Four American Patriots  by Alma Holman Burton

The Parsons' Cause

When it was noised about that the "parsons" were having a trial in the little brick court-house, people hurried in on horse, on foot, and in carriages. There were rich planters in velvet and lace, farmers in homespun, and poor whites in rags.

As Patrick watched them from the door of the tavern, he was glad that so many of his neighbors would hear his speech. He knew that if he won this case he would have many others.

But when he saw his uncle, the clergyman, step from his carriage, his courage failed him. He hastened to him, and said respectfully:

"Uncle, I am to try my first important case today. I shall not be able to speak before you. I would be too much embarrassed in your presence. Besides, I shall be obliged to say some hard things about the clergy."

"Well, Patrick, my boy," said his uncle kindly, "it is not I who shall stand in the way of your success. I will go back home. But you would best let the clergy alone. You will get the worst of it."

And the good old man returned to the carriage, and was driven away.

Then Patrick saw his father making his way through the crowd. He had quite forgotten that his father would be the judge at the trial. His heart seemed to come into his throat. Yet there was no help for him. The people were filling the court-room, and the doorway, and all the windows.

He squeezed through the packed room. There, in front, in a black robe, sat his father on a high bench, and before him sat twenty clergymen in one long row. And there were the twelve jurymen, who should bring in a verdict. It was a great moment for the young lawyer.

When he arose to speak, he looked shabby and awkward. His words came slowly. He hesitated and almost stopped speaking. The planters hung their heads. One whispered, "We should have known better than to put the case in the hands of that shiftless fellow!"

The clergymen on the bench lifted their eyebrows, and winked and nodded to one another, as much as to say, "Our case is already won."

Judge Henry nearly sank from the bench in confusion at his son's poor speaking. "Ah, Patrick, Patrick," he thought, "you have failed on the farm and in the shop, and now you are going to fail at the law, and the wife and wee bairns at home will be wanting for food!"

But soon Patrick's voice became clear. The long, awkward body straightened up. The blue eyes flashed. He looked grand and majestic.

The crowds outside the windows, who had begun to laugh and talk, were silent. Those at the door leaned eagerly forward to see the speaker.

He told about the poverty of the people, and the taxes they had paid for the war with the French.

He dwelt on the failure of the tobacco crop, and on the struggles of the poor farmers to keep their families from starving.

Then he pictured how Christ had fed the poor, and walked among the weak and the lowly of the earth.

And then, in scorn and anger, he pictured the many clergymen of Virginia who lived in fine houses, and feasted and drank while they were trying to take the last bit of bread from the tables of the poor.

His words were awful to the twenty clergymen. They shrank back in dismay.

Then the young lawyer stood like a lion at bay as he talked of the rights of the people.

He said the king of England had given the province of Virginia the right to make its own laws about the taxes. The House of Burgesses had passed a law providing for the use of paper instead of tobacco in payment of the clergy. This law, he said, was made to protect the poor from the oppressions of the rich.

His voice rang out clear and strong, and his eyes flashed strangely as he said that even a king had not the right to declare void a law made by the people.

"When a king becomes a tyrant," he cried, "he forfeits all right to obedience!"

Some who heard him looked frightened at such bold words. But as the speech went on, Patrick became more and more eloquent. He won the hearts of all. His father, the judge, forgot where he was, and tears streamed down his cheeks.

When the last words were uttered, the twelve jurymen went out. They soon brought back the verdict of one penny damages!

The clergymen had hoped to obtain several hundred dollars. They had lost their case, and they fled in anger and disappointment from the courtroom. But the planters shouted the name of their young lawyer. They bore him out on their shoulders and set him down in the yard where all might shake his hand.

And, for many years in Hanover County, if any one chanced to make a fine speech, the highest praise he could receive was that he was "almost equal to Patrick when he pleaded against the parsons."