Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

induced a general belief that he would stand no chance against the formidable array of competitors which the Virginia bar presented at the time, and he set to work with so little energy as to justify a suspicion that his own expectations were extremely moderate. To the study of a profession,' says Mr. Wirt, which is said to require the lucubrations of twenty years, Mr. Henry devoted not more than six weeks; Judge Tyler says one month; and he adds, This I had from his own lips. In this time he read Coke upon Littleton, and the Virginia laws.'

A student must be endowed with considerable powers of application who could read Coke upon Littleton in a month; and we incline to think that Henry's perusal was of a cursory description, for his licence to practise was obtained with difficulty, and the examiners who granted it acknowledged that they found him very ignorant of law, but perceived him to be a young ma genius, and did not doubt that he would soon qualify himself. Four years passed away before these expectations were fulfilled, and during much of this period he acted as assistant to his fatherin-law, a tavern-keeper. An occasion at length presented itself peculiarly adapted to his powers, and he sprang by one bold bound into celebrity.

The ministers of the established church of Virginia (the Church of England) were then paid in kind, i.e. each was legally entitled to an annual stipend of 16,000 pounds of tobacco. În 1755 the crops failed, and an act was passed enabling the planters to discharge their tobacco debts in money, at the rate of 16s. 8d. per hundred weight, when the actual value was 50s. or 60s.

This Act, though invalid for want of the royal assent, was submitted to; but when it was revived in 1758, the clergy took the alarm, and one of their body brought the question before the courts. It came on for argument in the shape of a demurrer, and judgment being given for the minister, nothing remained but to assess the damages under a writ of inquiry. The leading counsel of the colony threw up the cause as hopeless, and the defendants applied to Henry because they could get no one else to risk his reputation in it. On the appointed day the bench was crowded by the clergy, and the floor by the populace. What was still more embarrassing, the presiding judge was his own father.

' 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, 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 bis genius awakened all his features.

' 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 death-like 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.'-Wirt, pp. 42—45.

As Queen Caroline said of Jeannie Dean's appeal for mercy• this is eloquence. Its wonder-working power is proved by the very exaggeration of the accounts. Unluckily (perhaps luckily for the speaker), not a sentence has been preserved : his hearers declared that they were carried away captive at the commencement, and that, when it was over, they felt as if just awakened from a dream, of which they were unable to connect or recal the particulars. To this day the old people of the country cannot conceive a higher compliment to a speaker than to say of him· He is almost equal to Patrick when he pled against the parsons.

* This is quick work; but the narrator is an ex-attorney-general, and we must not judge the practice of an American county court by that of our own Queen's Bench, where a motion for a new trial is not often decided under three years.

• this

Henry's reputation was now established, and he was employed in most causes of importance where there was any room for eloquence, for he could not be induced till long after to make the slightest effort with the view of removing his ignorance of law, and, instead of refining his manner or improving his dress, he took a delight in their plainness, and would often come into court attired in a coarse hunting-jacket, greasy leather-breeches, and with a pair of saddle-bags under his arm. He had also contracted, or affected, the vulgar style of pronunciation, as :Naiteral parts is better than all the larning upon yearth’though his friends deny the is.

We pass over his many triumphs at the bar to come at once to his grand display in the House of Burgesses of Virginia, which at that time boasted five or six speakers,

om Mr. Wirt seems inclined to parallel with the first debaters of any country. Henry broke ground in opposition to a motion for shielding some influential members of the aristocratic party from the consequences of a misappropriation of the public money, but his first grand effort was in support of the resolutions against the Stamp Act, moved by himself. He was opposed by all the old members;

* At the same time we lay comparatively little stress on verdicts against law and evidence in cases where the passions or prejudices of the jury can be appealed to. For example, the late Sir John Astley brought an action of trespass against the notorious Henry Hunt, one while M.P. for Preston. Hunt, like Henry's client, suffered judgment by default: the damages were to be assessed under a writ of inquiry before the undersheriff

, who told the jury that the plaintiff was entitled to their verdict for some sum, however small, though no actual damage had been sustained. Hunt appeared in per801, and contended that, as the only trespass proved was walking once across a bare common, and the witness admitted that no injury, not even a farthing's worth, had been done, he was entitled to a verdict; and they found for him. A second inquiry was instantly awarded by the court, and the result was the same. A third was then applied for, and, after an ingenious argument by Hunt, was granted,-Lord Elleuborough, who delivered the judgment, growling out an injunction to the sheriff' to be prepared with an assessor capable of teaching the jury their duty. The advice was followed, and the jury, happening to be more intelligent than usual, were at length brought to understand the true character of the point. A still more daring attempt is recorded of Curran. His adversary's case was clear, and he had not a tittle of evidence to oppose to it; so, seeing a fellow in the last stage of intoxication amongst the bystanders, he desired him to be placed in the witness-box, and told the jury that the other side had made his only witness so drunk that be could not utter a syllable. The jury (Irish) found for their favourite counsellor' without delay.

but

but (to borrow the words of Jefferson, who was present) torrents of sublime eloquence from Henry, backed by the solid reasoning of Johnson (the seconder), prevailed. The last, however, and strongest resolution was carried but by a single vote. The debate on it was most bloody. It was on this occasion that he uttered the celebrated passage

"" Cæsar had his Brutus-Charles the First his Cromwell—and George the Third--(*Treason ! cried the speaker-Treason, treason!' echoed from every part of the house. It was one of those trying moments which is decisive of character. Henry faltered not for an instant; but rising to a loftier attitude, and fixing on the speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis)-may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”'-Wirt, p. 83.

Henry had hitherto confined his practice to the county courts, but in the year 1769 he joined the bar of the general court, and came into collision with the best lawyers of the colony. His biographer is obliged to confess that he stood a bad chance with them in most causes involving questions of property, but says he was unapproachable as counsel for the prisoner in a criminal case.

A gentleman who has examined several of Erskine's briefs informs us that the notes and interlineations were few, but that particular parts were doubled down and dashed with peculiar emphasis—bis plan being to throw all his strength upon the grand features of the case, instead of frittering it away upon details. Henry's method was the same. He grouped instead of analysing, and produced, by a few master-touches, effects which laborious finish would have marred.

In 1774 he was elected a member of the first congress, and here too his superiority is said to have been soon established. Still we get nothing but descriptions, and to arrive at even the skeleton of a speech we must pass to a sitting of the Virginia convention, 20th March, 1775, when he brought forward a series of resolutions for arming the colony:

“ They tell us, sir,” continued Mr. Henry,“ that we are weakunable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction ? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot ? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are

invincible

invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!! I repeat it, sir, let it come !!!

““ 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 sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or 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," cried he, with both his arms extended aloft, his brows knit, every feature marked with the resolute purpose of his soul, and his voice swelled to its boldest note of exclamation—"give me liberty, or give me death !”

'He took his seat. No murmur of 'applause was heard. The effect was too deep. After the trance of a moment several members started from their seats. The cry, “ to arms !” seemed to quiver on every lip, and gleam from every eye!-Ibid. p. 142.

It was thought the highest commendation to say of Demosthenes that, when he had done speaking, the cry was not · What a splendid oration !' but Let us march against Philip!

The colony took to arms at Henry's bidding, and appointed him their commander ; but his military talents were distrusted, and he was eventually driven to resign without having bad any opportunity of showing what he could do as a general. Unlike Demosthenes, however, who was one of the first to run away at Chæronea, he gave decided proofs of personal intrepidity in the field. In 1776 he was elected governor of Virginia, and in the fall of that year it was even proposed to make him dictator. The project was crushed by Colonel Cary, the speaker of the senate, who thus accosted Henry's step-brother, Colonel Syme, in the lobby of the house :- I am told that your brother wishes to be dictator : tell him from me that the day of his appointment shall be the day of his death, for he shall feel my dagger in his heart before the sunset of that day. There is no proof of his implication in the scheme, which was suggested merely by the tempo

aspect

of affairs. It is highly to Henry's honour that one of the first measures proposed by him after the independence of the colonies was secured, was protection to the British refugees.

“ Let

rary bad

« ZurückWeiter »