Read CHAPTER VII - STEADY WORK of Patrick Henry , free online book, by Moses Coit Tyler, on ReadCentral.com.

From the close of Patrick Henry’s first term in the Virginia House of Burgesses, in the spring of 1765, to the opening of his first term in the Continental Congress, in the fall of 1774, there stretches a period of about nine years, which, for the purposes of our present study, may be rapidly glanced at and passed by.

In general, it may be described as a period during which he had settled down to steady work, both as a lawyer and as a politician. The first five years of his professional life had witnessed his advance, as we have seen, by strides which only genius can make, from great obscurity to great distinction; his advance from a condition of universal failure to one of success so universal that his career may be said to have become within that brief period solidly established. At the bar, upon the hustings, in the legislature, as a master of policies, as a leader of men, he had already proved himself to be, of his kind, without a peer in all the colony of Virginia, a colony which was then the prolific mother of great men. With him, therefore, the period of training and of tentative struggle had passed: the period now entered upon was one of recognized mastership and of assured performance, along lines certified by victories that came gayly, and apparently at his slightest call.

We note, at the beginning of this period, an event indicating substantial prosperity in his life: he acquires the visible dignity of a country-seat. Down to the end of 1763, and probably even to the summer of 1765, he had continued to live in the neighborhood of Hanover Court House. After coming back from his first term of service in the House of Burgesses, where he had sat as member for the county of Louisa, he removed his residence into that county, and established himself there upon an estate called Roundabout, purchased by him of his father. In 1768 he returned to Hanover, and in 1771 he bought a place in that county called Scotch Town, which continued to be his seat until shortly after the Declaration of Independence, when, having become governor of the new State of Virginia, he took up his residence at Williamsburg, in the palace long occupied by the official representatives of royalty.

For the practice of his profession, the earlier portion of this period was perhaps not altogether unfavorable. The political questions then in debate were, indeed, exciting, but they had not quite reached the ultimate issue, and did not yet demand from him the complete surrender of his life. Those years seem to have been marked by great professional activity on his part, and by considerable growth in his reputation, even for the higher and more difficult work of the law. Of course, as the vast controversy between the colonists and Great Britain grew in violence, all controversies between one colonist and another began to seem petty, and to be postponed; even the courts ceased to meet with much regularity, and finally ceased to meet at all; while Patrick Henry himself, forsaking his private concerns, became entirely absorbed in the concerns of the public.

The fluctuations in his engagements as a lawyer, during all these years, may be traced with some certainty by the entries in his fee-books. For the year 1765, he charges fees in 547 cases; for 1766, in 114 cases; for 1767, in 554 cases; for 1768, in 354 cases. With the next year there begins a great falling off in the number of his cases; and the decline continues till 1774, when, in the convulsions of the time, his practice stops altogether. Thus, for 1769, there are registered 132 cases; for 1770, 94 cases; for 1771, 102 cases; for 1772, 43 cases; for 1773, 7 cases; and for 1774, none.

The character of the professional work done by him during this period deserves a moment’s consideration. Prior to 1769, he had limited himself to practice in the courts of the several counties. In that year he began to practice in the general court, the highest court in the colony, where of course were tried the most important and difficult causes, and where thenceforward he had constantly to encounter the most learned and acute lawyers at the bar, including such men as Pendleton, Wythe, Blair, Mercer, John Randolph, Thompson Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert C. Nicholas.

There could never have been any doubt of his supreme competency to deal with such criminal causes as he had to manage in that court or in any other; and with respect to the conduct of other than criminal causes, all purely contemporaneous evidence, now to be had, implies that he had not ventured to present himself before the higher tribunals of the land until he had qualified himself to bear his part there with success and honor. Thus, the instance may be mentioned of his appearing in the Court of Admiralty, “in behalf of a Spanish captain, whose vessel and cargo had been libeled. A gentleman who was present, and who was very well qualified to judge, was heard to declare, after the trial was over, that he never heard a more eloquent or argumentative speech in his life; that Mr. Henry was on that occasion greatly superior to Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Mason, or any other counsel who spoke to the subject; and that he was astonished how Mr. Henry could have acquired such a knowledge of the maritime law, to which it was believed he had never before turned his attention." Moreover, in 1771, just two years from the time when Patrick Henry began practice in the General Court, Robert C. Nicholas, then a veteran member of the profession, “who had enjoyed the first practice at the bar,” had occasion to retire, and began looking about among the younger men for some competent lawyer to whom he might safely intrust the unfinished business of his clients. He first offered his practice to Thomas Jefferson, who, however, was compelled to decline it. Afterward, he offered it to Patrick Henry, who accepted it; and accordingly, by public advertisement, Nicholas informed his clients that he had committed to Patrick Henry the further protection of their interests, a perfectly conclusive proof, it should seem, of the real respect in which Patrick Henry’s qualifications as a lawyer were then held, not only by the public but by the profession. Certainly such evidence as this can hardly be set aside by the supposed recollections of one old gentleman, of broken memory and unbroken resentment, who long afterward tried to convince Wirt that, even at the period now in question, Patrick Henry was “wofully deficient as a lawyer,” was unable to contend with his associates “on a mere question of law,” and was “so little acquainted with the fundamental principles of his profession ... as not to be able to see the remote bearings of the reported cases." The expressions here quoted are, apparently, Wirt’s own paraphrase of the statements which were made to him by Jefferson, and which, in many of their details, can now be proved, on documentary evidence, to be the work of a hand that had forgot, not indeed its cunning, but at any rate its accuracy.

As to the political history of Patrick Henry during this period, it may be easily described. The doctrine on which he had planted himself by his resolutions in 1765, namely, that the parliamentary taxation of unrepresented colonies is unconstitutional, became the avowed doctrine of Virginia, and of all her sister colonies; and nearly all the men who, in the House of Burgesses, had, for reasons of propriety, or of expediency, or of personal feeling, opposed the passage of his resolutions, soon took pains to make it known to their constituents that their opposition had not been to the principle which those resolutions expressed. Thenceforward, among the leaders in Virginian politics, there was no real disagreement on the fundamental question; only such disagreement touching methods as must always occur between spirits who are cautious and spirits who are bold. Chief among the former were Pendleton, Wythe, Bland, Peyton Randolph, and Nicholas. In the van of the latter always stood Patrick Henry, and with him Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, the Pages, and George Mason. But between the two groups, after all, was surprising harmony, which is thus explained by one who in all that business had a great part and who never was a laggard:

“Sensible, however, of the importance of unanimity among our constituents, although we often wished to have gone faster, we slackened our pace, that our less ardent colleagues might keep up with us; and they, on their part, differing nothing from us in principle, quickened their gait somewhat beyond that which their prudence might of itself have advised, and thus consolidated the phalanx which breasted the power of Britain. By this harmony of the bold with the cautious, we advanced with our constituents in undivided mass, and with fewer examples of separation than, perhaps, existed in any other part of the union."

All deprecated a quarrel with Great Britain; all deprecated as a boundless calamity the possible issue of independence; all desired to remain in loyal, free, and honorable connection with the British empire; and against the impending danger of an assault upon the freedom, and consequently the honor, of this connection, all stood on guard.

One result, however, of this practical unanimity among the leaders in Virginia was the absence, during all this period, of those impassioned and dramatic conflicts in debate, which would have called forth historic exhibitions of Patrick Henry’s eloquence and of his gifts for conduct and command. He had a leading part in all the counsels of the time; he was sent to every session of the House of Burgesses; he was at the front in all local committees and conventions; he was made a member of the first Committee of Correspondence; and all these incidents in this portion of his life culminated in his mission as one of the deputies from Virginia to the first Continental Congress.

Without here going into the familiar story of the occasion and purposes of the Congress of 1774, we may briefly indicate Patrick Henry’s relation to the events in Virginia which immediately preceded his appointment to that renowned assemblage. On the 24th of May, 1774, the House of Burgesses, having received the alarming news of the passage of the Boston Port Bill, designated the day on which that bill was to take effect the first day of June “as a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, devoutly to implore the Divine interposition for averting the heavy calamity which threatens destruction to our civil rights, and the evils of civil war; to give us one heart and one mind firmly to oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American rights; and that the minds of his majesty and his parliament may be inspired from above with wisdom, moderation, and justice, to remove from the loyal people of America all cause of danger, from a continued pursuit of measures pregnant with their ruin." Two days afterward, the governor, Lord Dunmore, having summoned the House to the council chamber, made to them this little speech:

“Mr. Speaker and gentlemen of the House of Burgesses, I have in my hand a paper published by order of your House, conceived in such terms as reflect highly upon his majesty and the Parliament of Great Britain, which makes it necessary for me to dissolve you, and you are dissolved accordingly."

At ten o’clock on the following day, May 27, the members of the late House met by agreement at the Raleigh Tavern, and there promptly passed a nobly-worded resolution, deploring the policy pursued by Parliament and suggesting the establishment of an annual congress of all the colonies, “to deliberate on those general measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require."

During the anxious days and nights immediately preceding the dissolution of the House, its prominent members held many private conferences with respect to the course to be pursued by Virginia. In all these conferences, as we are told, “Patrick Henry was the leader;" and a very able man, George Mason, who was just then a visitor at Williamsburg, and was admitted to the consultations of the chiefs, wrote at the time concerning him: “He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard.... But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is, in my opinion, the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues."

In response to a recommendation made by leading members of the recent House of Burgesses, a convention of delegates from the several counties of Virginia assembled at Williamsburg, on August 1, 1774, to deal with the needs of the hour, and especially to appoint deputies to the proposed congress at Philadelphia. The spirit in which this convention transacted its business is sufficiently shown in the opening paragraphs of the letter of instructions which it gave to the deputies whom it sent to the congress:

“The unhappy disputes between Great Britain and her American colonies, which began about the third year of the reign of his present majesty, and since, continually increasing, have proceeded to lengths so dangerous and alarming as to excite just apprehensions in the minds of his majesty’s faithful subjects of this colony that they are in danger of being deprived of their natural, ancient, constitutional, and chartered rights, have compelled them to take the same into their most serious consideration; and being deprived of their usual and accustomed mode of making known their grievances, have appointed us their representatives, to consider what is proper to be done in this dangerous crisis of American affairs.

“It being our opinion that the united wisdom of North America should be collected in a general congress of all the colonies, we have appointed the honorable Peyton Randolph, Esquire, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton, Esquires, deputies to represent this colony in the said congress, to be held at Philadelphia on the first Monday in September next. And that they may be the better informed of our sentiments touching the conduct we wish them to observe on this important occasion, we desire that they will express, in the first place, our faith and true allegiance to his majesty King George the Third, our lawful and rightful sovereign; and that we are determined, with our lives and fortunes, to support him in the legal exercise of all his just rights and prerogatives; and however misrepresented, we sincerely approve of a constitutional connection with Great Britain, and wish most ardently a return of that intercourse of affection and commercial connection that formerly united both countries; which can only be effected by a removal of those causes of discontent which have of late unhappily divided us.... The power assumed by the British Parliament to bind America by their statutes, in all cases whatsoever, is unconstitutional, and the source of these unhappy differences."

The convention at Williamsburg, of which, of course, Patrick Henry was a member, seems to have adjourned on Saturday, the 6th of August. Between that date and the time for his departure to attend the congress at Philadelphia, we may imagine him as busily engaged in arranging his affairs for a long absence from home, and even then as not getting ready to begin the long journey until many of his associates had nearly reached the end of it.