Patrick Henry and the American Revolution

“All the Families of those men of your Militia that have joined Gen’l Washington by my Orders, may be in want of Salt,” wrote Patrick Henry (1736-99) on 12 November 1777 as the first governor of Virginia after independence. He addressed his letter to the County Lieutenant of Berkeley County, who was probably Josiah Swearington (1719-88). The letter continues, “And as their absence from home may be the means of misery or supply of that necessary article, I desire you will give notice to all such militia on their Return, or to their Families in their absence, that an application to William Coorr Esq. at Dumfries half a Bushel of Salt will be delivered to each soldier of your militia that acted in Concert with the grand army, paying what it cost the public.” Months earlier, George Washington had advised Patrick Henry to prepare his state militia for engagement with British forces, and several Virginia militia companies, including one from Berkeley County, joined Washington’s “grand army” in Pennsylvania. The 1777 letter shows Patrick Henry’s level of daily responsibility as governor, including such mundane details as the provisioning of salt to militiamen and their families, no doubt for use in preserving food.

Patrick Henry is best remembered today for his stirring patriotic speech, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” urging his fellow Virginians to take up arms against British forces. He delivered it on 23 March 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention, assembled at St. John’s Church, in Richmond. Henry had first served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, then the Virginia Convention and was governor of Virginia, 1776-79 and 1784-86. The letter is the latest addition to the Manuscripts Division’s growing Collection of Patrick Henry Materials, 1743-1796 (C1165), which includes about 20 autograph letters and signed documents. Other letters in this collection pertain to his career as an attorney, owner of tobacco plantations, slaveholder, and land speculator. A 1784 letter to Colonel Joseph Martin concerns policy toward American Indians. This collection has been largely been assembled thanks to a generous Barksdale-Dabney-Henry endowment created in 2006 by Mrs. Margaret P. Nuttle. She was a direct descendant of Patrick Henry and had many Princeton family connections, including her brother S. Barksdale Penick, Class of 1925, a longtime Princeton Charter Trustee; and her son Philip E. Nuttle, Jr., Class of 1963.

The endowment made possible the successful Library exhibition, “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” (22 February-4 August 2013); as well as the acquisition of other early Americana to support research and instruction. Recent acquisitions include a 1774 journal relating to Lord Dunmore (1730-1809), the last colonial governor of Virginia, and to Lord Dunmore’s War. The journal was once owned by the Marquis de Chastellux (1734-88), a major general of French expeditionary forces under the Comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807) during the American Revolution. For more information, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts,

Patrick Henry. Engraving by Edward Wellmore.