Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Patrick Henry’s First Case

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Patrick Henry’s First Case

By William Wirt (1772–1834)

From ‘Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry’

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 début. 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 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 deathlike silence; their features fixed in amazement and awe; all their senses listening and riveted 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 ecstasy streamed down his cheeks, without the power or inclination to repress them.

The jury seem 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 a 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.

Oh, 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!”

I have tried much to procure a sketch of this celebrated speech. But those of Mr. Henry’s hearers who survive seem to have been bereft of their senses. They can only tell you, in general, that they were taken captive, and so delighted with their captivity that they followed implicitly whithersoever he led them; that at his bidding their tears flowed from pity, and their cheeks flushed with indignation; that when it was over they felt as if they had just awakened from some ecstatic dream, of which they were unable to recall or connect the particulars. It was such a speech as they believe had never before fallen from the lips of man; and to this day the old people of that country cannot conceive that a higher compliment can be paid to a speaker than to say of him, in their own homely phrase, “He is almost equal to Patrick when he plead against the parsons.”