Editor's note: The Museum of the American Revolution opens this week in Philadelphia.
“GIVE ME LIBERTY, OR GIVE ME DEATH!” is all we remember about him—just seven little words. But Patrick Henry spoke far more words than those as he rallied thirteen colonies to declare Independence from Great Britain, becoming the Voice of the Revolution.
His Stamp Act Resolves a decade earlier set the colonies ablaze, igniting the Sons of Liberty to form and the colonies to defy the tyranny of a taxing king, sending shockwaves into Parliament an ocean away. As a young man, he was the first one to boldly speak out against trampled rights and threatened liberties while fear, doubt and intimidation initially kept others quiet.
Patrick Henry went on to become the first elected governor of the largest colony, Virginia, and was credited by George Washington as the lifeline that saved the Continental Army from extinction.
You can thank Patrick Henry for your Bill of Rights, because he is the one who fought for three years to make sure your rights were specified and protected. Congress thought the Constitution alone was sufficient but Henry’s persistent voice finally convinced them that a Constitution without a Bill of Rights wasn’t good enough.
So why is it that America doesn’t remember all that he did for our nation, except for seven little words? His life, albeit imperfect, can offer kids a glimpse of a man who made a tremendous impact on our nation, and is a good role model for children today.
As a kid, Patrick Henry was not what you’d call a model student. He preferred to run around barefoot outside, mimicking birds and fishing or hunting than have his nose in a book. He eventually developed a love for reading, but he was a middle-class young man who couldn’t afford to go to college.
He had to seek out a profession and work hard, but Patrick Henry was a failure at everything he tried—at first.
He failed twice as a merchant, failed as a tobacco farmer, married young, lost his house and possessions to a fire and had to move his young family into his father-in-law’s tavern while he helped out with the guests. (Sounds like a real role model for kids so far, right?) But it just so happened that many of those tavern customers were lawyers who practiced in Hanover Courthouse across the street. And as Patrick Henry waited on his customers, he listened.
That’s when he finally discovered something he might be able to do well. He borrowed some law books, taught himself and boldly applied for a law license that was granted by the skin of his teeth. He worked hard, circuit riding to represent small, struggling clients until finally one single court case in 1763 led him to his life’s purpose—to become the voice of the people.
He defied the tyranny of the king in the Parsons Cause, earning the love and respect of the people he had championed. From there he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and soon thereafter became the Voice of the Revolution.
But one of the reasons no one remembers all that he later did is that he didn’t care about being remembered. Patrick Henry passionately served his country, not himself.
He knew it wasn’t about him.
After our nation was firmly established, he declined numerous national offices in order to meet his obligations back home. (With seventeen children and seventy-seven grand-children, he was a founding father indeed!) Rather than pursue personal glory, he instead went back to practicing law to take care of his family.
So why should kids listen to the echoing voice of Patrick Henry? Because our country needs to hear from a new generation of voices who will choose to also speak with lives of such selfless greatness and integrity. Patrick Henry kept pursuing his life’s purpose despite repeated failures and setbacks. He observed everything around him and earnestly listened to people. He engaged with those who could teach him, those who shared his views and with those with whom he disagreed. And he learned early on that by closely studying mankind (past and present) he could determine where future events would lead. Sure enough, three weeks after he sounded the alarm to arm with “Liberty or Death,” the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.
Patrick Henry was vigilant about pursuing virtue in every aspect of his life. Some considered him a hot-head for his passionate speeches, but he never spoke disrespectfully or personally disparaged anyone while speaking his mind on the pressing issues of his day.
He was faithful to a sick wife and rallied our nation to Independence just three weeks after she died, silently carrying the weight of becoming a widower with six children on his shoulders.
His word was his bond, and his morality was never once in question.
In every facet of his life, Patrick Henry never gave up, no matter the failure, pain, insults and opposition he endured or the amount of work required.
He chose to make his life count by humbly serving his God, his family and his nation.
Given America’s tumultuous climate, that’s exactly the kind of role model our kids desperately need today.
Jenny L. Cote is the author of "The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key" (AMG Publishers), a book designed to encourage kids to get excited about learning the history of Patrick Henry’s life and quest for liberty.