AMONG the noted men in the history of the struggle of the American Colonies against the tyranny of the King of England, none occupies a more striking position than Patrick Henry, the great orator of Virginia.
His father was a magistrate, of an old Scotch family, whose lack of means kept his son, Patrick, from an education in college. However, young Henry studied at home, and acquired a fair education. He seemed to be ill-fitted for business of any kind. He kept a country store and failed; he tried farming and failed; then he went back to keeping a store and failed again. He became discouraged and idle, and began passing, his time fishing and hunting and telling humorous stories to idle companions around the village inn.
Finally, he turned to the law. After studying for a few weeks, he was examined, and allowed to begin practice. It was four years, however, before he gave any evidence to the world that he possessed those marvelous powers of oratory that have made him famous.
Now, let us see how Henry won reputation in the Parson's Cause. From the beginning, the Colonists of Virginia were accustomed to pay the preacher's salary in tobacco. Each parish minister received so much tobacco out of the amount raised by the tobacco tax. If the price of tobacco was high, the minister had the benefit of the high price. If the price was low, he suffered accordingly. For a long time the ministers took their chances on the tobacco market, and lived in abundance or in want, as the market price went up or down. At best, however, their salaries were never munificent.
In the year 1748, an Act was passed, fixing the annual salary of each parish minister at 16,000 pounds of tobacco. This Act was approved by the King, and became the law in Virginia. Each minister was allotted his tobacco salary, which he sold at whatever price he could get. This went on for a while, until the Legislature passed another Act, paying the minister's salary in paper money, at a fixed price per pound for tobacco. This fixed price was always lower than the market price, and reduced the minister's salary very much.
The Act was clearly unconstitutional, for it did not have the consent of the King, and, therefore, could not be law. Besides, it was manifestly unjust to the ministers who were employed under a tobacco contract, and not under a paper money contract. However, the people did not care, for the ministers were unpopular. And as for the King and his consent the Colonies were rapidly becoming rebellious of his authority.
The ministers had to take paper money for their salaries, or receive none at all. They complained to the Legislature, but could get no hearing. They complained to the Governor, but he gave them no consolation. They sent some of their own number to England to lay the matter before the King's Council. There they were told that their cause was just, and that they had a right to sue for damages in the Courts of Virginia. Whereupon they returned home to begin their suits.
One of the cases was brought by Rev. James Maury into the Court of Hanover County. The Judge promptly decided that the Act, paying the salaries in paper money, was no law, and that the ministers were clearly entitled to damages to be fixed by a special jury. The case of the people against Maury seemed hopeless, especially as it was very easy to calculate the difference between the value of the tobacco and the value of the paper money paid. However, a jury was drawn, and the desperate cause of the people against the clergy was committed to Patrick Henry, then almost unknown as a lawyer and advocate. Indeed, no other counsel or lawyer would take the case, as they said it was a hopeless one, and the people had better pay and be done with it.
Now comes the story of how the world found out the marvelous powers of oratory possessed by Patrick Henry. On the day of trial, the courtroom was crowded with people, the clergy being there in force to witness the triumph of one of their number. On the bench sat Henry's father, the presiding Judge of the trial, who looked with much distrust upon the ability of his son to defend the people's cause.
No one had heard Henry speak before a jury. He was considered an idle young man, of twenty-seven years of age, without learning or ability. He was badly dressed, and appeared ill at ease. When he arose to speak, he did so very awkwardly, and began in a stammering and hesitating manner; so much so that the ministers smiled, the people looked disappointed, and his father sank back in his chair mortified.
But wait, let us see what happened! In a few minutes, the young orator forgot his awkwardness, and ceased his stammering. His form straightened up, and his eyes began to flash, as he unrolled his invectives against the King, and narrated the grievances of the Colonies. He did not hesitate to call the King a tyrant, who had forfeited all right to obedience. His face began to shine with a nobleness and grandeur which no one ever saw before, and his eyes seemed to hold the lightning of wrath and power. His actions were graceful, bold, and commanding. For an hour he spoke, while the crowd listened as if under the spell of some enchantment. One of them said, "He made my blood run cold and my hair stand on end." As for his father, such was his surprise and joy that, Judge though he was, he allowed tears of happiness to run down his cheeks.
When Henry had finished his great oration, the jury was so overwhelmed by his arguments that they voted Rev. Maury just one penny damage whereas his suit had been for many pounds. In this way did Patrick Henry begin that marvelous career which made him one of the greatest orators this country has ever produced.