Published on March 9, 2011 by Carol
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Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an orator and politician who led the movement for independence in Virginia in the 1770s. A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia from 1776 to 1779 and subsequently, from 1784 to 1786. Henry led the opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 and is well remembered for his “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” speech. Along with Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, he is remembered as one of the most influential exponents of Republicanism, promoters of the American Revolution and Independence, especially in his denunciations of corruption in government officials and his defense of historic rights. After the Revolution, Henry was a leader of the anti-federalists in Virginia who opposed the United States Constitution, fearing that it endangered the rights of the States, as well as the freedoms of individuals.
Henry was born in Studley, Hanover County, Virginia on May 29, 1736. His father was John Henry, an immigrant from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, who had attended King’s College, Aberdeen before immigrating to the Colony of Virginia in the 1720s. Settling in Hanover County, about 1732 John Henry married Sarah Winston Syme, a wealthy widow from a prominent Hanover County family of English ancestry. Patrick Henry was once thought to have been of humble origins, but he was actually born into the middle rank of the Virginia gentry.
Henry attended local schools for a few years, and then was tutored by his father. After failing in business, in 1754 he married Sarah Shelton, with whom he would have six children. As a wedding gift his father-in-law gave the couple six slaves and the 300-acre (1.2 km2) Pine Slash Farm. Henry began a career as a planter, but their home was destroyed by fire in 1757. Henry made another attempt at business,which also failed, before deciding to become a lawyer in 1760.
Henry first made a name for himself in a case dubbed the “Parson’s Cause” (1763), which was an argument about whether the price of tobacco paid to clergy for their services should be set by the colonial government or by the Crown. After the British Parliament overruled Virginia’s Two Penny Act that had limited the clergy’s salaries, the Reverend James Maury filed suit against the vestry of Louisa County for payment of back wages. When Maury won the suit, a jury was called in Hanover County to determine how much Maury should be paid. Henry was brought in at the last minute to argue on behalf of Louisa County. Ignoring legal niceties, Henry delivered an impassioned speech that denounced clerics who challenged Virginia’s laws as “enemies of the community” and any king who annulled good laws like the Two Penny Act as a “tyrant” who “forfeits all right to his subject’s obedience”. Henry urged the jury to make an example of Maury. After less than five minutes of deliberation, they awarded Maury one penny. The Hanover County Courthouse where Patrick Henry argued the Parson’s Cause still remains an active courthouse; located along historic U.S. Route 301, the courthouse sits adjacent Hanover Tavern (rebuilt in 1791 after burning) where Patrick Henry lodged amid arguing the Parson’s Cause. The courthouse is the third oldest courthouse still in use in the United States.