OLD DOMINION COUNTY BUILDINGS AT HANOVER AND WILLIAMSBURG
A momentous announcement appeared in the Williamsburg, Virginia, Gazette on March 16, 1769:
” The Common Hall having this day determined to build a commodious brick court-house in this city and having appointed us to agree with and undertake to build the same, we do hereby give notice that we shall meet at Mr. Hay’s (the Raleigh Tavern) on Tuesday, the 4th of April, to let the building thereof; we are also appointed to dispose of the present court-house, and the ground on which the same stands. James Cock, John Carter, James Carter, John Tazewell.”
The building displaced by the new structure was erected in 1716 by William Levington, and was given to the city in 1745 by ” the Gentlemen subscribers for the Play House.”
The stone steps on the new building, which are still in use, were brought from England in 1772. A copy of the letter in which William Wilson acknowledged their receipt is in a letter book preserved in the library of the Episcopal Seminary, near Alexandria.
During the Revolution, the patriots were called together, from time to time, by the bell in the picturesque tower. It was fitting, then, that when American independence was celebrated at Williamsburg, on May 1, 1783, the Courthouse was made the rallying place for the people. On receipt of official notice from Governor Benjamin Harrison that the treaty of peace had been signed, the mayor of Williamsburg prepared an ” Order of the Procession on the Great Day,” which closed with the following direction :
” The Citizens to be Conveyed on Thursday, at 1 o’clock at the Court-House by a Bellman.
” After the convention of citizens they are to make proclamation at the C : House, after which the Bells at the Church, College, & Capitol are to ring in peal.
” From the C House the Citizens are to proceed to the College, and make proclamation at that place, from whence they are to proceed to the Capitol and make proclamation there and from thence Proceed to the Raleigh (Tavern) & pass the rest of the day.”
A frequent visitor to the Williamsburg Courthouse was the brilliant lawyer Patrick Henry, whose reputation as an orator was made long before he delivered his ” Give me Liberty or Give me Death ” speech at St. John’s Church, Richmond.
Some years before the Williamsburg Courthouse was erected, this orator made his first public speech, at Han-over Courthouse, a building that dates from 1735, in the celebrated suit of the clergy demanding the payment of their stipends in tobacco, according to law. In con-sequence of a short crop the price had increased, and they insisted that it was their right to have the advantage of the increase. Their case had been tried once and won. The attorney of the people thereupon with-drew, and Henry was engaged to appear for them in court.
When the case was called, Rev. Patrick Henry was present, to the regret of his nephew. The lawyer sought his uncle and said that he feared he would be too much overawed by his presence to do his duty to his clients, and added that he would be compelled to say some ” very hard things of the clergy.” The minister there-upon entered his carriage, and drove away.
William Wirt describes the scene at the opening of the case :
” On the bench sat more than twenty clergymen, the most learned men in the Colony, and the most capable, as well as the severest critics before whom it was possible for him to have made his debut. The Court House was crowded with an overwhelming multitude, and surrounded with an immense and anxious throng, who, not finding room to enter, were endeavoring to listen with-out, in the deepest attention. But there was something still more awfully disconcerting than all this; for in the chair of the presiding magistrate, sat no other person than 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 the father is described as having almost sunk with con-fusion, from his seat. But these feelings were of short duration, and soon gave place to others, of a very different character. . . . The spirit of his genius awakened all his features. . . . His action became graceful, bold, and commanding; and in the tones of his voice, but more especially in his emphasis, there was a peculiar charm, a magic, of which any one who ever heard him will speak as soon as he is named, but of which no one can give any adequate description. . . .
” The people, whose countenances had fallen as he arose, had heard but 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. . . . 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 deathlike silence. . . . 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 restrain them.”
The case was won. As soon as the verdict was announced the people seized the orator at the bar and bore him out of the courthouse. Then, raising him on their shoulders, they carried him about the yard.