WHERE PATRICK HENRY SPENT HIS LAST YEARS
Patrick Henry was only fifty-eight years old when he retired for rest and the enjoyment of family life to his 2,920-acre estate, Red Hill, in the Staunton Val-ley, thirty-eight miles southeast of Lynchburg. Just before he made this move he wrote to his daughter Betsy, ” I must give out the law, and plague myself no more with business, sitting down with what I have. For it will be sufficient employment to see after my little flock.”
He had served his country well for thirty years, as member of the House of Burgesses, as Speaker of the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, in the Virginia Convention of 1775 where he made his most famous speech, and as Governor of Virginia from 1776 to 1779 and again from 1784 to 1786. He had well earned the rest he hoped to find. Washington asked him to become Secretary of State and, later, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. John Adams nominated him as minister to France. But he resisted all these efforts to draw him from his retirement.
The house at Red Hill was a simple story and a. half structure, to which the owner soon added a shed kitchen, solely because he “wished to hear the patter of the rain on the roof.” This original portion of the house has been retained intact by later occupants, who have made additions with rare appreciation of what is fitting. The central portion was built by the son of the orator, John Henry. The box hedges in which the sage of Red Hill took such delight have been retained and extended.
George Morgan, in ” The True Patrick Henry,” says that this life in retirement ” might be designated as a patriarchal life, if it were not for the fact that the cradle was still rocking at Red Hill.” Henry’s letters were full of references to his children. Once he wrote to his daughter Betsy, ” I have the satisfaction to in-form you that we are well, except Johnny, Christian, and Patrick, and they are recovering fast now.” And again, ” I have great cause of thankfulness for the health I enjoy, and for that of your mamma and all the children. . . . We have another son, named – Winston.”
William Wirt, in his ” Life of Patrick Henry,” written in 1817, said, ” His visitors have not infrequently caught him lying on the floor, with a group of these little ones, climbing over him in every direction, or dancing around him with obstreperous mirth to the tune of his violin, while the only contest seemed to be who should make the most noise.”
That there were many visitors who had the opportunity to see such contests as these is evident from a paragraph in ” Homes of American Statesmen ” :
” His home was usually filled with friends, its dependences with their retinue and horses. But crowds, besides, came and went; all were received with cordiality. .. . Those who lived near always came to breakfast, when all were welcomed and made full. The larder never seemed to get lean. Breakfast over, creature comforts, such as might console the belated for the loss, were promptly set forth on side-tables in the wide entrance-hall. . . Meanwhile, the master saw and welcomed all with the kindliest attention, asked of their household, listened to their affairs, gave them his view, contented all. These audiences seldom ceased before noon, or the early dinner. To this a remaining party of twenty or thirty often sat down. . . . The dinner ended, he betook himself to his studies until supper, after which he again gave himself up to enjoyment.”
Not only was he a total abstainer, but as he grew older he came to detest the odor of tobacco; so there were certain refreshments that were never offered to the guests at Red Hill.
During the closing years of his life he spent hours over the Bible. Every morning he would take his seat in the dining-room, with the big family Bible open be-fore him. Once he said to a visitor, ” This book is worth all the books that ever were printed, and it has been my misfortune that I never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till lately. I trust in the mercy of heaven that it is not too late.”
To Betsy, a daughter by his first marriage, he wrote in 1796:
” Some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics, and I find much cause to reproach myself that I have lived so long and have given no decided and public proof of my being a Christian. But, indeed, my dear child, there is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast. And amongst all the handsome things I hear said of you, what gives me the greatest pleasure is, to be told of your piety and steady virtue.”
As, one by one, the older children grew up and went out from Red Hill to homes of their own, they were urged to read the Bible. Dorothea was the first to be married. Then came Martha Catherine, who, at seven-teen, fell in love with the hero who rescued her when she fell from a boat into the water. Sarah married Robert, the brother of the poet Thomas Campbell. It is said that at one time the poet was engaged to come to Red Hill as tutor for the younger children of the family, but was unable to keep his promise.
Because of the constant pleas that were made that he give up his quiet life and reenter politics, Henry Clay wrote, in 1796:
” I shall never more appear in a public character, unless some unlooked-for circumstance shall demand from me a transient effort. . . . I see with concern our old Commander-in-chief most abusively treatednor are his long and great services remembered, as any apology for his mistakes in an office to which he was totally unaccustomed. If he, whose character as our leader during the whole war was above all praise, is so roughly treated in his old age, what may be expected by men of the common standard of character? ”
He kept his resolution. A few months after writing this message, when notified that he had been elected Governor of Virginia, for a third term, he wrote, ” My declining years warn me of my inability.”
But in January, 1799, came an appeal from Washington himself that he would present himself as a candidate ” if not for Congress, which you may think would take you too long from home, as a candidate for Representative in the General Assembly of the Commonwealth.” The reasons were given : ” Your insight of character and influence in the House of Representatives would be a bulwark against such dangerous sentiments as are delivered there at present. It would be a rallying point for the timid, and an attraction of the wavering. In a word, I conceive it to be of immense importance at this crisis that you should be there, and I would fain hope that all minor considerations will be made to yield to the measure.”
Though Henry knew that he had little strength left, he responded to the appeal. On County Court day, the first Monday in March, he presented himself before the people at Charlotte as a candidate for Representative. How they flocked about him !
A Hampdon-Sidney student, Henry Miller, who heard him that day, said afterward :
” He was very infirm, and seated in a chair conversing with some friends who were pouring in from all the surrounding country to hear him. At length he rose with difficulty, and stood, somewhat bowed with age and weakness. His face was almost colorless. His countenance was careworn, and when he commenced his exordium, his voice was slightly cracked and tremulous. But in a few minutes a wonderful trans-formation of the whole man occurred, as he warmed with his theme. He stood erect; his eyes beamed with a light that was almost supernatural, his features glowed with the hues and fires of youth; and his voice rang clear and melodious, with the intonations of some great musical instrument whose notes filled the area, and fell distinctly and delightfully upon the ears of the most distant of the thousands gathered before him.”
Near the close of this effective address he said:
” You can never exchange the present government, but for a monarchy. If the administration have done wrong, let us all go wrong together, rather than split into factions, which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs. Let us preserve our strength for the French, the English, the German, or whoever else shall dare to invade our territory, and not exhaust it in civil commotion and intestine wars.”
After the conclusion of the oration, Henry went back to Red Hill, and never left it again. In April he was triumphantly elected, but he was unable to take his seat.
On June 6, 1799, he was near death. When the physician offered him a vial of mercury, at the same time telling him that the remedy might prolong his life a little while, or it might be fatal, he drew over his eyes a silken cap which he usually wore, and, holding the vial in his hands, made ” a simple childlike prayer for his family, for his country, and for his own soul. Afterwards in perfect calm he swallowed the medicine.”
His last word was to his physician, commending the Christian religion, which was so real a benefit to a man about to die.
Patrick Henry and his wife lie side by side in the rear garden of Red Hill. ” His fame his best epitaph ” is the simple inscription on the stone above the patriot.