The Wisdom Of Patrick Henry

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When I was a kid my father once told me, (okay, probably more than once), that opinions are like assholes; everyone has one and they all stink. I know, helluva way to start an article there Neal, but the point I’m trying to make is that everyone has an opinion that others do not like. What I’ve discovered is that the closer one gets to a fact based opinion the more people there will be who don’t like that opinion.

I have found that the closer people stick to the official, or politically correct narrative, the more their opinions will be accepted as valid and tolerated without any real blowback. However, the moment facts are introduced into a discussion there will always be those who go on the defensive, hurling insults at those who have the unmitigated gall to bring facts to a debate. People do that because, for the most part, people have no facts to support their opinions; therefore insults are their only weapon against someone who does have facts to support their opinion.

Whenever I run into a situation like that I always wonder how the person formed the opinion they so fervently defend. Are people’s opinions based upon something they were taught in school, or told by their parents? Do they base their opinions upon what they heard on the news, or upon what someone in a position of authority said? Or, could it simply be that they form opinions that make them feel good about themselves, and facts are often cold harsh truths that some people shy away from because they don’t have the mental fortitude to deal with them?

On March 23, 1775 the Virginia Colonial Legislative Assembly, known as the House of Burgesses, met at St. John’s Church in Richmond to discuss what course of action Virginia would take due to the increasing tensions between them and Great Britain. In attendance that day were numerous names from early Colonial America, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee; who would later go on to introduce the resolution in the 2nd Continental Congress which declared that America ought to become free and independent.

However there was another in attendance that day whose name deserves the highest of honors when it comes to his fearless defense of liberty; that man being none other than Patrick Henry. If the name Patrick Henry means anything to people it is probably tied irrevocably to the phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Yet Patrick Henry did more than just speak in opposition to the British Crown, he put his money where his mouth was as well.

On April 19, 1775 the Colonists in Massachusetts squared off against the British Redcoats at the famous battle at Lexington and Concord; where they repelled the Redcoats who had sought to seize the weapons they had stored there and arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Back then they didn’t have live news coverage of breaking stories like we do now, so news of this event took time to spread from one Colony to the others.

Therefore it is pretty safe to say that the following day, April 20th, the news of Lexington and Concord had not yet made its way to Virginia. Why is all this important? Well it is due to the fact that on April 20, 1775 Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, ordered the removal of the gunpowder stored at the magazine in Williamsburg; ordering it to be taken to a British warship for storage where the Colonials would have no access to it. Patrick Henry led a small group of militia to Williamsburg to force the return of the gunpowder to Colonial Control. The matter was settled without incident when Henry was paid £330 for the gunpowder, which with inflation would be about $13,000 today. Not only was Henry paid a huge sum for the gunpowder seized by the British, his actions led to the Royal Governor fleeing Williamsburg out of fear for what might happen to him at the hands of the militia.

So not only was Patrick Henry a great orator, he also walked the walk, as we would say today; meaning when he said give me liberty or give me death he had already proven that he was willing to risk his life defending his principles. I wonder how many people today, whose convictions and opinions are based upon such shaky ground, would be willing to put their lives on the line defending those principles. Just something for ya’ll to think about.

Getting back to March 23, 1775 I’d be willing to bet that not more than 1 out of 100 people have ever read the entire transcript of the speech delivered by Patrick Henry to the Virginia House of Burgesses that day. I have, numerous times. In fact, I was required to memorize the last few paragraphs in school and then recite them in front of the class.

Although I admire Thomas Jefferson a great deal, and love how he worded the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, nothing hits me with more force than the speech delivered by Patrick Henry that day. Those in attendance were awestruck, not so much with the words used by Patrick Henry, but by his fire, his passion, and his delivery. A Baptist Minister who witnessed the speech would later say, “Every eye yet gazed entranced on Henry … Men were beside themselves.” John Carrington, who could only hear the speech through an open window, told his wife that he wished to be buried at the spot he now stood; a request that was honored upon his passing.

Henry said a great many things during that historical speech, but there are but two of them that I wish to address here. The first applies to all those who HOPE that someone, or something, will fix all the problems this country faces; especially those who have hope without any real understanding of why these problems exist.

In regards to hope Patrick Henry had this to say, “…it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.” Maybe that’s why I admire Patrick Henry so much, both he and I have/had a passion for the truth; unlike so many people I encounter today who choose to believe in false hope and lies.

The other passage that I wish to address is, “Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

You see, Patrick Henry was not afraid of speaking his mind; even when his opinions were not shared by others. As he was a lover of the truth, Henry was not afraid of speaking that truth; even when it made others uncomfortable. Henry was a man who called it as he saw it, or as my dad used to say, called a spade a spade; meaning he didn’t mince words or spew a bunch of useless bullshit.

Yet as staunch a defender of liberty that he was, for most of his later life Patrick Henry’s name was spoken with hate and loathing by two of the more commonly known Founders; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson spent a great deal of time speaking illy of him. In fact, in a lengthy discourse of the life of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson said this about the man, “Mr Henry’s apostacy, sunk him to nothing, in the estimation of his country he lost at once all that influence which federalism had hoped, by cajoling him, to transfer with him to itself, and a man who, through a long & active life, had been the idol of his country, beyond any one that ever lived, descended to the grave with less than it’s indifference…”

As hard as I’ve tried I’ve been unable to find any reason for the animosity Jefferson had towards Patrick Henry, and as both men were leading figures in the struggle for independence, it still comes as a shock to me that such animosity even existed.

Now James Madison, on the other hand, I can understand why he disliked Henry so much. Although it may have begun sooner, I think Madison’s opposition to Patrick Henry began when Henry was serving in the Virginia Legislature. At the time religion played a much larger role in people’s lives than it does today, and religion was a common topic of discussion.

At the time the Virginia Legislature respected, and protected, the established Anglican Protestant church, and penalized dissenters. During this time Thomas Jefferson introduced his bill for Religious Freedom, but it was too radical a step and was not passed. In response, Patrick Henry offered up a bill in which taxpayers could designate the minister or church to which their taxes, or assessment, would go.

Madison, in a stalling movement, recommended that no action be taken on Henry’s proposal until it could be printed and submitted to the people for their consideration. Then, when Henry was chosen to be Governor of Virginia he lost his say in the legislature and Madison let Henry’s proposal wither and die without ever taking any action on it. But that’s not all Madison did, he also wrote something some Madison scholars call his best work; A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

Although Madison does not mention Henry by name, it was probably pretty understood to whom Madison was speaking in opposition to with this document. That opposition only intensified when Madison led the charge for the establishment of an entirely new system of government to replace the one established by the Articles of Confederation.

Patrick Henry was asked to attend the convention that ultimately produced the constitution, but he refused to attend, saying “I smell a rat in Philadelphia.” What he meant by that was he suspected that something untoward was in the works; primarily the establishment of a system of government that would undo all they had fought for in the revolution.

Once the convention finalized their document and submitted it to the people for their consideration Madison, and others, knew that they would face opposition to it. It didn’t help matters that in ratifying the constitution the Philadelphia Assembly had rushed to be the among the first State to ratify the Constitution; following only Delaware which barely gave the document any consideration at all before voting to ratify it.

The underhanded treatment of delegates who opposed the constitution by the Philadelphia Ratifying Assembly, combined with the concerted effort to stifle any thoughts and comments highlighting the flaws in that document ensured that it would be examined with a close eye by the remaining States; meaning Madison and his band of cronies had their work cut out for them if they wanted their Constitution ratified. To make matters even worse for James Madison, Patrick Henry was among the staunchest opponents of the proposed document. Add that to the fact that Henry was also a fellow Virginian, and that Madison would have to confront him in the Virginia Ratifying Assembly, and one can easily understand why Jimmy Madison disliked Patrick Henry so much.

During the debates of the Virginia Ratifying Assembly Patrick Henry spoke often, and lengthy in his opposition to the government they were tasked with considering. They often say that hindsight is 20/20; meaning you see things more clearly after they happen than while they are happening.

With that being the case, it comes as no surprise to find that many of Patrick Henry’s warnings about the dangers posed by the proposed constitution have proven to be true. It is with that thought in mind that I wish to devote the remainder of this commentary to some of the arguments given by Patrick Henry in opposition to the constitution. I’ll allow you to decide for yourself if Patrick Henry was right, and deserves a much higher place in the annals of history than he holds, or if he was wrong, and as Jefferson said, “… descended to the grave with less than it’s [his country’s] indifference…”

– It will be necessary for this Convention to have a faithful historical detail of the facts that preceded the session of the federal Convention, and the reasons that actuated its members in proposing an entire alteration of government, and to demonstrate the dangers that awaited us. If they were of such awful magnitude as to warrant a proposal so extremely perilous as this, I must assert, that this Convention has an absolute right to a thorough discovery of every circumstance relative to this great event.

– I have the highest veneration for those gentlemen; but, sir, give me leave to demand, What right had they to say, We, the people? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states. I have the highest respect for those gentlemen who formed the Convention, and, were some of them not here, I would express some testimonial of esteem for them. America had, on a former occasion, put the utmost confidence in them — a confidence which was well placed; and I am sure, sir, I would give up any thing to them; I would cheerfully confide in them as my representatives. But, sir, on this great occasion, I would demand the cause of their conduct. Even from that illustrious man who saved us by his valor, I would have a reason for his conduct: that liberty which he has given us by his valor, tells me to ask this reason; and sure I am, were he here, he would give us that reason. But there are other gentlemen here, who can give us this information. The people gave them no power to use their name. That they exceeded their power is perfectly clear. It is not mere curiosity that actuates me: I wish to hear the real, actual, existing danger, which should lead us to take those steps, so dangerous in my conception.

– I am much obliged to the very worthy gentleman for his encomium. I wish I was possessed with talents, or possessed of any thing that might enable me to elucidate this great subject. I am not free from suspicion: I am apt to entertain doubts. I rose yesterday to ask a question which arose in my own mind. When I asked that question, I thought the meaning of my interrogation was obvious. The fate of this question and of America may depend on this. Have they said, We, the states? Have they made a proposal of a compact between states? If they had, this would be a confederation. It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing — the expression, We, the people, instead of the states, of America. I need not take much pains to show that the principles of this system are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous. Is this a monarchy, like England — a compact between prince and people, with checks on the former to secure the liberty of the latter? Is this a confederacy, like Holland — an association of a number of independent states, each of which retains its individual sovereignty? It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely. Had these principles been adhered to, we should not have been brought to this alarming transition, from a confederacy to a consolidated government.

– It is said eight states have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve states and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful {45} people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.

– Will the abandonment of your most sacred rights tend to the security of your liberty? Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessing — give us that precious jewel, and you may take every thing else! But I am fearful I have lived long enough to become an old-fashioned fellow. Perhaps an invincible attachment to the dearest rights of man may, in these refined, enlightened days, be deemed old-fashioned; if so, I am contented to be so. I say, the time has been when every pulse of my heart beat for American liberty, and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American; but suspicions have gone forth — suspicions of my integrity — publicly reported that my professions are not real. Twenty-three years ago was I supposed a traitor to my country? I was then said to be the bane of sedition, because I supported the rights of my country. I may be thought suspicious when I say our privileges and rights are in danger.

– Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force: Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.

– The Honorable Gentleman who presides, told us, that to prevent abuses in our Government, we will assemble in Convention, recall our delegated powers, and punish our servants for abusing the trust reposed in them. Oh, Sir, we should have fine times indeed, if to punish tyrants, it were only sufficient to assemble the people. Your arms wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone; and you have no longer an aristocratical; no longer democratical spirit. Did you ever read of any revolution in a nation, brought about by the punishment of those in power, inflicted by those who had no power at all? … A standing army we shall have also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny: And how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your Mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?

– This Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, Sir, they appear to me horribly frightful: Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy: And does not this raise indignation in the breast of every American? Your President may easily become King: Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed by what may be a small minority; and a very small minority may continue forever unchangeably this Government, although horridly defective: Where are your checks in this Government?

– And, Sir, would not all the world, from the Eastern to the Western hemisphere, blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad. Shew 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.

– Where is the responsibility — that leading principle in the British government? In that government a punishment, certain and inevitable, is provided: But in this, there is no real actual punishment for the grossest maladministration. They may go without punishment, though they commit the most outrageous violation on our immunities. That paper may tell me they will be punished. I ask, by what law? They must make the law — for there is no existing law to do it. What — will they make a law to punish themselves? This, Sir, is my great objection to the Constitution, that there is no true responsibility — and that the preservation of our liberty depends on the single chance of men being virtuous enough to make laws to punish themselves.

It is my firm belief that Patrick Henry was right, there was much to fear from this new system of government. Now if only people could put aside their emotional support for this system of government we have, and their staunch devotion to the document that established it, maybe we could make some headway and begin healing our wounds and begin the process of restoring the liberty our government has stolen from us.

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