Samantha Hagan

When Henry called for men from his own county of Hanover to join him in a march on Williamsburg, volunteers flocked to the cause. As word of Henry’s advance on the town arrived, Lord Dunmore sent his family from the governor’s palace to the safety of a British naval vessel anchored near Yorktown. Henry’s militia arrived and set up camp just outside Williamsburg. They were soon joined by Virginians from around the colony.

Patrick Henry demanded the return of the gunpowder, or failing that, he called for compensation to replace the colony’s fleeced supply. Lord Dunmore feared Henry and his men, and from the security of the palace he threatened to destroy the town should any hostilities begin.

For days the standoff continued until a deal was finally brokered in which a sum that both sides agreed upon was paid from the royal account to replace the stolen gunpowder. Dunmore then issued an official proclamation denouncing Patrick Henry and reminding the colonists that their allegiance to the king prohibited them from assisting Henry in any way.

Clearly his words fell on deaf ears. A month later, Lord Dunmore, fearing for his safety, fled the governor’s palace never to return. Without firing a shot Patrick Henry sent two clear messages to British tyrants: first when he demanded liberty or death, and second when he faced an armed enemy and vociferously warned that his fellow colonists would not stand idle while their property was stolen by the government. His courageous words and acts sparked, then enflamed a revolution.

In the year following the events that have come to be known as the “Gunpowder Incident,” Patrick Henry returned to Williamsburg and entered the governor’s palace as the first elected leader of the free and independent Commonwealth of Virginia.

Henry served as governor for five terms. He continued his battle for liberty while in office, opposing the ratification of the Constitution absent a well-defined description of the rights afforded to the states and the people. Due in large part to his leadership, our Constitution contains the Bill of Rights. His leadership in wartime and peace helped shape our nation and continues to inspire new generations of patriots.

Samantha Hagan

Samantha Hagan is Director of the Patrick Henry Legacy Program at the Patrick Henry Center.