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Genius is one of the indefinable attributes of man. We may think, see, talk and write upon this noble quality, rehearse its triumphant achievements, its magic wonders, its untiring efforts--but what _is_ genius? that's the question--one that none but pedants will attempt to answer. The thing, the moving cause, the _modus operandi_ can no more be comprehended and reduced to materiality than the spirit that animates our bodies.

The man who can do this can analyze the tornado, put the thunder cloud in his breeches pocket and quaff lightning for a beverage. Metaphysicians, physiologists and craniologists may put on their robes of mystery, arm each eye with a microscope, each finger with the acutest phrenological sensibility, whet up all their mental powers to the finest keenness, strain their imagination to its utmost tension, tax speculation one hundred per cent, and then call to their aid the brightest specimens of this occult power--the combined force could not weave a web and label it GENIUS that would not be an insult to common sense. Genius is the essential oil of mental power. No frost can freeze it, no fog can mildew it, no heat can paralyze it, no potentate can crush it. In all countries and climes it springs up spontaneously but flourishes most luxuriantly and attains a more perfect symmetry and greater strength when nurtured by intelligence and freedom. So versatile is this concentrated essence of mental power that we can form no rule to pre-determine its personal locality, its time of development, its measure of strength or the extent of its orbit. Like a blazing meteor--it bursts suddenly upon us as in the darkness of night, illuminating the world and like the lightning thunder bolt--shivers every obstacle that stands in its way.

Thus it was with Patrick Henry born at Studley, Hanover County, Virginia, on the 29th of May 1736. His father was a highly reputable man of Scotch descent--his mother was the sister of Judge Winston who was justly celebrated as an eloquent speaker. During his childhood and youth Patrick was remarkable for indolence and a love of recreation. He arrived at manhood with a limited education and ignorant of all occupations. His mind was not cultivated, his native talents were not developed, his genius was not awakened until after he was a husband and a father. His friends vainly endeavored to put him on a course of application to business by setting him up in the mercantile line. Preferring his fishing rod and gun to measuring tape he soon failed. Finding himself bankrupt he concluded that the increasing troubles of his pilgrimage were too numerous to bear alone. He married the daughter of a respectable planter and became a tiller of the ground. Unacquainted with this new vocation he soon swamped in the quagmire of adversity. He then gibed, put his helm hard up and tacked to the mercantile business. Still he was unfortunate. Poverty claimed him as a favorite son and bestowed upon him special attention. An increasing family needed increased means of support. Creditors had the assurance to shower duns upon him and cruelly reduced him to misery and want. He then conceived the idea of studying law. For the first time he felt most keenly the waste of time in his childhood and youth. He saw many of his age who had ascended high on the ladder of fame whose native powers of mind he knew to be inferior to his. He bent his whole energies to study and in six weeks after he commenced was admitted to the Bar, more as a compliment to his respectable connexions and his destitute situation than from the knowledge he had obtained of the abstruse science of law during the brief period he had been engaged in its investigation. Folded in the coils of extreme want for the three ensuing years he made but slight advances in his profession. He obtained the necessaries of life by aiding his father-in-law at a _tavern_ bar instead of being at the Bar of the court. He was still ardently attached to his gun. He often look his knapsack of provisions and remained in the woods several days and nights. On his return he would enter the court in his coarse and blood stained hunting dress--take up his causes--carry them through with astonishing adroitness and finally gained a popular reputation as an advocate.

In 1764 he was employed in a case of contested election tried at Richmond, which introduced him among the fashionable and gay whose dress and manners formed a great contrast with his. He made no preparation to meet his learned and polished adversaries. As he moved awkwardly among them, some, who were squinting at him and his coarse apparel, supposed him _non compos mentis_. When the case was tried the audience and court were electrified by his torrent of native eloquence and lucid logic. Judges Tyler and Winston who were upon the bench declared they had never before witnessed so happy and powerful an effort in point of sublime rhetoric and conclusive argument. The towering genius of Patrick Henry then burst from embryo into blooming life. From that time his fame spread its expansive wings and soared far above those of gayer plumage but of less strength. A lucrative practice banished want, sunshine friends returned and flashed around him, he leaped upon the flood tide of prosperity. From his childhood he had been a close observer of human nature--the only germ of genius visible in his juvenile character. He had studiously cultivated this important attribute which was of great advantage to him through life. So familiar had he become with the propensities and operations of the mind that he comprehended all its intricacies, impulses and variations. This gave him a great advantage over many of his professional brethren who had studied Greek and Latin more but human nature less than this self-made man. He took a deep and comprehensive view of the causes that impel men to action and of the results produced by the multifarious influences that control them. He grasped the designs of creation, the duty of man to his fellow and his God, the laws of nature, reason and revelation and became a bold advocate for liberty of conscience, equal rights and universal freedom. From the expansive view he had taken of the rights of man, the different forms of government, the oppression of kings, the policy pursued by the mother country towards the American colonies, he was fully convinced that to be great and happy a nation must be free and independent. With the eye of a statesman he had viewed the increasing oppression of the crown. They had reached his noble soul and roused that soul to action. Patrick Henry first charged the revolutionary ball with patriotic fire in Virginia and gave it an impetus that gathered force as it rolled onward.

In 1765 he was elected to the Assembly and at once took a bold decisive stand against British oppression. He introduced resolutions against the Stamp Act that were so pointed and bold as to alarm many of the older members although they admitted the truth and justice of the sentiments expressed. They had not his genius to design or his moral courage to execute. To impart a share of these to them and allay the palpitations of their trembling hearts was the province of this young champion of freedom. In this he succeeded--his resolutions were passed. Each was drawn from the translucent fountain of eternal justice--based upon equity and law and within the orbit of Magna Charta that had been the polar star of the English government ever since the 19th of June 1215. Read them and judge.

"Resolved--That the first adventurers and settlers of this his majesty's colony and dominion brought with them and transmitted to their posterity and all other his majesty's subjects since inhabiting in this his majesty's said colony--all the privileges, franchises and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed and possessed by the people of Great Britain.

"Resolved--That by two royal charters granted by King James I. the colonies aforesaid are declared entitled to all the privileges, liberties and immunities of denizens and natural born subjects to all intents and purposes as if they had been born and abiding within the realm of England.

"Resolved--That the taxation of the people by themselves or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear and the easiest mode of raising them and are equally affected by such taxes themselves, is the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom and without which the ancient constitution cannot subsist.

"Resolved--That his majesty's liege people of this most ancient colony have uninterruptedly enjoyed the right of being thus governed by their own Assembly in the article of their taxes and internal police and that the same hath never been forfeited or in any other way given up but hath been constantly recognized by the king's people of Great Britain.

"Resolved therefore--That the General Assembly of this colony has the sole right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony and that any attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whosoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom."

The cringing sycophants of a corrupt and corrupting ministry could not--_dare_ not deny the correctness of these resolutions. They were hailed by every patriot as the firm pillars of American liberty. They were based upon the well defined principles of the English constitution and confined within the limits of the ancient landmarks of that sacred instrument. They were enforced by the overwhelming eloquence and logic of Mr. Henry and seconded by the cool deep calculating Johnson, who sustained them by arguments and conclusions that carried conviction and conversion to the minds of many who were poising on the agonizing pivot of hesitation a few moments before. Some members opposed them who subsequently espoused the cause of equal rights with great vigor. This opposition brought out in fuller, richer foliage the genius of the mover. He stood among the great in all the sublimity of his towering intellect the acknowledged champion of that legislative hall which he had but recently entered. Astonishment and delight held his electrified audience captive as he painted the increasing infringements of the hirelings of the crown in bold and glowing colors. He presented in perspective the torrents of blood and seas of trouble through which the colonists had waded to plant themselves in the new world. With his paralyzing finger he pointed to the chains forged by tyranny already clanking upon every ear with a terrific sound. To be free or slaves was the momentous question. He was prepared and determined to unfold the banner of LIBERTY--drive from his native soil the task-masters of mother Britain or perish in the attempt. His opponents were astounded and found it impossible to stem the mighty current of popular feeling put in motion by the gigantic powers of this bold advocate of right. The resolutions passed amidst cries of _treason_ from the tories--_Liberty or death_ from the patriots. The seeds of freedom were deeply planted on that day and Old Virginia proved a congenial soil for their growth. From that time Patrick Henry was hailed as one of the great advocates of human rights and rational liberty. He stood on the loftiest pinnacle of fame, unmoved and unscathed by the fire of persecution calmly surveying the raging elements of the revolutionary storm in boiling commotion around him.

In August 1774 a Convention met at Williamsburg and passed a series of resolutions pledging support to the eastern Colonies in the common cause against the common enemy. Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton and Patrick Henry were appointed delegates to the general Congress. On the 4th of September this august assembly of patriotic sages met in Carpenter's Hall at the city of Philadelphia. The object for which they had met was one of imposing and thrilling interest, big with events, absorbing in character and vast in importance. The eyes of gazing millions were turned upon them--the burning wrath of the king was flashing before them--the anathema of the ministers was pronounced against them. But they still resolved to go on. The hallowed cause of freedom impelled them to action. After an address to the God of Hosts imploring his guidance the proceedings opened by appointing Peyton Randolph of Virginia President. A deep and solemn silence ensued. Each member seemed to appeal to Heaven for aid and direction. At length Patrick Henry rose in all the majesty of his greatness. Echo lingered to catch a sound. Like a colossal statue there he stood and surveyed the master spirits around him--his countenance solemn as eternity. O, my God! what a moment of agonizing suspense! His lips opened--his stentorian voice broke the painful silence--respiration regained its freedom--the hall was illuminated with patriotic fire. With the eloquence of Demosthenes, the philosophy of Socrates, the justice of Aristides and the patriotism of Cincinnatus he took a bold, broad, impartial and comprehensive view of the past, present and future--held up to the light the relations between the mother country and the Colonies--unveiled the dark designs of the corrupt unprincipled ministry--exposed their unholy claims to wield an iron sceptre over America--demonstrated clearly that their ulterior object was the slavery of the people and extortion of money and painted a nation's rights and a nation's wrongs in flaming colors of lurid brightness. The dignity and calmness of his manner, the clearness of his logic, the force of his arguments, the power of his eloquence, the solemnity of his countenance and voice--combined to inspire an awe and deep toned feeling until then unknown to the astonished audience. His elevation of thought seemed supernatural and purified by divinity. He seemed commissioned by the great Jehovah to rouse his countrymen to a sense of impending danger. He sat down amidst repeated bursts of applause the acknowledged Demosthenes of the new world--the most powerful orator of America.

In March 1775 he was a member of the Virginia Convention that convened at Richmond, where he proposed resolutions to adopt immediate measures of defence sufficient to repel any invasion by the mother country. In these he was strongly opposed by several influential members who were still disposed to cringe to royal power. Reeking with wrongs and insolence as it was, _he_ held that power in utter contempt. His dauntless soul soared above the trappings of a crown backed by bayonets and sought for rest only in the goal of freedom. The following extract from his speech on that thrilling occasion will best convey the tone of his emotions--deeply felt and strongly told. His overwhelming eloquence we can but faintly imagine.

"Mr. President--It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth and listen to the songs of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those, who, having eyes see not and having ears hear not the things that so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth--to know the worst and provide for it. I have but one lamp to guide my feet and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen are pleased to solace themselves and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has lately been received? Trust it not sir--it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed by a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of your petition comports with those warlike preparations that cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation--the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this mortal array if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No sir--she has none. They are meant for _us_, they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find that have not already been exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm that is coming on. We have petitioned--we have remonstrated, we have supplicated, we have prostrated ourselves before the throne and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted, our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult, our supplications have been disregarded and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.

"In vain after these things may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. _There is no longer room for hope._ If we wish to be free--if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending--if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained--_we must fight_! I repeat it sir--_we must fight_!! An appeal to arms and the God of Hosts is all that is left us. It is vain sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry--_peace_! _peace_!--but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that comes from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. What is it gentlemen wish? What would they have? Why stand we here idle? Is life so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? _Forbid it Almighty God!_ I know not what course others may take but as for _me--give me Liberty or Death_!!!" See the resolutions to which he thus spoke in the life of Nelson.

The effect of this speech was electrical. It insulated nearly every heart with the liquid fire of patriotism. The cry _to arms--Liberty or death_ resounded from every quarter, rang through every ear and was responded by every patriot. The resolutions were seconded by Richard Henry Lee and adopted without further opposition and a committee appointed to carry them into effect. From that time the Old Dominion was renewed, regenerated and free. Her noble sons rushed to the rescue and cheerfully poured out their blood and treasure in the cause of rational liberty. Soon after, the convention adjourned to August. About that time Lord Dunmore removed a quantity of powder from the magazine at Williamsburg on board the armed ship to which he had retreated. On learning this fact Mr. Henry collected a military force and demanded the restoration of the specific article or its equivalent in money. The needful was paid and no claret drawn. A royal proclamation was issued against these daring rebels which united the people more strongly in favor of their orator and soldiers whose conduct they sanctioned in several public meetings.

In August when the Convention met Mr. Henry was again elected to the Continental Congress and remained one of the boldest champions of right and justice. In June 1776 he was elected governor of his native state. He served faithfully for two years and although unanimously re-elected declined serving longer. In 1780 he was a member of the legislature of his state and manifested an unabating zeal in the cause he had nobly espoused and essentially advanced. In 1788 he was a member of the Virginia Convention convened to consider the Federal Constitution. To that instrument he was strongly opposed because he believed it consolidated the states into one government destroying the sovereignty of each. His eloquence on that occasion is believed to have reached its zenith for the first time. His closing speech surpassed all former efforts and operated so powerfully that only a small majority voted for the adoption of the Constitution. During his remarks an incident occurred that enabled him almost to paralyze his audience. After describing the magnitude of the measure on which hung the happiness or misery of the present generation and millions yet unborn--with a voice and countenance solemn as the tomb--his eyes raised upward, he appealed to the God of Heaven and to angels then hovering over them to witness the thrilling scene and invoked their aid in the mighty work before him. At that moment a sudden thunder storm commenced its fury and shook the very earth. Upon the roar of the tempest his stentorian voice continued to rise--he figuratively seized the artillery of the elements as by supernatural power--enveloped his opponents in a blaze of liquid lightning--hurled the crashing thunderbolts at their heads and seemed commissioned by the great Jehovah to execute a deed of vengeance. The scene was fearfully sublime--the effect tremendous. The purple current rushed back upon the aching heart--every countenance was pale, every eye was fixed, every muscle electrified, every vein contracted, every mind agonized--the sensation became insupportable--the members rushed from their seats in confusion and left the room without a formal adjournment.

Mr. Henry remained in the legislature of his state until 1791 when he retired from public life. He had toiled long, faithfully and successfully for his country and his state. He anxiously desired and sought that felicity and repose found only in the family circle. In 1795 his revered friend, President Washington, tendered him the important office of Secretary of State. With a deep feeling of gratitude he declined the proffered honor. In 1794 he was again elected governor of Virginia but was in too poor health to serve. In 1799 President Adams appointed him Envoy to France in conjunction with Messrs. Murray and Ellsworth. His rapidly declining health would not permit him to accept this last of his appointments. Disease was fast consummating the work of death and consuming the iron constitution and athletic frame that had enabled him to perform his duty so nobly during the toils of the Revolution. He was sensible that the work of dissolution was nearly completed and looked to his final exit with calm submission and Christian fortitude. On the 6th of June 1799 he bowed to the only monarch that could conquer him--the death king. With a full assurance of a crown of unfading glory in Heaven he threw off the mortal coil and was numbered with the dead. His loss was deeply mourned by the American nation and most strongly felt by those who knew him best. The following affectionate tribute is from one who knew him well.

"Mourn, Virginia, mourn! your Henry is gone. Ye friends to liberty in every clime drop a tear. No more will his social feelings spread delight through his house. No more will his edifying example dictate to his numerous offsprings the sweetness of virtue and the majesty of patriotism. No more will his sage advice, guided by zeal for the common happiness, impart light and utility to his caressing neighbors. No more will he illuminate the public councils with sentiments drawn from the cabinet of his own mind ever directed to his country's good and clothed in eloquence sublime, delightful and commanding. Farewell--first rate patriot--farewell! As long as our rivers flow or mountains stand--so long will your excellence and worth be the theme of our homage and endearment and Virginia, bearing in mind her loss, will say to rising generations--IMITATE MY HENRY!"

In tracing the character of this great and good man his examples in public and private life are found worthy of imitation. As by magic he threw off the cumbrous mass that so long confined his mighty genius and at once became a gigantic and brilliant intellectual man. Nature had so moulded him that the ordinary concerns of life never roused him. Had not the momentous subject of freedom engaged the mind of this bold and noble patriot he might have closed his career with its strongest powers unspent and left his loftiest talents to expire beneath the surface of the quarry from which they sublimely rose in peerless majesty. It required occasions of deep and thrilling interest to bring his latent energies into action. The exciting causes of the revolution were exactly calculated to bring him out in all the grandeur of his native greatness. As an advocate, orator, patriot and statesman--he was the colossus of his time. As Grattan said of Pitt--there was something in Patrick Henry that could create, subvert or reform--an understanding, a spirit, an eloquence to summon mankind to society or break the bonds of slavery asunder and rule the wilderness of free minds with unbounded authority--something that could establish or overwhelm empires and strike a blow in the world that should resound through the universe. He maintained his opinions with great zeal but held himself open to conviction of error. When under discussion he opposed the Federal Constitution but subsequently approved its form and substance.

His private character was as pure as his public career was glorious. He was twice married and the father of fifteen children. As a husband, father, friend, citizen and neighbor he had no superior. The closing paragraph of his will is worthy of record, showing a profound veneration for religion. "I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them and that is the Christian religion. If they had this and I had not given them one shilling they would be rich and if they had not that and I had given them all the world they would be poor."

Coming from one of the clearest minds that ever investigated the truths of revelation this short paragraph speaks volumes in favour of that religion which is despised by some--neglected by millions and is the one thing needful to prepare us for a blissful immortality beyond the confines of the whirling planet on which we live, move and have a transient being. Ponder it well, dear reader and govern yourself accordingly.

Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.