, on every part of the constitution; the disputants at every stage, looking forward and backward throughout the whole instrument, without any controul other than their own discretion. Thus freed from restraints, under which his genius was at all times impatient, uncoupled and let loose to range the whole field at pleasure, Mr. Henry seemed to have recovered, and to luxuriate in all the powers of his youth. He had, indeed, occasion for them all; for while he was supported by only three effective

Page 271

auxiliaries, opposed to him stood a phalanx, most formidable both for talents and weight of character; and of several of whom it might be said, with truth, that each was " in himself a host;" for at the head of the opposing ranks stood Mr. Pendleton—Mr. Wythe—Mr. Madison—Mr. Marshall—Mr. Nicholas—Mr. Randolph—Mr. Innis—Mr. Henry Lee—and Mr. Corbin. Fearful odds! and such as called upon him for the most strenuous exertion of all his faculties. Nor did he sink below the occasion. For twenty days, during which this great discussion continued without intermission, his efforts were sustained, not only with undiminished strength, but with powers which seemed to gather new force from every exertion. All the faculties useful for debate were found united in him, with a degree of perfection, in which they are rarely seen to exist, even separately, in different individuals: irony, ridicule, the purest wit, the most comic humour, exclamations that made the soul start, the most affecting pathos, and the most sublime apostrophes, lent their aid to enforce his reasoning, and to put to flight the arguments of his adversaries.


Page 418

3. So also in the state convention, the same year, the old patriotic leaders were disposed still to rely on the efficacy of petitions, memorials, and remonstrances; it was Mr. Henry who proposed, and in spite of their opposition (which was of so strenuous and serious a character, that one of them in making it. is said to have shed tears most profusely) carried the

Page 419

bold measure of arming the militia. This was not dictated by the people. The fact was, that at that day, the people placed themselves in the hands of their more enlightened friends; they never ventured to prescribe either the time, the manner, or the measure of resistance; and there can be no room for a candid doubt that, but for the bold spirit and overpowering eloquence of Patrick Henry, the people would have followed the pacific counsels of Mr. Randolph, Mr. Nicholas, Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Wythe, and other men of acknowledged talents and virtue. It was Mr. Henry, therefore, who led both the people and their former leaders. The latter, indeed, came on so reluctantly at first, that they may be said to have been rather dragged along, than led; they did come however, and acquiring warmth by their motion, made ample amends thereafter, for their early hesitation.*

* The author has no intention, by these remarks, to impair in the smallest degree, the well-earned reputation of those veteran statesmen. They had commenced the opposition to the stamp act, and the other obnoxious acts of the British parliament, before Mr. Henry made his appearance as a politician; they had commenced too, on the same grounds, and would, probably, at some later period, have been wrought up by their own principles and feelings, to a forcible resistance to those measures. But the statements in the text are unquestionably correct: they did not approve of the immediate application of force; Mr. Henry's policy was condemned by them as rash and precipitate. The author is in possession of an original letter from one of these statesmen, in which Mr. Henry is expressly and directly accused of having precipitated the revolution, against the judgment of the older and cooler patriots. "Events, however," as we have seen, "favoured the bolder measure of Mr. Henry," and proved his policy to be the best.


Page i


IT appears by the Journal of the House of Burgesses, of the 14th November 1764, (page 38), that a committee was appointed to draw up the following address, memorial and remonstrance; which committee was composed of the following persons, to wit: Mr. Attorney (Peyton Randolph), Mr. Richard Henry Lee, Mr. Landon Carter, Mr. Wythe, Mr. Edmund Pendleton, Mr. Benjamin Harrison, Mr. Cary and Mr. Fleming: to whom, afterward, Mr. Bland was added. The address to the King is from the pen of the Attorney*

"To the King's Most Excellent Majesty.


"We, your Majesty's dutiful and loyal subjects, the Council and Burgesses of your ancient colony and dominion of Virginia, now met in general assembly, beg leave to assure your Majesty of our firm and inviolable attachment to your sacred person and government; and as your faithful subjects, here, have at all times been zealous to demonstrate this truth, by a ready compliance with the royal requisitions during the late war, by which a heavy and oppressive debt of near half a million hath been incurred, so at this time they implore permission to approach the throne with humble confidence, and to entreat that your Majesty will be graciously pleased to protect your people of this colony in the enjoyment of their ancient and 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: a right which, as men and descendants of Britons, they have ever quietly possessed, since, first, by royal permission and encouragement, they left the mother kingdom to extend its commerce and dominion.

"Your Majesty's dutiful subjects of Virginia most humbly and unanimously hope, that this invaluable birthright, descended to them from their ancestors, and in which they have been protected by your royal predecessors, will not be suffered to receive an injury, under the reign of your sacred Majesty, already so illustriously distinguished by your gracious attention to the liberties of the people.

"That your Majesty may long live to make nations happy, is the ardent prayer of your faithful subjects, the Council and Burgesses of Virginia."

* On the authority of Mr. Jefferson.

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Main article: Remonstrance to the House of Commons

Mr. Wythe was the author of the following remonstrance. "It was done with so much freedom that, as he told me, himself, his colleagues of the committee shrunk from it as wearing the aspect of treason, and smoothed its features to its present form."*

"To the Honourable the Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses of Great Britain,
in Parliament assembled:
"The Remonstrance of the Council and Burgesses of Virginia.

"It appearing, by the printed votes of the house of commons of Great Britain in parliament assembled, that in a committee of the whole house, the 17th day of March last, it was resolved, that towards defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America, it may be proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations; and it being apprehended that the same subject, which was then declined, may be resumed and further pursued in a succeeding session, the council and burgesses of Virginia, met in general assembly, judge it their indispensable duty, in a respectful manner, but with decent firmness, to remonstrate against such

* Mr. Jefferson.

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a measure; that at least a cession of those rights, which in their opinion must be infringed by that procedure, may not be inferred from their silence, at so important a crisis.

"They conceive it is essential to British liberty, that laws, imposing tales on the people, ought not to be made without the consent of representatives chosen by themselves; who, at the same time that they are acquainted with the circumstances of their constituents, sustain a portion of the burthen laid on them. The privileges, inherent in the persons who discovered and settled these regions, could not be renounced or forfeited by their removal hither, not as vagabonds or fugitives, but licensed and encouraged by their prince, and animated with a laudable desire of enlarging the British dominion, and extending its commerce: on the contrary, it was secured to them and their descendants, with all other rights and immunities of British subjects, by a royal charter, which hath been invariably recognised and confirmed by his Majesty and his predecessors, in their commissions to the several governors, granting a power, and prescribing a form of legislation; according to which, laws for the administration of justice, and for the welfare and good government of the colony, have been hitherto enacted by the governor, council, and general assembly; and to them, requisitions and applications for supplies have been directed by the crown. As an instance of the opinion which former sovereigns entertained of these rights and privileges, we beg leave to refer to three acts of the general assembly, passed in the 32d year of the reign of king Charles II. (one of which is entitled 'An act for raising a public revenue for the better support of the government of his Majesty's colony of Virginia,' imposing several duties for that purpose), which being thought absolutely necessary, were prepared in England, and sent over by their then governour, the lord Culpeper, to be passed by the general assembly, with a full power to give the royal assent thereto; and which were accordingly passed, after several amendments were made to them here: thus tender was his Majesty of the rights of his American subjects; and the remonstrants do not discern by what distinction they can be deprived of that sacred birthright and most valuable inheritance by their fellow subjects, nor with what propriety they can be taxed or affected in their estates, by the parliament, wherein they are not, and indeed cannot, constitutionally, be represented.

"And if it were proper for the parliament to impose taxes on the colonies at all, which the remonstrants take leave to think would be inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the constitution, the exercise of that power, at this time, would be ruinous to Virginia, who exerted herself in the late war, it is feared beyond her strength, insomuch that to redeem the money granted for that exigence, her people are taxed for several years to come: this, with the larger expenses incurred for defending the frontiers against the restless Indians, who have infested her as much since the peace as before, is so grievous, that an increase of the burthen would be intolerable: especially as the people are very greatly distressed already from the scarcity of circulating cash amongst them, and from the little value of their staple at the British markets.

"And it is presumed, that adding to that load which the colony now labours under, will not be more oppressive to her people than destructive of the interest of Great Britain.— for the plantation trade, confined as it is to the mother country, hath been a principal means of multiplying and enriching her inhabitants; and, if not too much discouraged, may prove an inexhaustible source of treasure to the nation. For satisfaction in this point, let the present state of the British fleets and trade be compared with what they were before the settlement of the colonies; and let it be considered, that whilst property in land may be acquired on very easy terms, in the vast uncultivated territory of North America, the colonists will be mostly, if not wholly, employed in agriculture; whereby the exportation of their commodities to Great Britain, and the consumption of manufactures supplied from thence, will be daily increasing. But this most desirable connexion between Great Britain and her colonies, supported by such a happy intercourse of reciprocal benefits as is continually advancing the prosperity of both, must be interrupted, if the people of the latter, reduced to extreme poverty, should be compelled to manufacture those articles they have been hitherto furnished with, from the former.

"From these considerations, it is hoped that the honourable house of commons will not prosecute a measure which those who may suffer under it, cannot but look upon as fitter for exiles driven from their native country, after ignominiously forfeiting her favours and protection, than for the posterity of Britons, who have at all times been forward to demonstrate all due reverence to the mother kingdom; and are so instrumental in promoting her glory and felicity; and that British patriots will never consent to the exercise of any anticonstitutional power, which, even in this remote corner, may be dangerous in its example to the interiour parts of the British empire, and will certainly be detrimental to its commerce."

See also


  1. Joseph Worcester, ed., The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1835 (Boston: Charles Bowen, 1835) 326-327.
  2. John P. Kennedy, Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt: Attorney-General of the United States (New York: G.P. Putman and Sons, 1872) 1:120.
  3. Worcester, The American Almanac, 327-328.
  4. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817).
  5. John P. Kennedy, Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt: Attorney-General of the United States (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1850. New, rev. ed., New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1872).
  6. 1786.

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