Profiles in Greatness: Patrick Henry

UPDATED: February 6, 2012
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

Before Patrick Henry became one of the country’s greatest orators and most well-known revolutionaries, he was what some might consider a failure. He failed at school, two businesses and farming before taking up the law and public service.

While it took Henry years to find, capture and capitalize on a passion, when he did find it, he never let go. From the day he started practicing the law until his death, he determined to aid in liberating his country from British rule and to keep his homeland from relinquishing its freedoms.

In this exclusive, beyond-the-grave interview with SUCCESS, Henry shares some of his thoughts on failure and the fight for independence.


Q: Why did you continue making big gambles when you had numerous failures under your belt before you were 20?

A: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Henry was born in 1736 in Virginia and spent a few years in public school. He was bright, but he was a colossal underachiever, so his father pulled him from school and tutored him at home. Henry’s uncle, who was a reverend, helped with his education. Both men wanted to direct Henry’s rebellious nature and short attention span toward some aspect of education that would captivate him.

Seeing his son’s interest in business, Henry’s father gave him and his brother a store to manage when Henry was 16. The store folded within a year. The compassionate boys lent too much money to broke and untrustworthy customers, which quickly spiraled them into bankruptcy.

In 1754, Henry received another business as his wife’s dowry: a 300-acre tobacco plantation. Henry might have made it as a planter, but a fire wiped out his enterprise in 1757. He sold his assets and opened a second store, which quickly folded.

Through all of these failures, Henry’s father supported him, encouraging him to focus on new ideas and new businesses rather than dwelling on his losses. Henry’s efforts paid off. In 1760, after teaching himself the law and studying for six weeks, Henry passed the bar, embarking on a career that helped define him and, ultimately, the independence of a nation.


Q: In 1765, you contested the Stamp Act, which put you head to head with the British government. What made you think a junior legislator could stand up to such an intimidating opponent? What advice would you give to readers who are facing a daunting challenge?

A: “They tell us that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

“We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power…. The battle is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

By now, Henry was working in a tavern to support his young family and throwing himself into his new passion: the law. He had an easy rapport with common people (he often played a fiddle in the square and attended church with townspeople), which allowed him to garner public support while he honed his legal and political skills. Court case by court case, he developed a reputation as a skilled lawyer, orator and a man of the people.

At age 29, nine days after being elected to the Virginia legislative assembly, Henry introduced five resolutions opposing the Stamp Tax on the grounds that Britain didn’t have the authority to tax the colonies—only the colonies’ elected representatives had that right.

In a move still used occasionally on Capitol Hill today, Henry waited until most of the more conservative members of the House were away and succeeded in getting his resolutions passed. The blatantly anti-British sentiment in his proposal gave much-needed strength to the revolution.


Q: During the peak of your career, your wife became mentally ill, and you dedicated much of your personal time to meeting her daily needs. What drove you to make this choice in spite of the potential cost to your professional life?

A: “Virtue, morality and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed… so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger.”

In 1771, Henry’s wife, Sarah Shelton, deteriorated mentally to the point of becoming a danger to herself and others. Rather than commit her to the public hospital, which he found deplorable, he kept her at home in a two-room apartment. Sarah was cared for by him or a family member at all times.

Though he was extremely attentive to his wife’s needs until her death in 1775, Henry still managed to cobble together a voluntary militia that was the beginning of what would become the revolutionary army. While mobilizing his wife’s health care, he mobilized a war on the British Empire.


Q: Could you give us a little taste of that famous speech you made in Richmond, Va., in 1775—the one that marshaled a divided nation to military action against the encroaching British forces?

A: “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace!’ But there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

During the American Revolution, Henry served as the Governor of Virginia. He would go on to serve five terms before his death in 1799 and to refuse an appointment to Secretary of State by President George Washington due to differing politics.

After the war, Henry often felt the public was carelessly surrendering their freedoms to the federal government. In fact, he refused to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention because he feared it would give too much power to the U.S. government over the states.

But despite his cries for liberty, Henry was a slave owner throughout his life. He was known to speak against slavery, expressing a wish that it would one day be abolished, but on his Leatherwood Plantation in Virginia he owned 75 slaves and grew tobacco in the years following the war.


Q: Today, other nations face some of the same tyranny you and your fellow revolutionaries confronted. What would you say is the key to a successful independent nation?

A: “If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this, and in thy sphere, practice virtue thyself and encourage it in others.”