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. 

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

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Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
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Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
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There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
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The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
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These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
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The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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