Patrick Henry, "I am not a Virginian but an American"

When the members assembled the second morning of the First Continental Congress in 1774, and the Secretary had called the roll and read the minutes, there was a pause. Members from various and distant provinces were personal strangers. Some had been instructed what to do, and others had been left free to act according to their own judgments, and the circumstances. No one seemed willing to take the first step in business. No one seemed to have determined what measure first to propose. The silence was becoming painful, when a grave-looking man, apparently about forty years of age, with unpowdered hair, a thin face, not very powerful in person, and dressed in a plain dark suit of "minister's gray," arose. "Then," said Mr. (afterward Bishop) White, who was present, "I felt a regret that a seeming country parson should so far have mistaken his talents and the theatre for their display." His voice was musical, and as he continued to speak, he became more animated, and his words more eloquent. With alternate vigor and pathos he drew a picture of the wrongs which the colonies had suffered by acts of the Parliament. He said that all the governments in America were dissolved; that the colonies were in a state of nature. He believed that the Congress then in session was the beginning of a long series of congresses; and speaking to the undecided question about voting, he declared his great concern, for their decision would form a precedent. He favored representation according to population; and in reference to the objection that such representation would confer an undue weight of influence upon some of the larger provinces, he said, with words that prophesied of a nation: "British oppression has effaced the boundaries of the several colonies; the distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American." His speech drew the earnest attention of the whole House; and when he sat down the question went from lip to lip, "Who is he?" A few who knew the speaker replied, "It is Patrick Henry of Virginia."

There was now no hesitation. The bold-spirited man, who electrified the continent with his burning words in stamp-act times, was now there to lead in a revolt. He had uttered the sentiment of union and nationality that warmed the hearts of all present, when he exclaimed: "I am not a Virginian, but an American." It was the text of every patriotic discourse thereafter; and from that hour the Congress went forward with courage and vigor in the work assigned them. They determined that the voting should be done by colonies, each colony having one vote, because they had no means for ascertaining the importance of each in population, wealth, and trade. It is estimated that the aggregate population at that time, including five hundred thousand blacks and excluding Indians, was about two million six hundred thousand.

Return to Our Country, Vol II