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Thomas Jefferson - A Character Sketch|
Jefferson and Patrick Henry
by Ellis, Edward S. (A.M.)
|Patrick Henry was an early friend and companion of Jefferson. He was a
jovial young fellow noted for mimicry, practical jokes, fiddling and
dancing. Jefferson's holidays were sometimes spent with Henry, and the two
together would go off on hunting excursions of which each was passionately
fond. Both were swift of foot and sound of wind.
Deer, turkey, foxes and other game were eagerly pursued. Jefferson looked
upon Patrick Henry as the moving spirit of all the fun of the younger
circle, and had not the faintest idea of the wonderful talents that lay
latent in his companion's mind.
And, Henry too, did not see in the slender, freckled, sandy-haired
Jefferson, the coming man who was to be united with him in some of the most
stirring and important events in American history.
Jefferson did not realize that this rustic youngster, careless of dress, and
apparently thoughtless in manner, and sometimes, to all appearance, so
unconcerned that he was taken by some to be an idiot, was to be the flaming
tongue of a coming Revolution. Henry did not dream that this fiddling boy,
Jefferson, was to be the potent pen of a Declaration which was to emancipate
One day in 1760, just after Jefferson had entered upon his college studies
at Williamsburg, Henry came to his room to tell him, that since their
parting of a few months before, after the Christmas holidays, he had studied
law, and had come to Williamsburg to get a license to practice. The fact
was he had studied law but six weeks, and yet felt himself able to pass the
examination. The examination was conducted by four examiners. Three of
them signed the license. The fourth, George Wythe, refused his signature.
But Henry was now duly admitted to the bar. He went back, however, to
assist his father-in-law, Mr. Shelton, in tending his tavern, and for four
years, practicing occasionally, he waited his time.
In May, 1765, Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses which met at
Williamsburg. While in attendance as a member Henry was the guest of young
Jefferson. Henry presented a rustic appearance. His dress was coarse and
worn. His fame had not become fully known at Williamsburg, "and he moved
about the streets unrecognized though not unmarked. The very oddity of his
appearance provoked comment."
In the Assembly were some of the most brilliant and distinguished men in the
Colony. Among them were Peyton Randolph, George Wythe, John Robinson,
Richard Henry Lee, and Edmund Pendleton.
Dignified manners prevailed among the members. An elaborate and formal
courtesy characterized them in their proceedings. They were polished and
aristocratic men, not specially interested in the welfare of the common
people. They were strongly desirous of perpetuating the class distinctions
observed in Virginia society. A very marked contrast was apparent between
them and the tall, gaunt, coarse-attired, unpolished member from Louisa.
Not being personally known to the majority of the House, little notice was
taken of him, and no expectaions of any particular influence to be exercised
by him upon its deliberations were expected. When the news of the passage
of the Stamp Act reached the assembly, amazement and indignation were felt
by the Royalist leaders, at the folly of the English ministry. But there
seemed no way before them but submission to the Imperial decree. But Henry
saw that the hour had come for meeting the issue between the King and the
He rose in his seat and offered his famous Five Resolutions, which in
substance declared that Englishmen living in America had all the rights of
Englishmen living in England, and that all attempts to impose taxes upon
them without the consent of their own representatives, had "a manifest
tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom."
These resolutions provoked an animated and exciting debate. There is a
strong probability that Jefferson knew the intentions of Henry, for he was
present on that ever memorable occasion in the House.
No provision was made in the Assembly chamber for spectators. There was no
gallery from which they could look down upon the contestants. In the
doorway between the lobby and the chamber Jefferson took his stand, intently
watching Henry's attitude and actions.
In a hesitating way, stammering in his utterances, he began reading his
Resolutions. Then followed the opening sentences of the magnificent oration
of this "Demosthenes of the woods," as Byron termed him.
No promise did they give of what was to follow. Very soon the
transformation came. Jefferson saw him draw himself to his full height and
sweep with a conqueror's gaze the entire audience before and about him.
No impediment now; no inarticulate utterances now. With a voice rich and
full, and musical, he poured out his impassioned plea for the liberties of
the people. Then soaring to one of his boldest flights, he cried out in
"Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third
-----." The Speaker sprang to his feet, crying, "Treason! treason!" The
whole assembly was in an uproar, shouting with the Speaker, "Treason!
treason!" Not only the royalists, but others who were thoroughly alarmed by
the orator's audacious words, joined in the cry. But never for a moment did
Henry flinch. Fixing his eye upon the Speaker, and throwing his arm forward
from his dilating form, as though to hurl the words with the power of a
thunderbolt, he added in a tone none but he himself could command, "May
profit by their example." Then, with a defiant look around the room, he
said, "If this be treason, make the most of it."
Fifty-nine years afterwards Jefferson continued to speak of that great
occasion with unabated enthusiasm. He narrated anew the stirring scenes
when the shouts of; "treason, treason," echoed through the Hall.
In his record of the debate which followed the speech of Henry he described
it as "most bloody." The arguments against the resolutions, he said were
swept away by the "torrents of sublime eloquence" from the lips of Patrick
Henry. With breathless interest, Jefferson, standing in the doorway,
watched the taking of the vote on the last resolution. It was upon this
resolution that the battle had been waged the hottest. It was carried by a
majority of a single vote. When the result was announced, Peyton Randolph,
the King's Attorney General, brushed by Jefferson, in going out of the
House, exclaiming bitterly with an oath as he went, "I would have given five
hundred guineas for a single vote."
The next day, in the absence of the mighty orator, the timid Assembly
expunged the fifth resolution and modified the others. The Governor,
however, dissolved the House for daring to pass at all the resolutions. But
he could not dissolve the spirit of Henry nor the magical effect of the
resolutions which had been offered. By his intrepid action Henry took the
leadership of the Assembly out of the hands which hitherto had controlled
The resolutions as originally passed were sent to Philadelphia. There they
were printed, and from that center of energetic action were widely
circulated throughout the Colonies. The heart of Samuel Adams and the
Boston patriots were filled with an unspeakable joy as they read them. The
drooping spirits of the people were revived and the doom of the Stamp Act