On May 29th one unknown young man changed the world!
By Baxter Ennis
There are times when things are a mess! It might seem your business, your city, maybe even your nation is on the verge of calamity, and no one seems to know how to prevent it.
This was the case in the spring of 1765 when Virginia’s House of Burgesses in Williamsburg had, without a fight it seemed, acquiesced and allowed a loathsome bill, the Stamp Act, to be enacted by the British crown in London.
The Stamp Act required a government stamp (or tax) on every publication, some 55 specified items ranging from legal documents to newspapers and even to playing cards. The purpose of the tax was to fund the stationing of 10,000 troops to defend the vast new frontier territory that had been won during the French and Indian War.
Young Patrick Henry had arrived in Williamsburg on May 20, appointed to fill a vacant seat in the House of Burgesses. Being new to the Assembly, he restrained himself from speaking as the wise and powerful members of the assembly, men like Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson and John Robinson (speaker of the House for 30 years), discussed the Act, grumbled about it, but offered no plan to fight its enactment. The respected grand old men of the Assembly had given up the fight on the Stamp Act, and it was scheduled to go into effect November 1.
However, on May 29, his 29th birthday – and only nine days after taking his seat in the Assembly – Henry, indignant at this royal power grab, rises to present his Stamp Act Resolves. He delivers a riveting speech against the Stamp Act – and turns the assembly on its head!
One of his Resolves defiantly stated:
“…the General Assembly of this colony has the only…exclusive right and power to lay taxes…upon the inhabitants of this colony…”
A heated debate ensued. Henry, backed by George Johnston and John Fleming, defended his Resolves against the powerful men of the aristocracy – Randolph, Bland, Pendleton and others. For two days the debate raged. During this debate Henry’s fiery and impassioned oratorical skills were revealed for the first time.
Some of the most contentious remarks made by Henry during the debate came to be known as his “treason speech.” He said:
“Caesar has his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third…“ (then he is interrupted) “Treason,” shouted the Speaker. “Treason, treason,” rose from all sides of the room. The orator [Henry] paused in stately defiance till these rude exclamations were ended and then, rearing himself with a look and bearing of still prouder and fiercer determination, he so closed the sentence as to baffle his accusers, without the least flinching from his own position, “and if this be treason, make the most of it”.
According to Judge Paul Carrington, Henry was “eloquent” and his oratory “beyond powers of description.” Finally, the Resolutions objecting to the Stamp Act were passed, and, although the House of Burgesses later defeated the most extreme of Henry’s resolutions, four of the seven Resolves were adopted.
Providentially, copies of the Resolves were leaked to the public, and some or all of the Resolves were printed in several prominent northern newspapers. Word spread to the other colonies like wildfire. The spark of rebellion had been ignited!
Because of his courage and passion for moral government, Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves emboldened leaders in other colonies to adopt similar resolutions. By November 1, 1775, the implementation date of the Stamp Act, every stamp distributor had resigned and all stamps had been destroyed!
One man – virtually unknown 29 yr. old Patrick Henry, stepped forth to challenge the inevitable, and changed the course of our nation’s history! The movement to freedom had been launched. Rebellion and the ultimate War of Independence would forever change the world.
May 29, 1765 – a day when leadership mattered.
NOTE: “When Leadership Mattered” is a series of vignettes about men and women who challenged the status quo and changed their world. The purpose of the series is to remind us that just one person with passion, preparation and determination can change the course of an organization, a team, an army, a nation—even the world! Leadership still matters.