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Birth and Parentage. — Education. - Commences
Business as a Merchant. — Fails, and attempts
PATRICK HENRY is, in more than in one particular, among the most remarkable characters of the revolutionary period of our history. He is declared by Jefferson to have been “the greatest orator that ever lived,” and “the person who, beyond all question, gave the first impulse to the movement, which terminated in the revolution." Whatever exaggeration, if any, may be supposed to have crept into these sweeping statements, it is certain that the merits and services which had power to call them forth from such a quarter, must have been of no ordinary kind. Indeed, the accounts that have been trans
mitted to us of the actual effects of his eloquence upon the minds of his hearers, though resting apparently on the best authority, seem almost fabulous, and certainly surpass; any that we have on record of the results produced by the most distinguished orators of ancient or modern Europe. Something must probably be allowed for the excited imagination of the authors of these accounts; but the necessity for making this allowance proves, of itself, the extent to which Henry possessed what may be regarded as the essence of the highest kind of eloquence, and powers of strongly exciting the imagination of his hearers.
His claim to the honor of having given the first impulse to the revolutionary movement, is a question hardly susceptible of a satisfactory solution, since no event, prior to the battle of Lexington and the declaration of independence, was so decidedly different in character from a variety of others occurring at about the same time, as to merit, in contradistinction from them, the praise of being the first step in the progress of the revolution. It is certain, however, that, in one of the two leading colonies, during the period immediately preceding the revolutions Henry was constantly in advance of the most ardent patriots, and that he suggested and carried into effect, by his immediate personal in
Auence, measures that were opposed as premature and violent by all the other eminent supporters of the cause of liberty. It was the good fortune of Henry to enjoy, during his lifetime, the appropriate reward of his extraordinary merits, and the almost unbounded admiration and respect of his countrymen.
By general acknowledgment, the greatest orator of his day; elevated by his transcendent talents to a sort of supremacy in the deliberative assemblies of which he was occasionally a member, and the courts of justice in which he exercised his profession; clothed, whenever he chose to accept them, with the highest executive functions in the gift of the people ; happy in his domestic relations and private circumstances, - his
was one of almost unbroken prosperity. He has also been eminently fortunate in the manner in which the history of his life has been written. While the recollection of his eloquence and the admiration of his character were still fresh in the minds of numerous surviving contemporaries, the task of collecting and recording the expressions of them, which were circulating in conversation, or merely ephemeral notes, was undertaken by one whose kindred eloquence and virtues rendered him on every account the fittest person to do justice to the subject. In the following sketch, I can claim little other merit,
than that of condensing, with perhaps some few not very important modifications and additions, the glowing biography of Wirt.
The gifted author is represented, on the same high authority alluded to above, that of Jefferson, as having been at times led by the enthusiasm with which he entered into his subject, to the verge of fiction. Let us also apply to his work the title which the great German poet, Goethe, prefixed to his own autobiography, Poetry and Truth. The narrative carries with it unquestionable evidence of authenticity, as well in the known character of the writer as in the authorities that are cited in support of every important statement, while it is written with so much warmth and elegance, that it possesses, throughout, all the charm of poetry, and perhaps produces, at times, a similar illusion. Although some few passages are a little too highly colored for the eye of good taste, there are few persons of eminence, who, after reading the whole, would not feel the wish which Queen Katharine, in the play, expressed in regard to her attendant, Griffith, that they might find themselves as fond and faithful a chronicler.
The family of Patrick Henry was of Scottish origin. His father, John Henry, was a native of Aberdeen; and he numbered among his family connections some of the distinguished literary
men of the day, having been a nephew, in the maternal line, to the historian Robertson, and cousin to David Henry, the brother-in-law to Edward Cave, and his successor in the conduct of the Gentleman's Magazine. John Henry emigrated to Virginia some time before the year 1730. He is said to have enjoyed the friendship and patronage of Dinwiddie, afterwards governor of the colony, who introduced him to the elder Colonel Syme, of Hanover county. In the family of the latter, Henry became domesticated, and, after the death of the colonel, married his widow, and resided on the estate. He appears to have enjoyed much consideration among his fellow-citizens, having been colonel of his regiment, principal surveyor of the county, and, for many years, presiding magistrate of the county court. Some years after his emigration, his brother Patrick, a clergyman of the Church of England, followed him to Virginia, and became, by his influence, minister of St. Paul's parish in Hanover, a place which he filled through life with high distinction. Both the brothers were conspicuous for their loyalty to the king and attachment to the church.
The widow of Colonel Syme, who became, as has been said, the wife of John Henry and the mother of Patrick, was a native of Hanover county, and a daughter of the family of Win