Which fiery orator supported, even helped start, the American Revolution, but refused to sign the American Constitution? Who tried and failed at two separate occupations before becoming a successful attorney (by way of a bartender)?
The answer, of course, is Patrick Henry, the subject of today’s study. Colonial students began at Hanover County Courthouse, where Patrick Henry argued his most famous case — the Parsons’ Cause. This case, on the surface about the salary of clergymen but eventually about the extent of the king’s authority in the colonies, put Henry on the political map and firmly in the independence camp. Conveniently across the street is the Hanover County Tavern, his father-in-law’s establishment where Henry tended bar, waited tables, and first gained an interest in the law from listening to the conversations of lawyers and judges who stopped in for refreshment.
We then drove a few miles over to Scotchtown, Patrick Henry’s private home. This was the house of a man who clearly had some means, but not nearly as much as, for example, William Byrd of Westover. Scotchtown is a very plain-looking house, but it displays some signs of wealth: wood-paneled walls and large windows in the public spaces, an attic and a basement that run the entire length of the house, and a careful placement of domestic outbuildings in the rear of the house. Patrick Henry was from a middle-class background but made a lot of money from his law business by the time of the Revolution. His house reflects a man constantly trying to prove his place among social superiors.
Finally, we stopped at St. John’s Church in Richmond. This beautiful Anglican church was the site of the Second Virginia Convention, which gathered to discuss whether or not Virginia should join Massachusetts in open rebellion against the Crown. It was here that Patrick Henry issued his most famous line: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” He dramatically punctuated this with a stabbing motion toward his own heart.
This Patrick Henry-themed day was topped off by a visit from the man himself! Students listened to “Henry” wax eloquent on a number of different issues and were then able to ask him questions.
The Civil War class explored the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862, when George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac threatened to capture the Confederate capitol, Richmond. Through a series of hard-fought battles (only one of which was a Confederate victory), Robert E. Lee out-generaled McClellan, saved Richmond from capture for three more years, and retook the initiative in the war. Students toured the Gaines’ Mill Battlefield, where the National Park Service only weeks ago commemorated its sesquicentennial.
Following this, students were confronted with the results of the battle when we visited the site of Chimborazo Hospital, the large Confederate hospital located on Church Hill in Richmond. This medical facility served tens of thousands of wounded Confederates during the war and had a remarkable survival rate. Although the temporary nature of the hospital and its buildings means that there is nothing to “see,” we were treated to a special talk by Ashley Lusky, a park ranger and alum of the Pre-Collegiate Program (2003), the Collegiate Program, and William and Mary.