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Books and Culture

Ryan L. Cole
Give Me Posterity
A new biography of Patrick Henry reveals a complicated but exemplary American.
17 February 2012

Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, by Thomas S. Kidd (Basic, 320 pp., $28)

Peruse the language of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movements, and you will, at some point, encounter “give me liberty or give me death.” Apart from the various preambles and amendments to our founding documents, these are arguably the best- known and most invoked words from the American Revolution. The phrase has far outlived the reputation of its author: two centuries after his death, Patrick Henry remains associated with a fragment of a speech he delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s church in the spring of 1775, and little else. But Henry, the subject of a fine new biography by historian Thomas S. Kidd, should be remembered for much more.

Virginia’s first governor, and one of the earliest and most articulate advocates for American independence, Henry was essential to the nation’s founding. He was also a complex, contradictory figure whose legacy doesn’t easily lend itself to modern appropriation: a Founding Father who fought tooth and nail against the ratification of the Constitution, a staunch defender of human liberty who owned scores of slaves, and a firm exponent of Christian virtue not entirely uncomfortable using his power for personal gain. Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots portrays a sui generis patriot whose career illustrates the probity and failings of men and the governments they craft—as well as the power of words.

Inspired by the impassioned sermons of the Great Awakening, Henry first lent his voice to the nascent American revolt by arguing against the British crown’s right to override colonial law in the Parson’s Cause—a legal dispute involving a Virginia law that established Anglican ministers’ salaries at two cents per pound of tobacco (then often used as currency). Henry’s successful arguments, which to some ears came close to challenging King George III directly, propelled the little-known lawyer into a seat on Virginia’s first legislative body, the House of Burgesses. Henry’s arrival there in 1765 coincided, fortuitously, with parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act.

From this perch Henry became, in Kidd’s words, “America’s most dynamic critic of British tyranny.” Henry’s resolutions in response to the Stamp Act, which he claimed to have written “alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law book,” were startlingly radical and jolted the colonies. They asserted that colonists were entitled to the same liberties as their British brethren and had no obligation to pay taxes or obey laws that their own legislatures had not passed. Copycat resolutions sprang up across America, culminating in the Stamp Act Congress in New York: the first cross-colonial meeting of elected officials and one of the seeds from which the revolution sprouted.

With America’s separation from the mother country inevitable, Henry travelled to Philadelphia to participate in the first Continental Congress in 1774, where he, with characteristic persuasiveness, declared “the distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” His most famous formulation came while Virginia debated whether to lend its support to the burgeoning military resistance. No contemporary transcript exists of the “Liberty or Death” speech. Henry, unlike many of his peers, kept few records and preserved little of his writing. Our account is based on William Wirt’s Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, an 1816 biography that itself relied on the recollections of Henry’s contemporaries. Leaning heavily on scripture, Henry laid out the argument against King George’s assurances. “Suffer not yourself to be betrayed with a kiss,” he warned, suggesting that war had arrived, and that taking up arms was the only remaining course. “The war is inevitable,” Henry intoned, “and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!” He raised his arms to heaven and concluded with his famous refrain, inspired by Joseph Addison’s play, Cato: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Though Henry’s words horrified many present, Virginia subsequently lent her guns to the Revolutionary cause, and Henry soon found himself colonel of one of the Commonwealth’s regiments, and then its governor. As chief executive, Henry resisted Benjamin Rush’s attempt to entangle him in a plot to replace George Washington as commander of the Continental Army with General Horatio Gates—in Kidd’s estimation, a quiet, but hugely significant, contribution to the American cause.

We’re less likely to applaud other aspects of Henry’s career. His speeches were often colored by images of Americans enslaved by the British. Yet Henry’s finances were firmly linked to his own slaves. Like others of the founding generation, he wrote and spoke eloquently against this evil, even predicting the bloodshed it would bring, but was unable to do anything to abolish the practice. Despite his professed fidelity to virtue, Henry “wrestled occasionally with the temptations of luxury,” Kidd writes. As governor, he became entangled in questionable private land deals.

The objective of Henry’s last political battle may help explain why his life is less remembered than his words. Explaining that he “smelt a rat” in the push to reshape the federal government, he declined his selection to represent Virginia at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and stayed home. Unsurprisingly, Henry found much to dislike in the convention’s final product. He feared the Constitution’s strong centralized government would usurp the rights and authority belonging to the states, tax its citizens excessively, and create a colossal military for the purpose of conquests in the name of “American glory.” He was also appalled at the creation of a president to oversee this new enterprise. Henry argued that the chief executive might well end up a monarch under a different name. And, prophetically, he suggested that maintaining this new government would eventually “cost this continent immense sums.” Yet though Henry spoke out in opposition to the Constitution during Virginia’s ratifying convention, he eventually reconciled himself to the new government’s design.

Neither hagiography nor politically correct hatchet job, Patrick Henry is a thoughtful, impressively researched, and smoothly written reintroduction to a founder whose eloquence enabled America’s revolution and whose famous words have resonated ever since.

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