After the Constitutional Convention at Richmond, Patrick Henry continued to practice law in the courts.
He rode from place to place on horseback or in an old gig; and at the taverns where he stopped he was always surrounded by an admiring crowd.
Wealth came. He bought many plantations and prospered greatly.
Then, as the years bent his shoulders and wrinkled his high brow, he retired to the quiet of an estate, called Red Hill, on the Staunton River.
The hospitable house stood on a slight rise of ground, surrounded by groves of oak, pine, and walnut trees.
Below it stretched the green valley, with its winding stream and gently sloping hills. In the distance towered the lofty peaks of the Blue Ridge.
In full view of this beautiful scene, the noble man sat often in a great armchair under the shade of a spreading walnut tree, or walked from grove to grove as he talked with himself. No one interrupted him then; but when the hour of solitude was over his grandchildren gathered around with a shout.
There were frolics on the grass, where the silver-haired grandfather was the noisiest of the merrymakers. And he often told stories, while the little ones listened with breathless attention, or he made his violin mimic the birds, while the joyous band about him vied at guessing which songster was a prisoner in the instrument.
Nothing tempted the great orator from this delightful retreat of his old age. Virginia elected him governor for a sixth term, but he firmly refused the honor. His friend Washington, who had become President of the United States, asked him to be Minister to Spain, and then he asked him to be Secretary of State, and then to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; but he would listen to no offers of high place.
When John Adams became President, he urged Mr. Henry to go as an envoy to France, but he refused. The years lay heavy on his shoulders because of ill-health. Besides, he had won laurels enough.
In January, 1799, a letter came from Mount Vernon, marked "Confidential." It was in the handwriting of George Washington.
Just at this time several states claimed the right to declare void some laws made by Congress. The laws were not wise, and many in Virginia said it was the duty of the legislature to refuse to obey them.
Washington implored Patrick Henry to speak in defence of the government of the United States.
Now, the great orator did not like the laws very well himself; but he said, when an Act of Congress became a law, it was the duty of every citizen to obey it. He agreed to tell the people what he thought about it.
It had been many years since Patrick Henry had spoken in public; and when it was noised around that he would speak at Charlottesville court-house, people flocked in from all over the country to hear him.
The college in the next county closed for a holiday, and president, professors and students hurried to find standing room in the court-house.
Before the hour for the meeting, such crowds followed the orator about that a clergyman said, to rebuke them: "Mr. Henry is not a god!"
"No," said Mr. Henry, who was deeply moved because the people were so devoted to him; "no, indeed, my friends, I am but a poor worm of the dust."
When the great orator arose to speak, he seemed stooped with age. His face was pale and care-worn.
At first his voice was cracked and shrill, and his gestures were feeble; but soon his bowed head became erect, his blue eyes glowed, his features looked like those of a young man, his voice rang out like music to the farthest listener of the thousands standing in the courtyard.
He told them they had planted thorns in his pillow, and that he could not sleep while Virginia was a rebel to the government of the United States. The Virginians had dared to pronounce the laws of Congress without force. Only the Supreme Court of the United States had the right to do that.
He said they would drive the United States government to arms against them to enforce her rightful authority; and, because they were too weak alone, the Virginians would call in the Spaniards, or the French, or the English, from over the sea, to help them fight against the government of the United States, and then these foreign powers would make them slaves.
He asked if Charlotte County had the right to defy the laws of Virginia. Then he showed them how Virginia belonged to the United States, just as Charlotte County belonged to Virginia.
"Let us preserve our strength united," he said, "against whatever foreign nation may dare to enter our territory."
The vast multitude hung on each word and look. When he had finished his magnificent speech, he was very weak; and as he was carried into the tavern near by, some one said, "The sun has set in all his glory."
He returned to his home. A few weeks later, while sitting in his chair, he died.
Just before the end came, he prayed aloud in a clear voice for his family and for his country. When he breathed for the last time, his old family physician left his side to throw himself down under the trees and sob aloud. And everybody who had known the brave, generous, and gifted Patrick Henry grieved over his loss.
A marble slab covers his grave, inscribed with the name, the birth, and the death, and the words: "His fame is his best epitaph."
Before the year closed, George Washington died also, and there was mourning throughout the land for these two great patriots, who had done so much for Virginia and for the young republic of the United States.