Founders and the Constitution

Patrick Henry (1736-1799)

Clock One 45-minute class period

In this lesson, students will study the life of Patrick Henry. They will learn about why he is often called “The Orator of Liberty”, and his opposition to the Constitution. They will also analyze his speaking style.

Founding Principles

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.


Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt. - Patrick Henry (1788)


Patrick Henry’s fame rested largely on his oratorical skills, which he employed in the cause of liberty. Henry was one of the most persuasive speakers of his time. His oratory differed from that typical of the period in that Henry rarely made allusions to classical texts. Instead, imitating the revivalist preachers he had heard as a boy during the Great Awakening, he filled his speeches with Biblical allusions and Christian symbolism. Henry’s persuasive speaking style converted the hearts of many. At the same time, however, his abrasive nature could alienate others. After battling Henry on revisions to the Virginia constitution, Thomas Jefferson became exasperated. “What we have to do I think,” Jefferson suggested to James Madison, “is devoutly to pray for his death.”

Henry was an articulate spokesman for American liberty during the crisis with Great Britain. After the United States won independence, he became a leading Anti-Federalist and opponent of the new Constitution. Henry feared that the new government would destroy individual rights and the authority of the states. His insistence that a bill of rights at least be attached to the document did much to make the first ten amendments to the Constitution a reality. Henry believed his duty was to guard zealously the rights of his people. He knew that future generations of Americans would judge his efforts, and he hoped that “they will see that I have done my utmost to preserve their liberty.”


In this lesson, students will learn about Patrick Henry. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Patrick Henry (1736–1799) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Patrick Henry on the Constitution, in which Henry warns the members of the Virginia Ratifying Convention that the new Constitution will produce tyranny in the United States. As a preface, there is Handout B—Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.

Students will be divided into five groups, each of which will paraphrase a section of the document in one to two sentences. They will then jigsaw into new groups, and each group will present a one-minute version of Henry’s speech that retains the main ideas of the original. There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to compose a response to Henry’s speech by a defender of the Constitution and to examine the use of fear and sarcasm in Henry’s speeches. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to compose a speech in the style of Henry about a contemporary issue which they have researched.


Students will:

  • explain why Henry is often called “The Orator of Liberty”
  • understand Henry’s role in the American independence movement
  • explain Henry’s objections to the Constitution
  • analyze Henry’s speaking style


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Patrick Henry (1736–1799)
  • Handout B—Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: Patrick Henry on the Constitution

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


  • CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
  • NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
  • NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Patrick Henry (1736–1799) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Patrick Henry.

    Patrick Henry was one of the most radical leaders of the opposition to British tyranny. He became famous for his speech during the Parson’s Cause of 1763 in which he denounced British misrule in Virginia. He also spoke out against the Stamp Act, claiming that only the Virginia legislature possessed the power to tax Virginia’s citizens. During the American Revolution and soon after independence, Henry served in the state legislature and as governor of Virginia. He was a leading opponent of the proposed Constitution of 1787, which he feared would establish tyranny in the United States. Henry wanted a bill of rights added to the document, but he opposed as inadequate the twelve amendments sent to the states in 1789.

Context 5 min.

Briefly review with students the main issues involved in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (The Federalists believed that the confederation would break up if the Constitution was not ratified. Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger central government would endanger the rights of the people.)

In His Own Words 25 min.

  1. Distribute Handout B—Context Questions.
  2. Divide the class into five equal groups. Give each group one of the pages of Handout C—In His Own Words: Patrick Henry on the Constitution. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
  3. Each group will be given the job of paraphrasing its assigned passage in one to two sentences that convey Henry’s main idea. Below each passage of Henry’s speech are aids for understanding the document: vocabulary words and their definitions, a list of relevant sections of the Constitution, and clues to understanding the passage.
  4. Once all groups believe that they understand their assigned passage, jigsaw into five new groups (regroup the students so that each new group contains at least one “expert” from each of the original groups).
  5. Tell each student to imagine that he or she is Patrick Henry and has been given one minute to deliver a speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. Give each group the task of editing the entire five-paragraph speech so that when read aloud, it takes no longer than one minute. Students should edit the speech sentence by sentence; that is, they should delete entire sentences, leaving complete sentences. Remind the students that they should retain the five main ideas that comprise the speech.
  6. Once the groups have edited the speech to one minute, have each group select its best speaker to deliver its version to the entire class. Remind the speakers that Henry used emotion when making his speeches.

Wrap-up Discussion 5 min.

After each speaker has given his or her group’s speech, conduct a large-group discussion to determine which group did the best job of summarizing the five main points of Henry’s speech. List these five main points on the board, making sure that the students understand them.

Follow-Up Homework Options

  1. Tell the students to imagine that they are delegates to the Virginia Ratifying Convention who favor the Constitution. Have each student compose a page-long response to Henry’s speech that addresses each of Henry’s five main points.
  2. Using both Handout A and Handout C, have the students highlight phrases or sentences uttered by Henry in which he most successfully employs fear to arouse his listeners. Also have the students underline phrases or sentences in which Henry employs sarcasm to attack his opponents.


In his speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Henry warned that some Americans wished to build a powerful empire at the expense of the people’s liberty. Some people today, echoing Henry, have argued that recent presidents have sought to expand the influence of the United States at the expense of the freedom of Americans. Have the students find a news article or editorial in which someone—a news commentator, government official, political candidate, etc.—makes such an argument. Then have the students compose a one-paragraph speech about the issue in the style used by Patrick Henry.


Beeman, Richard. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. Reprint. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
McCants, David A. Patrick Henry: The Orator. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Meade, Robert Douthat. Patrick Henry. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957–1969.
Vaughan, David J. Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1997.

Red Hill, Patrick Henry National Memorial. <>.
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. <>.
“Patrick Henry.” U.S. <>.
“Patrick Henry.” The American <>.
“Meet the People: Patrick Henry.” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. <>.

Selected Works

By Patrick Henry

  • “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”: Speech of March 23, 1775, to the Second Continental Congress
  • Speech of June 5, 1788, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention

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