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through the colonial assembly, allowing them to commute all debts due in tobacco, for the price in money which it had hitherto borne.
This act was limited to the operations of that year only; but another short crop occurring in 1758, the same law was re-enacted. The clergy were not long in discovering how greatly they were losers by the operations of this law, and it was attacked from several quarters through the press with great vigor. Rejoinders were of course made, and the excitement became so great that the printers in Virginia refused to lend the disputants the aids of the press. At length the circumstance came to the knowledge of the king, who immediately took sides with the clergy, and because the act of the colonial legislature had not received his assent, declared it null and void. Thus supported, the clergy determined to bring suits for the recovery of their stipends in the specific tobacco, and the first trial was in Hanover county, where Mr. Henry resided.
On the question of the validity of the law granting the commutation, the court decided against the planters, and Mr. Lewis, their counsel, informed his clients that the case had, in effect, been decided against them, and immediately withdrew from the suit. In this exigency they applied to Mr. Henry to conduct the trial before the jury. It came on in December, 1763, about a month after the decision already alluded to had been made, and Mr. Henry, who had just entered on his twenty-eighth year, appeared in their behalf. The general interest in the suit had collected the people from all parts of the country—the clergy had assembled in great numbersMr. Henry's own father sat upon the bench as one of the judges; and he, engaged in one of the most important suits which had ever agitated the colony, was yet to make his first public speech.
Mr. Lyons, the opposing counsel, opened the case very briefly, merely explaining the effect of the decision already made, and closing by a high-wrought eulogy on the clergy. Mr. Henry rose awkwardly, and faltered through a few broken sentences in a manner so loose and bungling, that his friends hung their heads in shame, and the clergy exchanged sly looks, and began to smile in anticipation of their triumph. His father looked down, his color came and went, and he seemed desirous to sink through the floor. But young Henry faltered for a few moments only. As he progressed his courage seerned to increase-his mind, warmed by the subject, began to glow with thoughts rich and abundant-his language settled into an easy and graceful flow-his countenance brightened into beauty_his features were illuminated with the fire of genius which burned within—his attitude became erect and lofty -his action graceful and commanding-his eye sparkled with intellectual lightand his diction, as it swelled into higher and more commanding periods, rolled on in all the majesty of the ocean billows.
In less than twenty minutes the windows, the benches, the aisles, were filled with a dense crowd, bending forward eagerly to catch the magic tones of his voice, and fearful lest some word should escape unheard. Every sound was hushed; every eye was fixed; every ear was bent. The mockery of the clergy was soon turned to alarm. They listened for a short time in fixed astonishment, but when the young orator in answer to the eulogy of his opponent turned toward them and poured upon them a torrent of his earnest and withering invective, they fled from the room in apparent terror, sensible that all was lost. The jury were in a maze. They lost sight of both law and evidence, and returned a verdict for the planters against the clergy. The people were equally overcome by the brilliant burst of native eloquence which they had witnessed, and no sooner was the fate of the cause finally sealed, than they seized him at the bar, and in spite of his own exertions, and the cry of "order" from the court, bore him in triumph on their shoulders about the yard.
From this moment Mr. Henry became the idol of the people wherever he was known. He was immediately retained in all the suits similar to that which had just been decided, but none of them ever came to trial. In a year from the following May, he was returned to the house of burgesses. He was elected to supply a vacancy occasioned by a resignation, and took his scat about a month before the close of the session for 1765. Society in Virginia was at this time marked by the same broad distinctions which existed in Europe. Large tracts of land, acquired at the first settlement of the country, had been, by the law of entails, perpetuated in certain families, who had arisen in consequence to a degree of opulence, and lived in a style of splendor, little inferior to the nobility of the old world. The younger members of these families, together with others from the ranks of the people who had arisen by their talents, constituted a second rank, which had all the pride of the first without their wealth. The great body of the people was composed of the smaller land holders, who looked up to the orders above them with all that deference and respect which is so characteristic a trait in aristocratic countries.
These distinctions had, of course, found their way into the legislative hall. The house of burgesses, when Mr. Henry entered it, besides the great weight of talent which it possessed, was so intrenched about with imposing forms as to make it one of the most dignified bodies in the world. The effect of this was altogether in favor of the aristocratic members, to whom it stood instead of talent, and who, in consequence of the great deference paid them by the lower orders in the house, were enabled to sway its proceedings almost at pleasure. Besides, it really possessed great intellectual weight. John Robinson, the speaker, and also treasurer of the colony, was not only one of the richest men in the commonwealth, but also a man of much ability, and had held his dignified office for twenty-five years. Next to him in rank was Peyton Randolph, the king's attorney-general, a distinguished orator and an eminent lawyer. Then followed a constellation of brilliant intellects—Richard Bland, Edmund Pendleton, Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, and others.
Such was the house, and such its galaxy of statesmen when Mr. Henry, young, inexperienced, with all his rustic simplicity, and fresh from the ranks of the yeomanry, first took his seat. The great question of taxation had just begun to be agitated in the British cabinet; and at the previous session of the burgesses, some feeble remonstrances had been drawn up and forwarded to the mother country. It was supposed that the subject would be again called up by the present house, in which case it was expected by Mr. Henry's constituents, that he would sustain any measures calculated to defeat the project of stamp duties. But it seems that the leaders of the house were not disposed to take any further action on the subject, and Mr. Henry, with that characteristic independence which marked his whole career, after having waited till within three days of the close of the session, introduced a series of resolutions, boldly denying the right of England to tax America, and declaring that such taxation had a manifest tendency to destroy both British and American freedom.
Mr. Henry had held his seat about three weeks, and was still a stranger to most of the members, when, without consultation with more than two persons, unsupported by the influential members, and dependent only on his own resources, he thus introduced a measure which looked with a severe scrutiny into the right of taxation, now, for the first time, claimed by the British king. The effect was like the sudden eruption of a volcano. At first an attempt was made to frown it down by a stately array of dignified influence; but one dash of Mr. Henry's eloquence put an end to this by-play and brought out against him all the power of the house. The debate waxed hotter and hotter, and the young orator nerved himself to the mighty conflict. He wielded a blade of the besttempered Damascus steel, and dashed into the ranks of veteran statesmen with such steadiness and power as scattered their trained legions to the winds. The contest on the last and boldest resolution, to borrow the strong language of Mr. Jefferson, “was most bloody,” but it was finally carried by a single vote.
Such is the history of that important measure which moved the whole continent, and gave the first impulse to the ball of the revolution. Some idea may be formed of the feeling which prevailed in the house at the time, from the fact that Peyton Randolph, as he passed through the door after the adjournment, exclaimed to a friend, with an oath, “I would have given five hundred guineas for a single vote.”
The feeling of opposition to British taxation which Mr. Henry had thus aroused, spread, as if on the wings of the wind, from one end of the continent to the other. The spark which he had struck found a kindred fire in every bosom : the impulse was caught by other colonies ; his resolutions were everywhere adopted with progressive variations; and a whole people were startled, as if by magic, into an attitude of determined hostility. In New-England, especially, was the outbreak of popular feeling most fearfully strong; and when, in the following November, the stamp act, according to its provisions, was to have gone into effect, its execution had become utterly impracticable.
It was during the splendid debate which arose on these resolutions that Mr. Henry, while rolling along in one of those sublime strains which characterized his fervid eloquence when under high excitement, exclaimed with a voice which partook of the lofty impulses of his soul :-“Cesar had his Brutus-Charles the First had his Cromwell and George the Third”-he was interrupted by the cry of treason, from the speaker's chair. Treason! Treason! echoed from every part of the house. The startling cry thrilled like electricity on the nerves of the house, and every eye was turned on the inspired orator. He paused only to command a loftier attitude, a firmer voice, a more determined manner, and fixing his eye of fire on the speaker, he proceeded :-"and George the Third-may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”
The theme of liberty, which had thus drawn out the higher qualities of Mr. Henry's eloquence, now became the theme of the nation. The mother country, forgetful alike of the duties and feelings of a parent,--forgetful of the lessons inculcated by her own past history, and of the fundamental principles of national freedom, --was bent on reducing her colonies to the most humiliating terms. Aroused at length to the common danger, and drawn together by the common cause, they appointed a general congress of statesmen, to devise means for resisting the encroachments on their liberties, and to this august body, Virginia sent her most distinguished sons. Mr. Henry was of the number, and was now brought in contact with the most enlightened men of the new world.
The meeting of this congress formed a new epoch in the history of America. It was the leading idea of this great and united republic. The members had been called together to guard the interests of a rising nation. But how were they to act? What was to be the course of their measures? What was to be the result of this leagued opposition to the British king? The awful responsibility which they had assumed seems to have struck them in all its overwhelming force, when the great business of the convention was about to be opened, and it fell, like an incubus, upon their spirits. A deep and solemn pause followed the organization of the housea pause pregnant with the fate of America--perhaps of the world.
Who among this great body of enlightened statesmen is to roll away
the stone-to unloose the seals—to break the fetters which have thus manacled this august assemblage? The task falls upon the plebeian rustic whom we have seen roaming the forests with his gun; scouring the creeks with his angling rod; waiting on the customers of an obscure tavern at Hanover. He arose slowly, as