This is not my work. It was censored from the Red Hill Website (it was originally at http://www.redhill.org/history_essay.html). I just found an archived copy of this essay here https://web.archive.org/web/20021212044753/www.redhill.org/history_essay.html. I am reposting it since it is important to the debate.
A PATRICK HENRY ESSAY
THE POLITICAL LEGACY OF PATRICK HENRY
By Henry Mayer
A talk prepared for the 160th Anniversary of the Founding of Emory & Henry College, Charter Day, March 21, 1996
Two hundred and twenty-one years ago come Saturday [March 23, 1775] Patrick Henry delivered a powerful sermon on the illusions of hope and the inevitability of war that ended with a phrase that still reverberates in our political consciousness. We may not know very much about the man or the context of his speech, but on the basis of that one ringing sentence Patrick Henry occupies a place in the annals of American oratory and the pantheon of American patriots. I hope I won’t shock you too badly by suggesting that this approach short-changes both our hero and ourselves. It’s not the quotation, but the career that commands attention–at least fifteen terms in the legislature, leadership in the historic revolutionary conventions, the continental congress, and the 1788 ratifying convention, three successive annual terms as Virginia’s first governor and three additional years later, and–from first to last–a deep and affectionate popularity that amounted to folk hero status and for a long time made Henry more highly cherished than George Washington in the hearts of his Virginia countrymen. Because Henry’s career was so much tied to Virginia’s, and because the significance of the states as political and cultural entities has atrophied over two centuries of national growth, the significance of Henry’s role has dwindled, too, into that of a provincial politician. It is true that he was no philosopher and, unlike four of his Virginia compatriots, he never became president. Yet what Henry set in motion in Virginia eventually shook America and reshaped its politics.
Patrick Henry was on of the first and greatest political mavericks in American history, and his career stands as an inspired example of popular democratic leadership combined with public service. Although his antagonists dismissed him as a demagogue who whipped up the masses to serve ignoble ends of personal ambition, I would argue, rather, that he had the great public gift of articulating, in an age of deference, what the silenced majority thought and felt. All great popular leaders have this ability to express to the powerful what the powerless feel and to develop new forms of protest and participation by which they can make their concerns register on the political agenda. Time and again in a long career that spanned the quarter-century between the Stamp Act protests and the conflict over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, patrick Henry took the unorthodox, advanced, uncomfortably radical and provocative position and made himself, as one admirer said, “the very devil in politicks.”
Did this make him a patriot or a subversive? That depends upon whom you ask, and when. To George III or Lord North in 1775, Henry was the bane of sedition; but he was equally seen as seditious and rebellious by the Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses and a good many other aristocrats in 1765 when he loudly advocated massive public defiance of the Stamp Act while his elders–and social betters–wanted a more traditional and sedate approach. (To protect their position, incidentally, they did not scruple to rescind the vote as soon as Henry’s back was turned and expunge his most radical recommendation from the record.) To James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in 1787-88, Henry was “the great adversary” who sounded “the trumpet of discord” with his implacable opposition to their plans for a powerful new central government. To a considerable extent history has shared their perspective: Henry is remembered for his revolt against the King, but his opposition to the Constitution is regarded as cranky, wrong-headed, and if not precisely seditious, certainly an affront to national progress and historical good order.
To Henry, however, his career from first to last represented fidelity to the fundamental maxims of a free society. Since our system rests–somewhat uneasily at times–upon the twin principles of majority rule and minority rights, it is notable that his political legacy is the dual one in that he both opened the door to democracy and protected–indeed, exemplified–the right to dissent.
His first important contribution–and the key, really, to everything that followed–lay in the area of religious liberty. Henry had grown up partly in the snug and cozy world of the Virginia gentry–his father was a magistrate and his uncle an Anglican minister–and partly in the world of the evangelical dissenters–his mother, grandfather, and many kinfolk had joined the Presbyterian revival of the 1740s. Patrick Henry sympathized with the spiritual force of the revival, though he never experienced the new birth himself, and he sensed the cultural and political challenge to the gentry’s aristocratic control that lay behind it. Though he knew the g entry’s ways and remained comfortable with tavern and courthouse politics, his father’s declining status and his mother’s religious alienation made him somewhat of an outsider.
In the 1760s, as a young lawyer, he made his reputation defending a second wave of revivalists–the itinerant Baptist preachers who were subjected to fines, beatings, and persecution by the local authorities. When the preachers were indicted for disturbing the peace, Patrick Henry often came along to disturb the indicters, and it is very important to emphasize that in 1772 he sponsored a bill in the House that would have gone beyond the traditional principle of English toleration (the state’s indulgence) to the recognition of a natural right of conscience to “have and enjoy the full & free exercise” of religion without molestation or penalty by the state. It was Henry’s concept of “free exercise” that he, working with young James Madison, incorporated into the Virginia Declaration of Rights during the momentous convention of 1776, and that helped reorient the controversy over religious freedom from the issue of what dissenters could do to the question of what the state could not do–and thus provided the scaffold upon which the First Amendment was later built.
To return, however, to the revival. In an important, if somewhat paradoxical sense, Henry’s protection of the right to dissent animated his ability to create a more democratic politics, Patrick Henry understood intuitively that there was both a religious and a political awakening going on in Virginia, and he became the evangelistic leader of the revolution because he translated the subversive elements of religious discord into politics and made the dissenters and the ordinary folk excluded from the traditional political process and skeptical of aristocratic rule his power base. He fused the evangelical and gentry style into a new and powerful political identity–the angry outsider who turned old political forms toward new ends.
In this sense, Patrick Henry was a mediating figure–and by that I don’t mean someone with a gift for compromise, but rather a figure capable of embodying and guiding the historic transition from the hierarchical society of the colonial 18th century to the democratic society of the 19th century American republic. Henry knew how the gentry operated, but was not wholly committed to it: he sympathized with the yeoman’s condition, yet aspired to more for himself; in the mixture he became a man who could reach out to ordinary people, speak to them with fire and conviction, meld them into one community of belief, and turned that massed opinion into a profoundly new political force. It was that taking of politics “out of doors” that angered the aristocracy: it was that appeal to public opinion which antagonized Thomas Jefferson until he applied the lessons ten and twenty years later; it was that popular militancy that made the revolutionary work of the colonial assemblies and conventions possible, and it was that commitment to the centrality of popular constituencies and local majority governance that seemed most directly threatened by the new centralized administrative apparatus mandated b y the Philadelphia convention of 1787.
Henry became known as ” a son of thunder,” the new Boanerges, a political apostle of popular government, and the epithet does evoke the natural fervor of the man. Just as the religious revivalists engaged in a soulful, personal preaching that mocked the polite discourse of the Anglicans, so did Henry employ a natural, homely style that mocked the elaborate rules of rhetoric and the flowery Latin quotations and the classical allusions so admired by the gentry. He broke the mold of traditional political address and rhetorical argument and fashioned a new one–partly theatrical, partly sermonic–that combined an actor’s flair with a preacher’s fervor and transported audiences even more than it persuaded them.
The “liberty or death” speech (delivered, by the way, not in the capitol at Williamsburg, but in a church, in Richmond) resonates with Biblical references and cadences, but let’s take another look at that famous concluding phrase–“I know not what course others may take but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” What posterity hears is the devotion to liberty, but what his audience heard, and what we need to hear as well–is the emphasis, as in evangelical religion, on personal choice and individual commitment, here directed toward unorthodox and daringly original political ends. “You never heard anything more infamously insolent than P. Henry’s speech,” a Tory merchant wrote. “This creature is so infatuated that he goes about praying and preaching amongst the common people.”
In the longest and most reliable texts we have for Patrick Henry, the hundreds of hours of heroic speech he offered in the 788 ratifying convention in defense of the agrarian majority against the centralizing tendencies of the commercial elite, we see again the personal style at work. He portrays himself as an aged “sentinel” of liberty; he tries to imagine the effects of the proposed new government upon the ordinary folk whom he fears will “sip sorrow” in a consolidated government of implied powers, unrestricted by the traditional bill of rights: “I speak as one poor individual,” he says, in that insistent, self-dramatizing way he had, “but I speak the language of thousands.”
To Madison’s reassurances that civil liberties were protected by implication, Henry replied, “If they can use implication for us, they can also use implication against us.” Notice the identification with the majority, even as he sought protection for the minority. “We are giving power, they are getting power; judge, then, on which side of implication will be used!” Henry said he would be for modest increases in the powers of the central government. “If we grant too little power today, we can grant more tomorrow. But if we grant too much today, tomorrow will never come.” This, in a nutshell, was Henry’s traditional Whig skepticism, fidelity to the idea that the polis itself (the electorate, as it was coming to be understood) had a civic obligation to supervise the governors, and it is this sense of duty that is most difficult to exercise in the era of mass communications and the modern nation-state.
Henry’s sustained attack was silenced only once, ironically, by a thunderstorm that rattled the windows of the building so noisily that the session had to be adjourned. The convention was closely divided, but despite his willingness to accept consolidation if only a bill of rights were added before ratification, Henry could not prevail. Virginia ratified the Constitution by ten votes and Henry had to accept Madison’s promise that the new Congress would consider Virginia’s list of suggested amendments along with those from other states. This was a process that the redoubtable Henry would not leave to chance, and he applied some formidable political pressure to ensure their consideration, forcing Madison to run for Congress in a largely anti-federal district and to make a campaign promise (significantly accomplished ina latter to a Baptist minister) that he would work for amendments. It was the mobilization of public opinion that underlay Henry’s first great triumph in the Stamp Act protests, and it was this novel, popular constituency-based politics that formed his last, for I will leave to you the beguiling question of apportioning the credit for the Bill of Rights between the man who drafted the first ten amendments and the man who made him do it.
In this connection, however, I need to say something about a recent popular misconception concerning Patrick Henry’s legacy and the genesis of the Second Amendment, which states, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Despite efforts of a number of misguided scholars to construe this language as justifying individual, unregulated gun ownership, I am firmly convinced that the Second Amendment is concerned with the state’s power to control its own militia as a civilian alternative to a professional standing army. In raising the issue in the Virginia Convention Patrick Henry several times pointed to Art. I, Section 8, Clause 16, as an example of the potentially threatening effect of dual state and congressional jurisdiction over the militia and the possibly dangerous union of the purse and sword vested in Congress. Yet wielding the scholar’s power of the ellipse several partisans of gun ownership have edited Henry’s remarks about how best to regulate the militia into an inflammatory half-truth “The great object is that every man be armed….Every one who is able may have a gun.” The NRA has blown this up into a poster-sized blurb embossed with Patrick Henry’s image.
This is not, I repeat NOT, part of Patrick Henry’s legacy. Clearly speaking of the problem of militia organization, what he actually said is, “The great object is that every man [of the militia] be armed.–But can the people to afford to pay for double sets of arms &c.? Every one who is able may have a gun. But have we not learned by experience, that necessary as it is to have arms, and though our assembly has, by a succession of laws for many years, endeavored to have the militia completely armed, it is still far from being the case. When this power is given up to Congress without limitation or bounds, ho will your militia be armed? You trust to chance….”
Not to belabor the argument, but cinch it, I would also remind you that the liberty or death speech itself was in support of a resolution to put the colony in a mode of defense, and the plan proposed by Henry’s committee as a result of its passage included a militia law that described in great detail not only the number of men, but the amount of ammunition to be raised by a collective levy, and a very clear procedure for maintaining county and provincial control over the militia system. If Henry’s remarks were intended to cast doubt upon the adequacy of a hypothetical Congressional militia law, they only affirmed his commitment to the traditional method of state control over a militia that, far from being a privatized collection of gun-toting individuals, was a community temporarily called to arms and always subservient to public authority and law.
Having said perhaps too much about the effort to distort Patrick Henry’s legacy by putting words in his mouth, I now need to say something about a silence in Henry’s legacy. Like the other Virginia framers Henry both owned slaves and owned up to the impossibility of squaring the existence of chattel slavery with the ideals of the Revolution. Sensitive as he was to the influence of religious radicals, he at least had the decency to respond to an exhortation by a Quaker leader, Robert Pleasants, who asked all the prominent patriots to follow his own example of legally emancipating his slaves and rehiring them as paid laborers. Yet Henry’s letter is both forthright and evasive. He concedes the evil, laments his entrapment in the system, suggests it will be abolished in the fullness of time, and declares that he will transmit to posterity, together with his slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery. Henry was skilled at the politics of gesture and brave in defiance of convention, but on this issue–the gravest and most fateful in our history–the common path of least resistance and left successor generations to sip the sorrow of his era’s default.
Henry, we may say in extenuation, was a man of his times, and this brings me to a final point about legacies. No matter what we take from the past, what we make of it is our own. Henry’s time is done. Independence was secured, the Constitution was ratified; we have an income tax and a standing army, interstate highways and social security, federally insured bank deposits, pure food and drug laws, and a minimum wage. We have abolished slavery; we have eliminated property qualifications for voting and outlawed disenfranchisement on the basis of race or sex. We have become so great, so centralized, so industrialized a nation that it is hard to credit Henry’s anti-federal vision, rooted in an agrarian localism that no longer exists, as a once-plausible alternative. Yet the larger significance is not the outcome of this free-wheeling debate, but an appreciation that it took place at all. Dissenters like Henry deserve to be recognized as framers, too, because they took politics seriously enough to contend for their beliefs and animate one pamphleteer’s maxim that “in principles of politics, as well as in religious faith, every man ought to think for himself.”
This is a responsibility that we must accept. We cannot make an icon of Patrick Henry and fling his remarks, however resonant they may be, at our contemporary problems. Of course one hears echoes of Henry’s populism and skepticism in modern controversies, and the intersection of religion and politics remains as dangerous and unsettling in our day as it was in his. But hear my point. They are echoes, not mandates. It is not enough to choose a position on the basis of what patrick Henry might have thought or said or done. What we can best take from him, in the final analysis, is inspiration for active engagement in the public affairs of our own day.
The patriots at odds in the 1760s, 70s, and 80s struggled with the endemic American conflict between liberty and authority, between the realm of personal freedom and the power of the state. And it is part of our paradoxical politics today. We are a people, after all, who rail against government even as we insist upon law enforcement, who praise self-rule but suspect politics, who glory in an egalitarian credo yet tolerate profound inequities of class, race, and gender, and who celebrate diversity while railing against outsiders and harshly judging the world’s people who choose not to follow our example. We yearn for past certainties and spurn past restraints, fearing change even as we desire it. Patrick Henry was born into a world that seemed both staid and settled, and yet pulsated with forces that, within his lifetime, reshaped his world and pointed in the direction of ours. We live in a world that seems to throb with forces beyond our control, and we are faced with conflicts in values perhaps more profound than any faced by Patrick Henry and a new century whose dan seems clouded with uncertainty rather than bright with promise. What new era will we help to deliver? We need to accept the challenge, not shrink from it, understand politics as a civic calling, not a spectator sport or a giant yawn, and not leave it to another George or Patrick or Bill or Bob or Newt or Ross to do it for us.
Modern historians once stigmatized the Anti-federalists as “men of little faith.” had Patrick Henry heard the charge, he would have clearly rejected it. Citizens, he believed, are not supposed to have faith in their governors; they are supposed to have faith in themselves. We can best honor Patrick Henry’s political legacy of democratic participation and individual dissent by recognizing the legitimacy, indeed, the necessity of political conflict in a free society. As a sentinel for liberty Patrick Henry manifested the citizens’ essential skepticism against entrenched power, yet he did so mindful of the need to nourish the commonweal and lead lives of civic virtue. he was a political man in an age that honored politics and believed in its possibilities. In speaking the language of thousands, he teaches us, most of all, to speak for ourselves and our deepest aspirations for the common good.
Henry Mayer is the author of Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. His new book, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, will be published in fall 1998 by St. Martin’s Press. The Patrick Memorial Foundation is grateful to Mr. Mayer for permission to publish “The Political Legacy of Patrick Henry.”