Introducing Patrick Henry
The Last French War had cost England so much that at its close she was heavily in debt.
“As England must now send to America a standing army of at least ten thousand men to protect the colonies against the Indians and other enemies,” the King, George III, reasoned, “it is only fair that the colonists should pay a part of the cost of supporting it.”
The English Parliament, being largely made up of the King’s friends, was quite ready to carry out his wishes, and passed a law taxing the colonists. This law was called the Stamp Act. It provided that stamps - very much like our postage-stamps, but costing all the way from one cent to fifty dollars each - should be put upon all the newspapers and almanacs used by the colonies, and upon all such legal papers as wills, deeds, and the notes which men give promising to pay back borrowed money.
When news of this act reached the colonists they were angry. “It is unjust,” they said. “Parliament is trying to make slaves of us by forcing us to pay money without our consent. The charters which the English King granted to our forefathers when they came to America make us free men just as much as if we were living in England.
“In England it is the law that no free man shall pay taxes unless they are levied by his representatives in Parliament. We have no one to speak for us in Parliament, and so we will not pay any taxes which Parliament votes. The only taxes we will pay are those voted by our representatives in our own colonial assemblies.”
They were all the more ready to take this stand because for many years they had bitterly disliked other English laws which were unfair to them. One of these forbade selling their products to any country but England. And, of course, if they could sell to no one else, they would have to sell for what the English merchants chose to pay.
Another law said that the colonists should buy the goods they needed from no other country than England, and that these goods should be brought over in English vessels. So in buying as well as in selling they were at the mercy of the English merchants and the English ship owners, who could set their own prices.
But even more unjust seemed the law forbidding the manufacture in America of anything which was manufactured in England. For instance, iron from American mines had to be sent to England to be made into useful articles, and then brought back over the sea in English vessels and sold to the colonists by English merchants at their own price.
Do you wonder that the colonists felt that England was taking an unfair advantage? You need not be told that these laws were strongly opposed. In fact, the colonists, thinking them unjust, did not hesitate to break them. Some, in spite of the laws, shipped their products to other countries and smuggled the goods they received in exchange; and some dared make articles of iron, wool, or other raw material, both for their own use and to sell to others.
“We will not be used as tools for England to make out of us all the profit she possibly can,” they declared. “We are not slaves but free-born Englishmen, and we refuse to obey laws which shackle us and rob us of our rights.”
So when to these harsh trade laws the Stamp Act was added, great indignation was aroused. Among those most earnest in opposing the act was Patrick Henry.
Let us take a look at the early life of this powerful man. He was born in 1736, in Hanover County, Virginia. His father was an able lawyer, and his mother belonged to a fine old Welsh family.
But Patrick, as a boy, took little interest in anything that seemed to his older friends worth while. He did not like to study nor to work on his father’s farm. His delight was to wander through the woods, gun in hand, hunting for game, or to sit on the bank of some stream fishing by the hour. When not enjoying himself out-of-doors he might be heard playing his violin.
Of course the neighbors said, “A boy so idle and shiftless will never amount to anything,” and his parents did not know what to do with him. They put him, when fifteen years old, as clerk into a little country store. Here he remained for a year, and then opened a store of his own. But he was still too lazy to attend to business, and soon failed.
When he was only eighteen years old, he married. The parents of the young couple, anxious that they should do well, gave them a small farm and a few slaves. But it was the same old story. The young farmer would not take the trouble to look after his affairs, and let things drift. So before long the farm had to be sold to pay debts. Once more Patrick turned to storekeeping, but after a few years he failed again.
He was now twenty-three years old, with no settled occupation, and with a wife and family to support. No doubt he seemed to his friends a ne’er-do-well.
About this time he decided to become a lawyer. He borrowed some law-books, and after studying for six months, he applied for permission to practise law. Although he passed but a poor examination, he at last was started on the right road.
He succeeded well in his law practice, and in a few years had so much business that people in his part of Virginia began to take notice of him. In 1765, soon after 6the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament, he was elected a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, a body not unlike our State Legislature.