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The Promise of Patrick Henry

The defense of a contested election was the first hint of the stirring words yet to come

By Jon Kukla


In November 1764, a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses “observed an ill dressed Young Man sauntering in the Lobby” of the Capitol at Williamsburg. “He seemed to be a Stranger to every Body.” At the time, the burgess admitted that he “had not the Curiosity to inquire his Name.”

Young Patrick Henry’s anonymity ended shortly thereafter. On Friday, Nov. 23, 1764, the Committee on Privileges and Elections met to settle a disputed election from Hanover County — Henry’s birthplace and a thriving agricultural community now considered a northern suburb of Richmond. When the contested election case came before the committee, the burgess was “surprized to find this same Person was Counsel for one of the Parties, and still more so, when he delivered an Argument superior to any Thing he had ever heard.”

Hanover County’s special election in February 1764 was not the county’s first disputed race. A dozen years earlier, violations of campaign laws had been so flagrant there that the assembly threw out the entire election of 1752 and issued writs for a new one. Personal ambition, political calculation and raw self-interest are timeless human elements in these contests. But all fouled-up elections are messy in their own revealing ways. The campaign rules and principles that Patrick Henry invoked for his client Nathaniel West Dandridge may seem strange by modern standards — especially the law prohibiting candidates and their friends from offering voters “any promise, agreement, obligation or engagement” about legislation or policy!

The mess that brought Henry to Williamsburg had begun a year earlier, when Dandridge, Henry’s friend and neighbor, accepted an appointment as county coroner, a salaried “office of profit.” In those days, county coroners were tantamount to sheriffs-in-waiting, but the office came with a hitch. Virginia law required any burgess appointed as coroner to resign his seat and, if desired, stand for re-election. This legal stipulation reflected English practice and was meant to protect the integrity of the legislature from crown officials seeking to corrupt its members with salaried offices.

After eight years of service in the House of Burgesses, however, Nathaniel Dandridge decided not to seek re-election. Early in December 1763, a prominent Hanover planter and former clerk of neighboring Louisa County, James Littlepage, approached Dandridge about the vacancy and won his endorsement.

But Littlepage was not the only person with ambitions. Samuel Overton, a county justice, militia officer and previous candidate, also threw his hat into the ring and arranged for a friend “to prepare a Treat for some of the Freeholders” with “four Gallons of Rum made into Punch.” Patrick Henry himself contemplated running for the seat until Friday evening, Jan. 13, 1764 — when after two months on the sidelines Dandridge changed his mind and declared his candidacy.

When Littlepage won the election, Dandridge, defended by Henry, challenged the results.

Virginia’s election laws prohibited any candidate or person acting on a candidate’s behalf from attempting to influence elections for the House of Burgesses by treating voters with “money, meat, drink, entertainment or provisions.” The election laws also outlawed conduct that modern Americans regard as innocuous if not admirable: Candidates and their supporters were prohibited from offering voters “any promise, agreement, obligation or engagement” about legislation or policy. Like their English brethren in the House of Commons, Virginia’s burgesses proudly claimed — at least in theory — absolute legislative independence. The penalty for any candidate guilty of “giving, promising or engaging” was denial of a seat in the House of Burgesses “as if he had never been elected.”

In practice, Virginia candidates attempted to honor the laws against “treats” and promises while also fulfilling their constituents’ expectations of hospitality and respect, regardless of differences in wealth or social status. The most bountiful treats were outdoor parties that welcomed all freeholders regardless of whether they were inclined to vote for or against the host’s candidate. Rum punch, or bumbo, was the preferred beverage. Cookies and ginger cakes were common. Sometimes the fare included barbecued beef or pork. As Charles S. Sydnor explained in his classic book about 18th-century Virginia’s political culture, American Revolutionaries in the Making: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia, candidates who exhibited perfect circumspection in the days directly before an election often dispensed food and drink with open-handed generosity throughout the year — an approach to constituent relations that one Virginian described as “swilling the planters with bumbo.”

According to John Tyler, a lad of 17 studying law in Williamsburg (and later, father of America’s 10th president), Patrick Henry wore “very coarse apparel” when he spoke for Dandridge on that Friday in November 1764. He soon gave the committee an example of the oratory that would make him famous. Eloquence “on the great subject of the rights of suffrage,” Tyler recalled, “from a man so very plain and ordinary in appearance struck the committee with amazement.” Henry’s arguments before the committee and details about Hanover’s contested election were summarized in the report that Richard Bland, committee chairman, presented to the full House of Burgesses on Monday.

Challenging Littlepage’s election, Henry introduced witnesses who testified about the promises the candidate made. More damning were the pledges Littlepage made in written disparagement of the Colony’s tobacco inspection system. “My Plan, Sir, is to serve the People that [are] now so injured by the damned Inspecting Law,” he wrote. “You may depend [that] I have Interest enough” to get the law changed and in the future “have the Inspectors chose every Year by the Freeholders of the County.”

This was precisely the kind of pledge that the House of Burgesses regarded as an affront to the institution and its members. Along with these damning letters, Henry also presented witnesses who testified about freeholders who voted for Littlepage “in Consequence of his Promises about the Tobacco Law.”

But Littlepage had seen enough electioneering in his 18 years as clerk of Louisa County to know how to cover his tracks. “On the Day of the Election, just before the Poll was opened,” a defense witness explained, Littlepage had “publickly and openly declared, in the Court House, before a great Number of People, that he did not look upon any of the Promises he had made to the People as binding on him, but that they were all void.” Even if Littlepage had accompanied this disclaimer with winks and nudges, it was an astute precaution that sat well with the committee.

Henry also made sure that the committee heard a great deal about treats in the Hanover election. These reports proved more confusing than decisive, however, for apparently no egregious violations of the rules about food and drink had occurred. During the weeks between Dandridge’s resignation and his last-minute decision to re-enter the race, James Littlepage and Samuel Overton dickered over treating the freeholders. Midway through the campaign Overton offered to withdraw his candidacy in exchange for 70 pounds reimbursement for what he had spent on treats, an offer Littlepage ultimately accepted.

Despite Henry’s eloquence, the House of Burgesses decided against his client. Speaking for the committee, Bland declared that Littlepage was “duly elected to serve as a Burgess in this present General Assembly for the said County of Hanover.” The committee’s second resolution went further, denouncing Dandridge’s challenge as “frivolous and vexatious” and ordering him to reimburse Littlepage for the costs of defending his election.

Two considerations informed the committee’s verdict. First, it was abundantly clear that Dandridge’s vacillation — his initial decision not to run for re-election and his subsequent change of heart — was the root cause of the disorder that plagued this election. Second, in comparison with the burgesses’ experiences in other counties, the extent of electioneering at this special election in Hanover seemed modest. All the candidates honored the restriction against treating the voters after the sheriff had published the election writ, and nobody spent much on treats.

Samuel Overton, for example, had treated the voters to just 6 gallons of rum on Jan. 13. By contrast, for an assembly election a few years earlier in Frederick County, George Washington had treated just 391 voters with 160 gallons of rum, wine, beer and rum punch (about a quart and a half each) and provided another 40 pounds worth of food and drinks for special friends. A few years later, an Amherst County burgess “sent up 120 gals. of Cider, and 110 gals. of Bumbo to [his] election.” Compared with these events, the contested Dandridge-Littlepage election in Hanover County looks squeaky clean.

Patrick Henry’s eloquence “on the great subject of the rights of suffrage” may well have been “superior to any thing that had been heard before within those walls,” as John Tyler remembered it. His effort to overturn the Dandridge-Littlepage election failed because he was demanding a higher standard of behavior than most burgesses cared to see enforced. In his first speech in the Capitol of Virginia, the ill-dressed young man representing his friend’s aspirations revealed much the same predilection toward a strict enforcement of public morality that he would voice again a year later — when the issues of the day included Parliament’s new Stamp Act.

For the moment, one consequence of Nathaniel Dandridge’s change of heart was that Patrick Henry made his debut speech in the Capitol not as an elected burgess but as legal counsel in an electoral challenge. A year later, after Louisa County sent him to the House of Burgesses, other consequences of his visit became evident.

Henry’s visit in November 1764 was his first opportunity to see the General Assembly in action. Hanging around the Capitol for several days let him see the subtle protocols of parliamentary debate in the House of Burgesses and the tactical uses of petitions, resolutions and committee reports. Over the weekend between the committee meeting on Friday and its report to the assembly on Monday, Henry also visited the shop on Duke of Gloucester Street where Joseph Royle published the Virginia Gazette. There he bought two books that stayed in his personal library for the rest of his life — neither of them an impulse purchase.

One was Richard Bland’s new pamphlet, The Colonel Dismounted: or The Rector Vindicated... Containing a Dissertation upon the Constitution of the Colony. Henry had relied on Bland’s previous essays for arguments in the Parsons’ Cause in December 1763 in which Henry invoked the doctrine of man’s natural rights — and concepts and phrases from Bland’s vindication of Virginia’s constitutional principles echoed through Henry’s speeches and writings for many years.

Henry also shelled out 3 pounds 2 shillings (equal to five weeks’ wages for a skilled artisan) for Baron Samuel Pufendorf’s Law of Nature and Nations. Written by a European contemporary of John Locke, this 900-page treatise on natural law, morality and jurisprudence is recognized as a classic in the development of modern international law. Thanks to lessons from his father and tutor, the young attorney knew a great deal about Pufendorf. A year earlier he had invoked philosophical ideas from Pufendorf in the Parsons’ Cause at Hanover Courthouse — and he would rely on Pufendorf’s ideas in his opposition to the British Stamp Act in 1765, a revenue law in which all forms of paper in the Colony were to be taxed, and again at the First Continental Congress in 1774.

During the visit, Henry also learned of Virginia’s very first reaction to George Grenville’s fateful announcement that George III’s government intended to impose stamp duties on the American Colonies. The burgesses began formulating a public response to this news while Henry was in Williamsburg, and they adopted their respectful petition against it after he had gone home. While he was wandering in the Capitol, however, the entire file of recent correspondence between the assembly’s Committee of Correspondence and its agent in London — the heart of Virginia’s more vigorous confidential objections to Grenville’s intended tax — lay open, potentially for Henry’s review, on the clerk’s table in the chamber of the House of Burgesses during the legislative session.

The following spring, when the freeholders of Louisa County elected him to the assembly, Henry attacked the Stamp Act with indignant resolutions that reflected concepts and language from Richard Bland, Pufendorf and the Committee of Correspondence. The example of Virginia’s opposition inspired resistance throughout the Colonies — and Henry’s resolutions and oratory even reached British newspapers. “Mr. [Henry] has lately blazed out in the Assembly,” the (London) Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser declared on Aug. 13, 1765, “where he compared [George III] to a Tarquin, a Caesar, a Charles the First, threatening him with a Brutus, or an Oliver Cromwell.” Although Patrick Henry failed in his effort to regain his friend Nathaniel West Dandridge’s seat in the House of Burgesses, his November 1764 visit to Williamsburg girded him for the more consequential battles to come.


Jon Kukla is a historian and the author of several books, including Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. He lives and writes in Richmond, Virginia.

Few portraits of Patrick Henry were painted during his lifetime. Artist Thomas Sully relied heavily on a miniature made in 1795 by his brother Lawrence Sully for this portrait, which was completed in 1815, six years after Henry’s death. Henry’s wife and children said it was “the best likeness they ever saw” of him. (Colonial Williamsburg Collections)