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Patrick Henry’s “Treason” Speech

In the spring of 1765, the recently enacted Stamp Act was the prime topic of political conversation in the American colonies. In Virginia, the current session of the House of Burgesses was drawing to a close and many of the delegates had already headed for home. Patrick Henry, who had held his seat for only a matter of days, celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday on May 29 by offering a series of resolutions related to the current crisis. Much of what he proposed was familiar to his colleagues:

  • American colonists had transported British rights to North America at the time of their immigration.
  • Those rights had twice been confirmed in Virginia’s royal charters.
  • The right to be taxed by representatives of one’s own choosing was one of the most fundamental British liberties.
Patrick Henry, however, included an additional idea that raised many eyebrows and provided a direct challenge to Parliament’s authority:
  • Only colonial assemblies had the right to impose taxes on their constituents and that right could not be assigned to any other body.
On May 30, Henry gave his maiden speech in the assembly and defended his resolutions. He expanded the scope of his criticism to include not only Parliament, but the king as well. Speaking of George III, he stated that, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell and George the Third — .” At that point he was interrupted by cries of “Treason!” from delegates who easily recognized the reference to assassinated leaders. Henry paused briefly, then calmly finished his sentence: “...may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” Henry later apologized to the assembly and expressed his loyalty to the king. Nevertheless, the Resolves were adopted by a badly split House of Burgesses and over the next few weeks were circulated through the colonies in various newspapers. The fact that conservative politicians quickly expunged the final resolution from the record went largely unnoticed and Virginia and Henry were widely extolled for their defense of American rights.
NOTE: The terms “Virginia Resolves” and “Virginia Resolutions” have been applied to several other political statements made during the 18th century. In 1769, George Mason of Virginia offered a series of resolutions that established a nonimportation program to combat the Townshend Acts within the Commonwealth. In 1798, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that raised the issue of nullification during the controversy over the Alien and Sedition Acts. See Timeline of the American Revolution.