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Early Life and Times
Patrick Henry was born at Studley in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, l736. His father John Henry was a Scottish-born planter. His mother Sarah Winston Syme was a young widow from a prominent gentry family. Henry attended a local school for a few years and received the remainder of his formal education from his father, who had attended King’s College in Aberdeen.
At fifteen Henry began working as a clerk for a local merchant. A year later, in 1752, he and his older brother William opened their own store, which promptly failed.
At age eighteen, not yet having found his profession, Henry married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton, whose dowry was a 600-acre farm called Pine Slash, a house, and six slaves. Henry’s first attempt as a planter ended when fire destroyed his house in 1757. After a second attempt at storekeeping proved unsuccessful, Henry helped his father-in-law at Hanover Tavern, across the road from the county courthouse, and began reading law.
By 1760, nearing his twenty-fourth birthday, Henry decided to become a lawyer. Self-taught and barely prepared, Henry persuaded the panel of distinguished Virginia attorneys Wythe and Randolph that he had the intelligence to warrant admission to the bar. With his energy and talents, and some encouragement from his influential family, Patrick Henry established a thriving practice in the courts of Hanover and adjacent counties.
Patrick Henry’s political career began in December 1763 with his rousing victory in the Parsons’ Cause, a controversy rooted in the peculiarities of colonial Virginia’s tobacco-based economy that also became an important precursor of the American Revolution. Clergymen of the established Anglican church and other public officials in colonial Virginia received their annual salaries in tobacco – 16,000 pounds per a year for a clergyman. For decades the market price of tobacco had been about 2 cents a pound, but severe droughts in 1759 and 1760 drove the price of tobacco much higher. In response to this crisis, the colonial legislature passed a Two-Penny Act, which declared that contracts payable in tobacco should be valued according to the normal price rather than the higher “windfall” caused by the recent drought. Many of Virginia ’s Anglican clergy, who already felt that their vestries paid them too little, protested the law. Eventually, the parsons appealed to colonial authorities in England, who overruled the Virginia statute and declared it void. This action aroused a controversy over the nature of British authority within the colony.
The Parsons’ Cause came home to Hanover County when the Reverend James Maury brought suit against the vestry for his back pay, and won. At that point the novice attorney Patrick Henry was asked to argue the vestry’s side when the jury convened to determine how much Maury should be paid. In a fervent oration that criticized the established clergy and challenged British authority, Henry persuaded the jurors of Hanover County to grant token damages of only one penny. Henry’s victory in the Parsons’ Cause enhanced his legal practice and launched a political career marked by similar moment of dramatic oratory.
Winning a seat in the House of Burgesses from Louisa County in 1765, Henry began his career in the lower house of the Virginia’s colonial legislature shortly after news had reached the colony of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act. Henry and entrenched leadership of the House of Burgesses agreed on the constitutional grounds for opposing the Stamp Act, but Henry was more outspoken and direct in his opposition to the Parliamentary taxation. By narrow margins on May 29-30, 1765, the burgesses endorsed Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves, which attacked Parliament’s claim of authority to tax the colonies and seemed to advocate resistance if the…