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Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

45 min

Students will:

  • explain why Henry is often called “The Orator of Liberty”
  • understand Henry’s role in the American independence movement
  • explain Henry’s objections to the Constitution
  • analyze Henry’s speaking style

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Patrick Henry.

    Patrick Henry was one of the most radical leaders of the opposition to British tyranny. He became famous for his speech during the Parson’s Cause of 1763 in which he denounced British misrule in Virginia. He also spoke out against the Stamp Act, claiming that only the Virginia legislature possessed the power to tax Virginia’s citizens. During the American Revolution and soon after independence, Henry served in the state legislature and as governor of Virginia. He was a leading opponent of the proposed Constitution of 1787, which he feared would establish tyranny in the United States. Henry wanted a bill of rights added to the document, but he opposed as inadequate the twelve amendments sent to the states in 1789.

Patrick Henry’s fame rested largely on his oratorical skills, which he employed in the cause of liberty. Henry was one of the most persuasive speakers of his time. His oratory differed from that typical of the period in that Henry rarely made allusions to classical texts. Instead, imitating the revivalist preachers he had heard as a boy during the Great Awakening, he filled his speeches with Biblical allusions and Christian symbolism. Henry’s persuasive speaking style converted the hearts of many. At the same time, however, his abrasive nature could alienate others. After battling Henry on revisions to the Virginia constitution, Thomas Jefferson became exasperated. “What we have to do I think,” Jefferson suggested to James Madison, “is devoutly to pray for his death.”

Henry was an articulate spokesman for American liberty during the crisis with Great Britain. After the United States won independence, he became a leading Anti-Federalist and opponent of the new Constitution. Henry feared that the new government would destroy individual rights and the authority of the states. His insistence that a bill of rights at least be attached to the document did much to make the first ten amendments to the Constitution a reality. Henry believed his duty was to guard zealously the rights of his people. He knew that future generations of Americans would judge his efforts, and he hoped that “they will see that I have done my utmost to preserve their liberty.”

After each speaker has given his or her group’s speech, conduct a large-group discussion to determine which group did the best job of summarizing the five main points of Henry’s speech. List these five main points on the board, making sure that the students understand them.

  1. Tell the students to imagine that they are delegates to the Virginia Ratifying Convention who favor the Constitution. Have each student compose a page-long response to Henry’s speech that addresses each of Henry’s five main points.
  2. Using both Handout A and Handout C, have the students highlight phrases or sentences uttered by Henry in which he most successfully employs fear to arouse his listeners. Also have the students underline phrases or sentences in which Henry employs sarcasm to attack his opponents.

In his speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Henry warned that some Americans wished to build a powerful empire at the expense of the people’s liberty. Some people today, echoing Henry, have argued that recent presidents have sought to expand the influence of the United States at the expense of the freedom of Americans. Have the students find a news article or editorial in which someone—a news commentator, government official, political candidate, etc.—makes such an argument. Then have the students compose a one-paragraph speech about the issue in the style used by Patrick Henry.

Student Handouts

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