Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Country Boy’s First Trial

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Country Boy’s First Trial

By William Wirt (1772–1834)

[From Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Second Edition. 1818.]

AS Mr. Henry owed no part of his distinction either to birth or fortune, but wholly to himself, the deeper the obscurity and poverty from which he emerged, the stronger is the evidence which it bears to his powers, and the greater glory does it shed around him.

About the time of Mr. Henry’s coming to the bar, a controversy arose in Virginia, which gradually produced a very strong excitement, and called to it, at length, the attention of the whole state.

This was the famous controversy between the clergy on the one hand, and the legislature and people of the colony on the other, touching the stipend claimed by the former….

The case stood for argument on the demurrer to the November term, 1763, and was argued by Mr. Lyons for the plaintiff, and Mr. John Lewis for the defendants; when the court, very much to the credit of their candor and firmness, breasted the popular current by sustaining the demurrer. Thus far the clergy sailed before the wind, and concluded, with good reason, that their triumph was complete: for the act of 1758 having been declared void by the judgment on the demurrer, that of 1748 was left in full force, and became, in law, the only standard for the finding of the jury. Mr. Lewis was so thoroughly convinced of this, that he retired from the cause; informing his clients that it had been, in effect, decided against them, and that there remained nothing more for him to do. In this desperate situation, they applied to Patrick Henry, and he undertook to argue it for them before the jury, at the ensuing term. Accordingly, on the first day of the following December, he attended the court, and, on his arrival, found on the court-yard, such a concourse, as would have appalled any other man in his situation. They were not the people of the county merely who were there, but visitors from all the counties, to a considerable distance around. The decision upon the demurrer had produced a violent ferment amongst the people, and equal exultation on the part of the clergy; who attended the court in a large body, either to look down opposition, or to enjoy the final triumph of this hard fought contest, which they now considered as perfectly secure. Among many other clergymen, who attended on this occasion, came the reverend Patrick Henry, who was the plaintiff in another cause of the same nature, then depending in court. When Mr. Henry saw his uncle approach, he walked up to his carriage, accompanied by Col. Meredith, and expressed his regret at seeing him there. “Why so?” inquired the uncle. “Because, sir,” said Mr. Henry, “you know that I have never yet spoken in public, and I fear that I shall be too much overawed by your presence, to be able to do my duty to my clients; besides sir, I shall be obliged to say some hard things of the clergy, and I am very unwilling to give pain to your feelings.” His uncle reproved him for having engaged in the cause; which Mr. Henry excused by saying that the clergy had not thought him worthy of being retained on their side, and he knew of no moral principle by which he was bound to refuse a fee from their adversaries; besides, he confessed that, in this controversy, both his heart and judgment, as well as his professional duty, were on the side of the people; he then requested that his uncle would do him the favor to leave the ground. “Why, Patrick,” said the old gentleman with a good-natured smile, “as to your saying hard things of the clergy, I advise you to let that alone—take my word for it, you will do yourself more harm than you will them; and as to my leaving the ground, I fear, my boy, that my presence could neither do you harm or good, in such a cause. However, since you seem to think otherwise, and desire it of me so earnestly, you shall be gratified.” Whereupon, he entered his carriage again, and returned home.

Soon after the opening of the court, the cause was called. It stood on a writ of inquiry of damages, no plea having been entered by the defendants since the judgment on the demurrer. The array before Mr. Henry’s eyes was now most fearful. On the bench sat more than twenty clergymen, the most learned men in the colony, and the most capable, as well as the severest critics before whom it was possible for him to have made his debut. The court-house was crowded with an overwhelming multitude, and surrounded with an immense and anxious throng, who not finding room to enter, were endeavoring to listen without, in the deepest attention. But there was something still more awfully disconcerting than all this; for in the chair of the presiding magistrate sat no other person than his own father. Mr. Lyons opened the cause very briefly: in the way of argument he did nothing more than explain to the jury, that the decision upon the demurrer had put the act of 1758 entirely out of the way, and left the law of 1748 as the only standard of their damages; he then concluded with a highly wrought eulogium on the benevolence of the clergy. And now came on the first trial of Patrick Henry’s strength. No one had ever heard him speak, and curiosity was on tiptoe. He rose very awkwardly, and faltered much in his exordium. The people hung their heads at so unpromising a commencement; the clergy were observed to exchange sly looks with each other; and his father is described as having almost sunk with confusion from his seat. But these feelings were of short duration, and soon gave place to others of a very different character. For now were those wonderful faculties which he possessed, for the first time developed; and now was first witnessed that mysterious and almost supernatural transformation of appearance, which the fire of his own eloquence never failed to work in him. For as his mind rolled along, and began to glow from its own action, all the exuviæ of the clown seemed to shed themselves spontaneously. His attitude, by degrees, became erect and lofty. The spirit of his genius awakened all his features. His countenance shone with a nobleness and grandeur which it had never before exhibited. There was a lightning in his eyes which seemed to rive the spectator. His action became graceful, bold, and commanding; and in the tones of his voice, but more especially in his emphasis, there was a peculiar charm, a magic, of which any one who ever heard him will speak as soon as he is named, but of which no one can give any adequate description. They can only say that it struck upon the ear and upon the heart, in a manner which language cannot tell. Add to all these, his wonder-working fancy, and the peculiar phraseology in which he clothed its images; for he painted to the heart with a force that almost petrified it. In the language of those who heard him on this occasion, “he made their blood run cold, and their hair to rise on end.”

It will not be difficult for any one, who ever heard this most extraordinary man, to believe the whole account of this transaction which is given by his surviving hearers; and from their account, the court-house of Hanover county must have exhibited, on this occasion, a scene as picturesque, as has been ever witnessed in real life. They say that the people, whose countenance had fallen as he arose, had heard but a very few sentences before they began to look up; then to look at each other with surprise, as if doubting the evidence of their own senses; then, attracted by some strong gesture, struck by some majestic attitude, fascinated by the spell of his eye, the charm of his emphasis, and the varied and commanding expression of his countenance, they could look away no more. In less than twenty minutes, they might be seen in every part of the house, on every bench, in every window, stooping forward from their stands, in death-like silence; their features fixed in amazement and awe; all their senses listening and rivetted upon the speaker, as if to catch the last strain of some heavenly visitant. The mockery of the clergy was soon turned into alarm; their triumph into confusion and despair; and at one burst of his rapid and overwhelming invective, they fled from the bench in precipitation and terror. As for the father, such was his surprise, such his amazement, such his rapture, that, forgetting where he was, and the character which he was filling, tears of ecstacy streamed down his cheeks, without the power or inclination to repress them.

The jury seemed to have been so completely bewildered, that they lost sight not only of the act of 1748, but that of 1758 also; for thoughtless even of the admitted right of the plaintiff, they had scarcely left the bar, when they returned with a verdict of one penny damages. A motion was made for a new trial; but the court, too, had now lost the equipoise of their judgment, and overruled the motion by an unanimous vote. The verdict and judgment overruling the motion, were followed by redoubled acclamations, from within and without the house. The people, who had with difficulty kept their hands off their champion, from the moment of closing his harangue, no sooner saw the fate of the cause finally sealed, than they seized him at the bar, and in spite of his own exertions, and the continued cry of “order” from the sheriffs and the court, they bore him out of the court-house, and raising him on their shoulders, carried him about the yard in a kind of electioneering triumph.

O! what a scene was this for a father’s heart! so sudden; so unlooked for; so delightfully overwhelming! At the time, he was not able to give utterance to any sentiment; but a few days after, when speaking of it to Mr. Winston, he said, with the most engaging modesty, and with a tremor of voice which showed how much more he felt than he expressed, “Patrick spoke in this cause, near an hour! and in a manner that surprised me! and showed himself well informed on a subject, of which I did not think he had any knowledge!”