Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 2, 2009 with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Virginia Historical Society directly at 428 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia, 23220, or through either this phone number or web address:


Patrick Henry: Sentinel for the People

by William Rasmussen


Patrick Henry (1736 - 1799) is renowned for his daring speeches propelling the movement toward American independence. Less known are other aspects of Henry's biography, of a man who, until the modern era, was revered nearly as much as George Washington. Artistic renderings of Henry's career and appearance are the subject of the Virginia Historical Society exhibition "Patrick Henry: Sentinel for the People."

The title derives from a statement Henry made in 1788, opposing Virginia's ratification of the new American Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights guaranteeing basic liberties as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion: "I consider myself as a servant of the people of this commonwealth, as a sentinel over their rights, liberty, and happiness."[1]

Henry made three speeches attacking the power of the English monarchy and government, and advancing colonial rights. The first was the opposing viewpoint in the so-called "Parson's Cause," one of America's most important legal cases. The speech pointed the direction to American independence and launched Henry's career.

Tried in 1763, the case, obscure today, was well known in the 1830s. George Cooke reconstructed the scene in an early American history painting. Cooke had a special interest in the subject; his wife was from Richmond and his brother, John, was an Episcopal minister resident just north in Hanover County, Virginia -- Henry's first home and the setting for this event.[2]

The Parson's Cause questioned the power of the king to overturn colonial laws and encroach on the rights of colonists. Against a difficult economy, Virginia's elected assembly had passed legislation lowering the annual salary paid to state-supported ministers, thereby lessening the tax burden. The clergy protested to a sympathetic King George III, who ordered the new law be disallowed. Henry boldly attacked the king's "misrule" and successfully urged the jury to make an example of the greedy parsons. Cooke's painting suggests that the subject of debate was the future of Virginia, alluded to by a wall map at the canvas' center. He divided the court room: at the left, clergy; at the right, commoners who packed the courthouse and discovered in Patrick Henry an articulate champion. According to William Wirt's 1817 biography of Patrick Henry, John Henry, the presiding magistrate, was so enraptured by his son's performance that he was unable to suppress "tears of ecstasy" streaming down his face.[3]

Henry's next important speech, directed against the unpopular British Stamp Act, initiated a concerted response that led to the American Revolution, and brought Henry immediate fame. Arguing that the Virginia assembly held "the exclusive Right & Power to lay Taxes," Henry introduced to the colony's House of Burgesses seven radical measures, that passed only as a result of what Thomas Jefferson called the "sublime eloquence" of their author's speech.[4]

In 1851, Peter Rothermel was commissioned by the Philadelphia Art Union to produce a history painting that would encourage "national spirit and pride." Conscious that European upheavals in 1848 had made Americans look anew at their own revolution, Rothermel chose to depict a seminal event that sparked American independence. He selected Henry's Stamp Act speech.

The union planned to produce a large engraving from Rothermel's painting, given to each member who paid his $5 membership/subscription fee. The resulting print, engraved by Alfred Jones, was described as "worthy of a place in the most elegant parlor."[5]

Not uncommon for history paintings of this era, Rothermel's setting, costumes, and portraits have scant historic accuracy. In 1765, Henry dressed in crude frontier clothing and wore leather breeches, not powdered wigs. And the artist failed to consult life portraits of either Speaker John Robinson (in actuality Peyton Randolph had presided) or Richard Henry Lee, the romanticized seated figure gazing to the future. Rothermel did not know that Lee was absent from Williamsburg when Henry spoke against the Stamp Act and that he initially offered no opposition to it (Lee even applied for a collector's post). Only in later months did Lee become Henry's staunch ally in the fight against taxation without representation.[6]

Patrick Henry, champion of the Stamp Act protest, is also the subject of Thomas Crawford's heroic-size bronze figure. This sculpture is a part of Richmond's large Washington Monument, a work contemporary with Rothermel's. Crawford's Henry holds high the Stamp Act resolves, identified by the word "Liberty" and the date "1765."

The George Washington Monument attracted national interest around 1850 -- a field of sixty architects and sculptors competed for its construction. Crawford's design won, partly, because it included Washington's equestrian figure and six additional twelve-foot sculptures of revolutionary Virginia heroes.

Henry's figure was the first support sculpture that Crawford cast for the monument. It was given the position of honor: facing the same direction as George Washington, in effect, leading the general along the path to independence, as in life. Crawford's favored treatment for Henry demonstrates the adulation given this patriot in nineteenth-century America. After Washington, Henry was Virginia's most favored son.

Thomas Crawford traced a B. Henry Latrobe sketch of Patrick Henry for an accurate rendering of Henry's appearance. But aside from the block-like shape of the orator's lower face, Crawford paid little attention to Latrobe's stark, uninspiring image. The sculptor returned Henry to his youth (he was twenty-nine at the time of the Stamp Act), and added a mass of hair closer to a romantic image of Lord Byron than the colonial American.

Crawford's bronze bears resemblance to a number of modern European works. To develop the scheme for this commission, one of the more important offered in America to that date, the sculptor traveled from his Rome studio to see Europe's great public sculptures.[7]

A third celebrated speech was Henry's most powerful piece of oratory. Urging the Virginia colony to defend itself from "the chains of slavery," Henry declared "Give me liberty or give me death!" It was the spring of 1775; British soldiers and ships were poised in Boston to quell a colonial revolt. Virginia's political leaders assembled in Richmond, away from Williamsburg and the interference of royal governor Lord Dunmore, to determine their course . They gathered in the town's largest building, St. John's Church. For the next century artists depicted the site as though it were the scene of a martyrdom.

J. C. Bridgewood, whose career is virtually unknown, is one of several painters who chose to commemorate the event of Henry's speech. Viewers of this painting can imagine the celebrated debate within the church, and the overflow crowd listening outside the windows. The work remembers that Thomas Jefferson felt Patrick Henry's talents as an orator were "such as I have never heard from any other man" and that George Mason observed "your passions are no longer your own when [Henry] addresses them." It depicts why Edward Carrington, a convention delegate, was so moved by Henry's stance and oratory that he vowed to be buried on the spot, a wish that was granted years later, after his death in 1810.[8]

Henry, the renowned "voice of the Revolution," though essentially a frontiersman, served as a military leader and was Virginia's first governor. He was raised to hunt and camp in the backwoods. This background, largely forgotten today, made the lawyer and orator also a legitimate candidate for military service.

In 1775, when Lord Dunmore seized gunpowder stored for the public defense, it was Henry who assembled and led the 150-man Hanover County militia to Williamsburg to demand and receive reparation for what was taken. Later that year, with Washington away commanding the Continental Army, Henry was given command of a regiment of 544 men and control of the colony's forces.

Henry's military role was celebrated well into the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, Robert Ball Hughes depicted this side of Henry's public service with a small, standing sculpture of the Virginia colonel. This fragile plaster figure is one of many by Hughes never put into marble or bronze due to the artist's poverty and lack of patronage.

Patrick Henry's popularity and influence won him five terms as Virginia's elected governor: during the critical period of the Revolutionary War, for three one-year terms at Williamsburg, and two later at Richmond. As governor, Henry left an impressive record. He raised troops for the Continental Army and inspired citizens to maintain their support for the Revolution and the early republic. Henry's tenure is remembered in Thomas Sully's famous, idealized portrait of the Virginian. Serving in Richmond in the 1780s, mindful of the dignity he should bestow upon his office, Henry was "never without a scarlet cloak, black clothes, and a dressed wig."[9]

Sully's portrait, which survives in two versions and innumerable prints, celebrates Henry's prowess as a lawyer and orator, as well as a public servant. The artist introduced an element from Wirt's biography, noting that when practicing law, if Henry's answer was to be brief, his spectacles remained on his nose. "But if he ever was seen to give his spectacles a cant to the top of his wig, it was a declaration of war, and his adversaries must stand clear."[10]

Patrick Henry's appearance is remembered largely from Sully's posthumous image. But the artist, painting to please a nineteenth-century audience, produced an idealized, romantic likeness of a man more amiable than contemporary records suggest. Sully's source was a miniature painting rendered from life by his older brother, Lawrence, in 1795. Henry had sat for the elder Sully in Richmond, during the lawyer's famous British debts case. Though in full mastery of his legal talents, Henry was a prematurely aged man of fifty-nine. The miniature is an appropriately grave image, of a man who appeared to have "never uttered or laughed at a joke."[11] It is more credible than the painting by the younger Sully.

Around 1815, Thomas Sully first enlarged his brother's miniature into a full-size oil on canvas. That painting, now owned by Colonial Williamsburg, is nearly identical to his second 1851 version. The first canvas was engraved to serve as frontispiece to Wirt's early biography of Henry. That engraving widely propagated Thomas Sully's image. It has served as the source for most of the surviving oils, engravings, and sculptures of Henry.

It is no coincidence that Sully, a Philadelphia artist, chose to paint a second version in 1851, the same year that Rothermel received the Philadelphia Art Union commission and that Crawford completed his figure of Henry to be erected in Richmond. Sully gave his 1851 version to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, to win patrons in the state.

As to Henry's actual appearance, it is wise to remember the B. Henry Latrobe life sketch.[12] Though a gifted architect and competent landscape artist, Latrobe was no portraitist, evident from his Henry sketch title. But Latrobe accurately recorded his American travels, and he is one of the few artists who encountered Patrick Henry in the flesh. Like Lawrence Sully's, Latrobe's work offers no flattery. This drawing, then, though crude and taken at the end of Henry's life, remains a highly credible image. It confirms written descriptions of the long face, hollow cheeks, thinness, angularity, and grave countenance.

Unlike other giant figures of Virginia's revolutionary era, Patrick Henry eluded portrait artists. Henry described himself a "plain man...[whose] whole life [was] spent among planters, and other plain men."[13] He lived, for the most part, in a series of small-frame houses in the Virginia backcountry; he collected modest decorative objects, and commissioned no large portraits.

The wealth Henry acquired provided for his wife and seventeen children. Since he never served on a national level, and only infrequently visited Philadelphia, Henry did not sit for the leading portraitists painting Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest.

A small, early sculpture of Henry survives, but only in copies of a lost clay original. It was described in 1859, as a portrait executed from life in 1788 by an itinerant Italian artist. However, no known European sculptor was active in America at that time, and no body of work survives from such a figure. More likely, the portrait was the work of a sculptor from Pietro Cardelli's generation, around 1818. By that time, Henry was dead.

The unknown artist may have worked from the forementioned sources. One, almost certainly, was Thomas Sully's first portrait as it was reproduced in the Wirt biography engraving. The Latrobe sketch, still in the possession of the artist, would have provided the full face and, what might be described as, Scottish features (Henry's father was a Scot). Though not from life, this sculpture may be a fairly accurate image of Henry's middle-age appearance.

Spencer Roane stated that his beloved father-in-law was "not a handsome man,"[14] but Thomas Sully made him so. Sully's 1851 romanticized image was clearly the source consulted by Richmond sculptor William Sievers in the early twentieth century. However, Sievers appropriated some of the gravity noted by Henry's contemporaries. Sievers presents a patriot, idealized and inspirational, but robust and stern as well. Sievers sculpted this image in the years of the Great Depression, when solemnity seemed appropriate. Thus, Henry's appearance was fashioned to suit the ideals of a different era.

Upon Patrick Henry's death, Virginia newspapers printed a eulogy defining his importance to family, to neighbors, and to the nation. The writer suggested "as long as our rivers flow and mountains stand," rising generations would choose to imitate his example. Sievers' large bust suggests that this prophecy held true through the first half of the twentieth century. In recent decades, however, Thomas Jefferson's multi-faceted personality has proven to be more alluring for many who have chosen a sole figure to celebrate the principles of the founding fathers.


1 Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry, Practical Revolutionary (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969), 349.

2 Donald D. Keyes, George Cooke, 1793 - 1849 (Athens, Ga.: Georgia Museum of Art, 1991), 8 - 9.

3 William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), 26 - 27.

4 Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry, Patriot in the Making (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1957), 171 - 73.

5 Gail E. Husch, "'Freedom's Holy Cause', History, Religious, and Genre Painting in America, 1840 - 1860," in Picturing History, American Painting 1770 - 1930, ed. by William Ayres (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 93 - 99.

6 Meade, Henry, Patriot, 199, 210.

7 Crawford's sketch after Latrobe is at the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia.

8 Akin to Bridgewood's painting is Lewis Clover's 1850 pencil drawing (New York Historical Society) inscribed by the artist, "View of St. John's Church, Richmond, Va., in which Patrick Henry delivered his famous Revolutionary Speech." For Jefferson's, Mason's, and Carrington's statements, see Meade, Henry, Patriot, 173, 306, and Meade, Henry, Revolutionary, 36 - 37.

9 Meade, Henry, Revolutionary, 301 - 02.

10 Wirt, Henry, 365.

11 Wirt, Henry, Patriot, 257. The observation was made in 1772 by St. George Tucker.

12 A second miniature from life, less significant than Lawrence Sully's, in that it was little seen in the nineteenth century, was rendered by an unknown artist and is preserved at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. It shows a slightly younger man with the same stern expression, piercing eyes, and long nose and face recorded by the elder Sully. It is known as the Meredith miniature because it was first owned by Colonel Samuel Meredith, a brother-in-law of Henry.

13 Meade, Henry, Revoltionary, 379.

14 Meade, Henry, Revolutionary, 314.

About the author

William Rasmussen is the Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society. He has written several articles on a variety of American painting subjects and on colonial architecture. His is co-author of The Making of Virginia Architecture, an exhibition catalogue that won the Society of Architectural Historians' Architectural Exhibition Catalogue Award in 1992, among other honors, and Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend (1994). He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University with a doctorate from the University of Delaware.

Resource Library editor's notes

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 2, 2009 with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society, which was granted to TFAO on January 14, 2009.

The article pertains to an exhibition entitled Patrick Henry: Sentinel for the People, which was on display at the Virginia Historical Society December 1995 - March 1996. It appeared in the February - March 1996 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Readers may also enjoy:

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Virginia Historical Society in Resource Library.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.