Thomas Jefferson Papers
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William Wirt to Thomas Jefferson, 27 July 1814

From William Wirt

Richmond. July 27. 1814.

Dear Sir.

The summer vacation of our courts, gives me an opportunity of taking up the materials which I have been for several years collecting for a life of Patrick Henry, and seeing what I could make of them. Will you have the goodness to excuse the following questions suggested, in a great degree, by a comparison of the communication you were so kind as to make, with others, from different quarters.

You mention a display made by Mr Henry in 1762, a year later or sooner, in resisting the project of a loan office devised to cover a delinquency of the treasurer Robinson. I have not the journal of the House of Burgesses of ’61 or 62, nor can they be found at the public offices here. But I am apprehensive that there may possibly be some inaccuracy in your recollection of the date of that incident or of Mr Henry’s participation in the debate. My doubts are founded on these circumstances. 1. That it appears from the concurrent statements of his countymen1 (Wm O. Winston, Charles Dabney, George Dabney, Thomas Trevilian, Colo Samuel Meredith & Judge Edmund Winston) that Mr Henry’s talent for speaking was not so much as suspected until the winter of 1763, when the trial of the celebrated cause called The Parson’s cause took place. Judge Tyler, who seems to have been very intimately acquainted with Mr Henry’s life, by a separate statement, confirms this circumstance. 2. These gentlemen concur in stating that Mr Henry never was a member of the assembly ’till ’65: which he himself confirms by an indorsement on a copy of his resolutions left sealed among his papers and directed to be opened by his executors: he does not indeed say that he never had been a member before; but he calls himself a new member who had just taken his seat, & unacquainted with the forms of the house. 3. I am in possession of the journals from ’63 to ’67, inclusive: and in ’67 (the year after the Speaker Robinson’s death and the explosion of his2 delinquency) I find the project of a loan brought forward, when Mr Henry was a member; but the object was to borrow & not to lend; and it passed the house, but was rejected by the council. This is obviously a different measure from that to which you allude. But the measure you do speak of could not have occurred between ’63 & 67—and if prior to ’63, Mr Henry was either not a member, or all my other statements are wrong, in assigning ’63 as the epoch of his first display of eloquence, and ’65 as the year in which he became a member of the house of Burgesses. If you have the journals of ’61 and ’62 and will take the trouble to turn to them, you will do me a favor to save me from the hazard of error on this head.

The Parson’s cause (as it was called) arose, you will recollect on the act of ’58, commuting the 16000 lbs tobacco stipend, for cash at 16/8 per C.Wt. The record of the court (Hanover) which is in my possession, shews that it was tried in nov. ’63 on a demurrer, in decr following on a writ of enquiry. It is the case of the revd Jas Maury & his vestry agt the collector of the county. It is agreed that this is the case in which Mr Henry first distinguished himself at the bar. Judge Winston says that shortly after the trial some strictures were published at Williamsburg by a Mr Greene—in which he spoke of Mr Henry with great contempt as an obscure attorney. I mention these circumstances in the hope that it may revive something in your memory that may contribute to give interest to my story: and of this I have the stronger hope, because I observe that you were at this time a student and of an age likely to be struck with so singular and animated a contest as that was.

On the same account I beg leave to ask you if you have any recollection of Mr Henry’s having made a very distinguished figure in a contested election before the committee of privileges & elections3 in 1764? Judge Winston & the late Judge Tyler state it to have been in the case of his brother John Syme. But neither the Journals of ’63 or ’64 both which are in my possession shew any such contest to have taken place. In ’64 there was a contest before that commee between Nat. W. Dandridge, petitioner and James Littlepage the sitting member from Hanover, in wc it appears that the parties were heard by their counsel before the commee. From the county & the parties, I have thought it probable that this was the case to wc the two gentlemen have alluded in their statements. The report of the commee in this case was made on the 26 nov. 1764. The petition4 was resolved to be frivolous and vexatious & Littlepage confirmed in his seat. If you recollect any circumstance which can clear this incident of doubt, or may give it more interest than a naked statement would do, I would thank you to communicate it.

I send you a copy of the resolutions from the journal of ’65, as also of Mr Henry’s statement; by comparing which you will see that the 5th resolution reported by him is not on the journal; confirming your statement of the rescission of the last resolution—and by comparing both with Judge Marshall’s note No IV. at the end of his second volume of the life of Washington copied by him from prior documents, you will see what inaccuracy is already creeping into the American history.—I do not perceive that the 5th resolution on Mr Henry’s statement, is of a nature so much stronger than the four found on the journal as to explain the solicitude to rescind it: the two additional ones which Mr Marshall says were agreed to by the committee but rejected in the house (and wc are not found either on the journal or Mr H’s copy) are of that nature—is it not possible that the bloody debate may have taken place on those two—but if rejected by the house as Mr M. states, there could be no necessity to rescind them. The resolutions themselves now sent may refresh your memory so far as to enable you to clear this difficulty for me. would you have any objection to being quoted as to the fact of rescinding the last resolution.—

It would increase the interest of the narrative very much, if I could give any thing like an outline of Mr Henry’s speech on his resolutions. The topics wc would naturally arise from the subject, are easily enough imagined:—but his views had something peculiar in them—and having never seen him, much less heard him, I shd be much gratified by such a sketch as I have mentioned, if it were possible to procure it.

The resolutions were introduced in a committee of the whole house: was it before the committee, or in the house that he made his celebrated exclamation of “Cæsar had his Brutus, Charles the 1st his Cromwell—and George the third may profit by their example—” It is said that when he had proceeded so far in this, as to name George the 3rd the speaker from the chair cried out “treason!” which was echoed from various parts of the house—when Henry proceeded firmly,—“may profit by their example—if this be treason make the most of it—” from this narrative the committee must have arisen, the speaker being in his chair, & the house have been formed—& yet the period of introducing his resolutions in the committee seems the most natural for such an appeal. I take it for granted from the universal concurrence about it that the incident really occurred. Have you any recollection of the time place & manner of it—and if so, will you be so good as to state it—It is said by one who professes to have heard Mr H’s speech on this occasion, that Mr H. was so ignorant of the forms of the house as to march out into the middle of the floor & wheel about to face the speaker instead of speaking in his place—have you a recollection of this fact.

Mr Henry was much censured by Mr Ed. Randolph, in the convention of 1788, on account of the attainder of a man by the name of Phillips, while Henry was Govr. I have read Mr Henry’s message to the speaker of the House of Burgesses on this subject & perceive that you were at the head of the committee that brought in the Bill of attainder. I cannot perceive that Mr R. had any just ground for his censure in that case. Can you recal the facts?—

I perceive that Mr Henry after serving three years as Govr wrote a letter to the speaker, declining the office farther, on a doubt whether under the constitution he was eligible, for a longer term: Was a contrary opinion held by any one?

I beg you to excuse all this trouble—and to believe me, devotedly,

Your friend & servant

Wm Wirt

Can you give me any particular information as to a project said to have been once entertained of making Mr Henry a dictator?—

RC (DLC); postscript written perpendicularly along left margin of first page; endorsed by TJ as received 9 Aug. 1814 and so recorded in SJL. Tr (MdHi: Wirt Papers).

The communication you were so kind as to make was TJ’s Notes on Patrick Henry, [before 12 Apr. 1812], Document II in a group of documents on TJ’s Recollections of Patrick Henry, printed above under that date. The act of ’58 was a one-year measure passed by the Virginia General Assembly in September 1758 that authorized the payment of debts in specified cash equivalents rather than previously contracted weights of tobacco, which had increased in value due to a bad crop (Hening, description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, Richmond, 1809–23, 13 vols. description ends 7:240–1).

In June 1788 at the Virginia ratification convention, Edmund Randolph and Patrick Henry disagreed on the justice and necessity of the bill of attainder obtained ten years earlier against Josiah Philips, a Virginia Loyalist regarded as a brutal criminal by state authorities. After consultation with Governor Henry, TJ had drafted this measure, which was introduced in the House of Delegates on 28 May 1778 and approved by the Senate two days later (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 34 vols. description ends , 2:189–93; Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, and others, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution [1976– ], 9:972, 1004, 1038, 1050–72, 1086–7).

In his 28 May 1779 letter to the speaker, declining further election as he neared the end of his third consecutive term as governor, Henry stated that “The term for which I had the honour to be elected governor by the late assembly, being just about to expire, and the constitution, as I think, making me ineligible to that office, I take the liberty to communicate to the assembly through you, sir, my intention to retire in four or five days.” The Virginia Constitution of 1776 stipulated that the governor “shall not continue in that office longer than three Years successively nor be eligible until the expiration of four Years after he shall have been out of that office.” Wirt later suggested that Henry may have based his doubt on the “impression … that his appointment for the first year, not having been made by delegates who had themselves been elected under the constitution, ought not to be counted as one of the constitutional years of service” (Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry [Philadelphia, 1817; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 4 (no. 131)], 225; William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence: A Documentary Record [1973–83], vol. 7, pt. 2, pp. 651–2).

1Tr: “countrymen.”

2Tr: “the.”

3Preceding two words not in Tr.

4Tr: “petitioner.”

Index Entries

  • Brutus, Marcus Junius search
  • Caesar, Julius; mentioned search
  • Charles I, king of England search
  • Cromwell, Oliver; mentioned search
  • Dabney, Charles; and P. Henry’s eloquence search
  • Dabney, George; and P. Henry’s eloquence search
  • Dandridge, Nathaniel West; and contested election search
  • George III, king of Great Britain; P. Henry on search
  • Great Britain; and Stamp Act (1765) search
  • Greene, Mr. (publisher) search
  • Henry, Patrick; and Parsons’ Cause search
  • Henry, Patrick; and Stamp Act search
  • Henry, Patrick; as lawyer search
  • Henry, Patrick; as legislator search
  • Henry, Patrick; governor of Va. search
  • Henry, Patrick; oratorical abilities of search
  • Henry, Patrick; proposed as dictator search
  • Henry, Patrick; TJ’s recollections of search
  • Henry, Patrick; W. Wirt’s book on search
  • historiography; of Va. search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; P. Henry search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Public Service; as Va. burgess search
  • Life of George Washington (J. Marshall); accuracy of search
  • Littlepage, James; and contested election search
  • Marshall, John; Life of George Washington search
  • Maury, James, Sr.; and Parsons’ Cause search
  • Meredith, Samuel; and P. Henry’s eloquence search
  • Parsons’ Cause; P. Henry and trial of search
  • Philips, Josiah; bill of attainder against search
  • Randolph, Edmund; and bill of attainder against J. Philips search
  • Robinson, John (1704–66); Speaker of Va. House of Burgesses search
  • Stamp Act (1765); resolutions opposing search
  • Syme, John; family of search
  • tobacco; as cash crop search
  • Trevilian, Thomas; and P. Henry search
  • Two-Penny Act (1758) search
  • Tyler, John (1747–1813); and P. Henry search
  • Virginia; constitution of (1776) search
  • Virginia; elections in search
  • Virginia; governor search
  • Virginia; historiography of search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses search
  • Virginia; House of Burgesses, journals of search
  • Virginia; House of Delegates search
  • Virginia; Senate search
  • Winston, Edmund; and P. Henry’s eloquence search
  • Winston, William O.; and P. Henry’s eloquence search
  • Wirt, William; and TJ’s recollections of P. Henry search
  • Wirt, William; letters from search