10 Facts About Patrick Henry

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Today, Patrick Henry—who was born on May 29, 1736—is best remembered for hollering “Give me liberty or give me death” during a speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, though he might not have actually ever said those words. Still, whether that famous quote was his or someone else's, we cannot deny Henry’s importance to the republic that he helped found.

1. HIS FATHER WAS AN IMMIGRANT.

A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, John Henry hailed from a relatively affluent, well-regarded family. In his youth, Henry’s intelligence and Latin composition skills helped earn him a scholarship to Aberdeen University. Also enrolled at the school was John Syme, a childhood friend. John Syme had made his fortune in Virginia, and feeling adventurous, Henry decided to join him. In 1727, John Henry set sail for the colony, where he worked with Syme.

Business was booming. During his first four years in the New World, Henry acquired over 15,000 acres. Then, tragedy struck. In 1731, Syme passed away. He was survived by his son, John Syme Jr., and by his wife, Sarah. Two years later, Henry and Sarah were married. They went on to have 11 children, only nine of whom survived. One of them was Patrick, who was born on May 29, 1736.

2. AS A CHILD, HE PLAYED MULTIPLE INSTRUMENTS.

Patrick Henry lived at Studley—the family farm in Hanover County, Virginia—until he was 14 years old. As a boy, he pursued several hobbies, including hunting (he was, as one associate said, “remarkably fond of his gun”) and playing the flute and violin. As an adult, he loved comedic novels—especially a satirical biography called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

3. HE WAS A FAILED TOBACCO FARMER.

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Henry’s professional life began with a string of ill-fated business ventures. In 1752, John Henry set up a shop for Patrick and his brother, William, to run on their own. Unfortunately, the teenagers made lousy clerks: About two years after its grand opening, the poorly-managed store closed for good.

Marriage inspired him to pursue a very different career. In 1754, 18-year-old Patrick tied the knot with his first wife, Sarah Shelton, whose dowry included a 300-acre farm. For a time, the young man tried his hand at agriculture, growing wheat, barley, and tobacco. But when the family house burned down in 1757, Henry returned to storekeeping—but he wasn't any more successful at the job the second time around. So Henry got a new job at his father-in-law’s tavern, where he finally caught a break. Right across the street from this establishment was the Hanover County Courthouse. After a long day’s work, lawyers would flock to the watering hole. As Henry got to know them, he developed a passion for the legal profession. At 24, he passed the bar exam and later set up a very successful practice. 

4. A CASE CALLED “PARSON’S CAUSE” MADE HIM FAMOUS.

In Henry’s day, tobacco was the lifeblood of the Virginian economy. When a three-year drought hit in the mid-1750s, it wreaked havoc on the colony’s tobacco farms. The crisis hurt everyone—including the resident Anglican clergymen.

Normally, Virginia paid these ministers in tobacco, with each man getting 16,000 pounds of the crop per year. But the ongoing drought convinced many taxpayers that this salary was far too generous. So in 1755, the House of Burgesses (Virginia’s democratically-elected legislative body) chose to restructure the whole payment policy, and the “Two Penny Act” was born. Under the new law, British parsons would now receive cash rather than tobacco. Specifically, a clergyman could expect two pence for every pound of the crop that he normally brought home.

Because the price of tobacco now exceeded two pence per pound, the new salary amounted to a pay cut. Naturally, most preachers despised the Act. As the controversy unfurled, King George II took the clerics’ side. To the disappointment of his other Virginia subjects, he vetoed the law in August 1759. 

In 1763, a minister named James Maury sued Hanover County for damages brought on by the Two Penny Act. Later known as “Parson’s Cause,” this case became one of the most important in America’s colonial history. Henry was tasked with representing his county during the determination of damages—and used the platform to slam Britain’s presiding monarch. Radically, the lawyer said that “a King, by annulling or disallowing Laws of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, denigrates into a tyrant.” His passionate rhetoric turned Henry into a popular figure throughout Virginia. As for Maury, the court awarded him a token sum of one penny.

5. THE TRUE AUTHORSHIP OF HIS “GIVE ME LIBERTY” ADDRESS IS UNCLEAR.

On March 23, 1775, Henry gave a speech that would define his legacy and, for thousands, capture the spirit of the American Revolution. Addressing the Virginia Convention in modern St. John’s Church, Richmond, he insisted that war with Britain was inevitable, fervently arguing that nothing less than an organized militia could defend the colonies from their tyrannical King.    

Like all great orators, he saved his best line for last. To conclude the speech, Henry shouted “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

But then again, he might not have said it. Nobody who heard the speech thought to write a transcript of it. In fact, the address remained unpublished until 1817, when it turned up in a Patrick Henry biography. This book was written by William Wirt—a future attorney general under James Monroe. To re-construct the oration, Wirt interviewed several eyewitnesses, including St. George Tucker, a federal judge. Finally, he pieced their recollections together as best he could, and would later say that he used Tucker’s description of the speech “almost entirely.”

There has been a lot of debate over the version that appears in Wirt’s biography. Were all of those inspired words really Henry’s? If not, to what degree did Wirt—or his interviewees—embellish them? Most historians believe that the speech as recreated by Wirt is at least somewhat faithful to Henry’s original remarks. Still, we’ll probably never know for certain.  

6. HENRY WAS THE FIRST ELECTED GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA.

In 1776, he won the first of three consecutive gubernatorial terms, remaining in office until June 1, 1779. During this time, Henry married his second wife, Dorothea Dandridge. (Sarah Henry had died in 1775 after having dealt with a mental illness for several years, which some historians attribute to either postpartum psychosis or depression. She may have taken her own life, but historians don't know for sure.) He was subsequently re-elected governor in 1784 and left the post for good two years later.  

7. HE UNSUCCESSFULLY ARGUED AGAINST THE CONSTITUTION.

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When Henry was offered the chance to visit Philadelphia and participate in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he declined—and he went on become one of the completed document’s loudest foes.  

This new constitution, he feared, leaned “towards monarchy.” In his view, the text bestowed far too much power upon the federal government. “The concern I feel on this account,” he once told George Washington, “is really greater than I am able to express.”

Consequently, Henry spoke out against its adoption throughout the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1788. Among those present, nobody spoke at greater length on this subject—during the three-and-a-half-week event, Henry consumed nearly 25 percent of the total floor time. Still, his cause was defeated in the end: On June 25, Virginia’s representatives adopted the constitution by a ten-vote margin.

8. HENRY WAS AN EARLY BILL OF RIGHTS ADVOCATE.

At the Constitutional Convention, Virginia’s George Mason (and others) had insisted that a Bill of Rights be included. However, no such segment was added. Unlike Mason, most delegates—including James Madison—simply didn’t think that a Bill of Rights would be necessary.

Like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Henry disagreed. Hoping to appease those who still had their doubts about the constitution, Madison prioritized the passage of a Bill of Rights. Soon enough, he succeeded; Congress approved the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

But this wasn’t good enough for Henry. While the Bill of Rights was still being molded in 1789, he vented his dissatisfaction with it to fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee. Henry believed that, unless the federal government’s size was decreased, Madison’s suggested amendments would “tend to injure rather than serve the cause of liberty.”

9. HE TURNED DOWN GEORGE WASHINGTON’S OFFER TO BECOME SECRETARY OF STATE.

America’s first president offered Henry the position after his previous secretary of state, Edmund Randolph Jennings, resigned in 1795. Henry politely declined, telling Washington that “My domestic situation pleads strongly against a removal to Philadelphia,” America’s then-capital. Familial obligations commanded Henry’s undivided attention, as he was now supporting “no less than eight children by my present marriage,” and a widowed daughter from his previous one.

Eventually, Washington tapped Federalist Timothy Pickering to fill the void in his cabinet.

10. HENRY’S PARTISAN ALLEGIANCE EVOLVED OVER TIME.    

Of the young country’s two major political parties, Henry generally preferred the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans—at first. Toward the end of his life, however, the man started embracing a handful of Federalist policies and candidates. In 1799, Henry even went so far as to run for the Virginia State Legislature as a member of Alexander Hamilton’s party.  

On the campaign trail, he delivered what would become his last public speech at the Charlotte County courthouse. In a debate with Democratic-Republican John Randolph, Henry said that although the people had the right to overthrow the government, they needed to wait until the oppression was so severe that there was no other recourse, otherwise the nation would descend into monarchy.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” Henry said, “Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.” In the end, he won that seat in the State Legislature. Unfortunately, Patrick Henry died before his first term began, passing away on June 6, 1799. 

8 Explorers Who Mysteriously Disappeared (and Some Who’ve Been Found)

A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real
A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

By their very nature, explorers often push the boundaries of survival in the name of glory, so it’s not a great surprise that many have gone missing in the course of their adventures. Over the years, the quest to uncover the truth of what happened to them has captivated the public, historians, and journalists alike, leading to numerous theories and some surprising finds.

1. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

The youngest of three Portuguese brothers, Gaspar Corte-Real was a keen explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500. He embarked on a second expedition in 1501 with his older brother Miguel, in which they claimed Greenland for the crown before apparently sailing on to reach Newfoundland or Labrador. At that point, Gaspar sent two of his three ships back to Portugal, including the one captained by his brother. Gaspar’s ship continued its explorations, but was never seen again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real, learning of his brother’s disappearance, led a search party to the area where Gaspar was believed lost, but he found nothing, and his ship too went missing. The oldest Corte-Real brother, Vasco Annes, begged the king to let him mount a further search party to find his lost brothers, but the king refused—perhaps unwilling to risk the embarrassment of losing a third Corte-Real.

The disappearances have remained a mystery for centuries. But in the 1910s, Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University, put forward a new theory about the inscriptions on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. The rock is covered with petroglyphs that were first noted way back in 1680, and since then scholars have proposed numerous theories about who carved them and why. Delabarre suggested that the inscription was in fact abbreviated Latin, and reads: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” This astounding theory implies that the explorer may have continued his travels into America and survived at least nine years in the New World. If his inscription is to be believed, he made quite a success of his new life.

2. Jean-Francois De Galaup

La Perouse's last letter
La Perouse's last letter

Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was an accomplished sea captain. In 1785, inspired by the successes of Captain James Cook, the French king Louis XVI sent La Pérouse on an expedition to explore the Pacific. The party was made up of two ships—La Boussole and L'Astrolabe—manned by 225 crewmembers. The voyage was expected to last four years. La Pérouse kept scrupulous records of his findings during the trip, mapping coastlines, taking specimens, and making observations of the peoples and places he encountered. (Thankfully, he sent his journals back to France, where they were preserved for posterity and later published to great success.) Having successfully sailed through the Pacific, taking in Japan, the Philippines, and Tonga, La Pérouse arrived at Botany Bay in Australia and was witnessed by British settlers sailing out of the bay in March 1788, the last sighting of the expedition. By 1791, when no communication had been received from La Pérouse for some time, a search party was dispatched from France—but no trace of the expedition was found.

The puzzle seemed to be solved in 1826 when an Irish sailor, Peter Dillon, came across something intriguing while exploring the Solomon Islands. The locals had a number of European swords, which Dillon thought might have belonged to La Pérouse, and told of sighting two large ships that had broken up on the reefs there. In 1964 the wreck of La Boussole was at last discovered on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, confirming that this indeed was where the expedition had reached its sad end. However, in 2017 an Australian researcher found an 1818 account by an Indian castaway that seems to suggest La Pérouse was killed by locals on a small island off Northern Australia, perhaps in a later leg of his voyage after constructing a schooner from the remains of La Boussole.

3. Naomi Uemura

Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern explorer and adventurer Naomi Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to scale Mount Everest in 1970. (He would have been the first Japanese person to reach the summit if his impeccable manners hadn’t made him relinquish the lead to allow his elder, Teruo Matsuura, the honor of going first.) Uemura completed many amazing feats during his lifetime, including climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents solo, trekking across the Arctic to become the first person to reach the North Pole solo, and rafting down the Amazon. In February 1984, Uemura set off to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first person to achieve a solo winter climb of the treacherous peak. Uemura reached the peak, but that is all we know, as he never made it off the mountain. Rescue parties searched for the adventurer, but all that was found was some equipment and his diary hidden in a snow cave. To date his body has not been found, and the exact circumstances of his tragic death remain a mystery.

4. Percy Fawcett

British soldier, archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett
British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the last 90 years, some 13 expeditions and over 100 people have perished in futile attempts to discover the fate of British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was the very epitome of a dashing explorer: He had a distinguished military career before following his sense of adventure to help create maps of the vast and uncharted Amazon jungle. During the 1920s, he departed on a number of ambitious expeditions in an attempt to locate the fabled lost city of El Dorado, which he dubbed the city of “Z.”

In 1925 Fawcett set off into the Mato Grosso region of Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. The trio plowed into the jungle, covering up to 15 miles in a day in their zeal to find the rumored riches of the lost city. By May 29 the group sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one to Fawcett’s wife, Nina, in which he wrote: “You need have no fear of any failure.” This missive was the last thing heard of Fawcett, and after two years with no sign, the Royal Geographical Society sent the first of many search parties. That no trace was discovered of Fawcett only served to keep the many rumors surrounding his fate alive.

Researchers have since come forward with many different theories: Fawcett had “gone native” and was living among a remote tribe; he succumbed to malaria or a jaguar attack; he deliberately disappeared in order to set up a mystical commune. But perhaps the most believable version of his fate was obtained by journalist David Grann, who retraced Fawcett’s steps in 2005 and discovered the Kalapalo Indians had an oral history indicating that Fawcett had ignored their advice and walked right into the domain of a hostile tribe who, in all likelihood, killed him.

5. George Bass

George Bass was an English surgeon who, inspired by tales of Pacific exploration, took to the seas as a ship’s surgeon. He embarked on many expeditions, but the one for which he is most remembered is his voyage to Australia with Matthew Flinders in the 1790s. The pair mapped large swathes of the Australian coast, and Bass identified the body of water between Australia and Tasmania that was later named the Bass Strait in his honor. Despite his success as an explorer, Bass felt under-appreciated and became envious of the merchants who were making their fortunes shipping goods from Europe to the new settlements in Australia. Consequently, he abandoned his cartography and set himself up as a trader. Unfortunately he was a little late to the party and when he returned to Australia, his ship laden with goods, he discovered many others had beaten him to the punch and the market was saturated with British products.

Undeterred, he decided to try his luck in South America and set sail with his bounteous cargo in 1803. Bass and his ship were never seen again, and their fate remains an enigma. Rumors persisted that Bass made it to Chile or Peru, where he was captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in the mines there as a slave until his death.

6. George Mallory

George Mallory was a British explorer and mountaineer who captured the public’s imagination after he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest and he responded: “Because it’s there.” As one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, Mallory was an obvious choice to take part in the first British expeditions to the as-yet-unconquered Everest throughout the early 1920s—well before the benefit of modern materials, technology, and weather forecasting.

In June 1924, George Mallory and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. Another member of the expedition glimpsed them climbing at over 26,800 feet, but that was the last time they were seen alive. That the pair perished in their attempt was certain, but debate raged over whether they had become the first to reach the summit and died on their way down, or if they died having never reached the top. Various pieces of the puzzle emerged over time—in the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was discovered at 27,700 feet, and in 1991 a 1920s oxygen canister was found. Finally, in 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s frozen body on the mountainside, clearly the victim of a terrible fall. The climbers carefully buried the body where they found it, but sadly no trace was ever found of Andrew Irvine.

It was hoped that Mallory’s camera might be found—an artifact that could prove for certain if he made it to the summit—but unfortunately the camera remains missing. Tantalizingly, Mallory had stated that he was going to carry a photograph of his wife and leave it at the summit, and when Mallory’s body was found the photograph was not there, providing yet another clue that perhaps this great mountaineer had conquered the world’s tallest mountain.

7. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the foremost explorers of the Victorian era was Sir John Franklin, who had captained a number of expeditions to the Arctic in search of the Northwest passage. Franklin succeeded in mapping large areas of coastline, identifying many new botanical specimens and furthering our knowledge of the unforgiving Arctic weather during his first two expeditions. Some 20 years after he had retired, Franklin was tempted back to make one final effort to find the Northwest Passage. In 1845, when Franklin was 60 years old, he set off with 129 crewmembers in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships made it to Baffin Island, where they were sighted by a whaling ship, but after that the ships were seen no more.

With no word from the expedition, numerous rescue missions were sent out to try and discover their fate. Finally, in 1859, after a tip-off from local Inuit hunters, a team led by Francis McClintock found objects and remains from the group on King William Island. It became clear that the two ships had become hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. A note was found which indicated that the ships had finally been abandoned in April 1848, having been stuck fast in the ice since September 1846. The note also revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, though no cause was given. Scientific analysis of the mummified remains of some of the sailors indicated they may have died from lead poisoning, likely caused by the lead used to seal their canned food. Historians argue that those who did not die from contaminated supplies probably perished in the freezing conditions as they tried to march across the ice to safety. In September 2016, archaeologists announced the discovery of the wrecked remains of HMS Terror off the coast of King William Island, which historians hope will provide yet more clues about the terrible fate of the stranded crew and their desperate struggle for survival.

8. Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1848, German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt led an attempt to cross Australia’s desert interior from east to west. Leichhardt was already an explorer of some renown, having completed two earlier expeditions across Australia—on one occasion, he had been given up for dead after he spent 18 months in the Australian interior, only to show up very much alive and with copious notes and discoveries.

Leichhardt set off for his final mission accompanied by seven companions, 50 bullocks, 20 mules, seven horses, and a huge amount of supplies and equipment. Despite all of that, the only trace ever found of the missing expedition was a small brass plaque inscribed with Leichhardt’s name and the year 1848, which had been attached to his rifle. The lack of any further evidence of the bodies or equipment from the expedition has proved an enduring mystery, and things aren’t made any clearer by the fact that no one is sure which route they took or how far through Australia’s vast interior they got.

An 1852 search party reported that they had found an abandoned campsite with a tree with the letter L carved into it, a mark Leichhardt reportedly frequently left to indicate his route. Over the years a number of further searches uncovered more trees inscribed with an L, but their disparate locations did little to solve the riddle of the progress and fate of the explorers. The public was so intrigued by the mysterious disappearance that numerous rumors were published in the newspapers, inevitably leading to sensationalist stories of the group dying of thirst, being murdered by Aboriginal people, or even of Leichhardt surviving into old age living in the bush. However, until some concrete evidence or remains are discovered, it is likely that the truth will remain elusive.

This story first ran in 2016.

How Was This Famous Ship Wrecked?

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