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Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots

Thomas S. Kidd
Published by Basic Books in 2011

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a young Patrick Henry pounding on the dinner table, exhorting his parents to “Give me the potatoes, or give me death!” The cartoon works because we so readily associate Henry’s name with his stirring speech on the eve of the American Revolution. Unfortunately, Henry’s call for “liberty or death” is almost the only thing most Americans remember about the man who, along with Thomas Paine, was one of the “two greatest catalysts of the Revolution,” according to author Thomas Kidd (117). In this brief and engaging biography, Kidd reacquaints readers with the statesman who both eloquently espoused independence and passionately opposed the Constitution. In highlighting and explaining the logical consistency of these two positions, Kidd offers his readers much food for thought, albeit without taking a strong position himself.

Although Kidd traces Henry’s life from cradle to grave, the heart of the biography is framed by compelling readings of two of Henry’s most influential addresses: his “give me liberty” speech delivered in 1775 to the Virginia House of Burgesses, as that body considered a range of responses to escalating conflicts with Parliament, and a much lesser known speech proffered in 1788 to a Virginia convention charged with ratifying or rejecting the newly drafted Constitution. In the former, Henry issued an electrifying call to arms; in the latter, he denounced the new blueprint for national government as a repudiation of the values for which American patriots had bled and died. Both stances, Kidd stresses, emanated logically from a worldview that presupposed that human nature was fallen, saw liberty as inescap-ably fragile, feared all concentration of power as dangerous, and concluded that the best defense against tyranny was “a virtuous society with robust local governments” (xii). In 1775, Henry was convinced that Americans could only obtain liberty by forcefully resisting the British government. Thirteen years later, he was certain that they could only preserve their liberty by resisting the drive to clothe the American government with the same kind of power that the British government had once wielded. The demand for a stronger central government, he declaimed, had less to do with flaws in the Articles of Confederation than with a hunger for empire, and the latter, if satiated, would eviscerate local government and ultimately jeopardize liberty rather than enhance it. After Virginia narrowly ratified the Constitution, Henry campaigned for a second Constitutional convention to undo the work of the first. When that strategy failed, he accepted the outcome but became an ardent “strict constructionist,” and to his death he “never got over the feeling that when Virginia approved the Constitution, the Revolution was lost” (xii).

Given Henry’s jealous concern for the prerogatives of local government, it makes sense, Kidd notes that Henry has emerged as a favorite of the recent Tea Party movement. In like manner – considering that he was educated mostly at home, was apparently a faithful hus-band, fathered a large family, and championed the importance of religion in public life – it is no surprise that Henry is often fondly remembered by evangelical Christians generally and by home schoolers in particular (see Patrick Henry College). As good historical scholarship is wont to do, however, Kidd’s judicious treatment complicates his subject and frustrates efforts to mine the past for simplistic truths to wield as weapons in contemporary debates.

To begin with, despite Henry’s lifelong preoccupation with moral character, Kidd shows that the Virginia patriot struggled to live up to the ideals he professed. He was frequently preoccupied with land speculation, was repeatedly in debt, and “wrestled occasionally with the temptations of luxury” (140). Of greater consequence, whereas the ideal statesman was supposed to model civic virtue – defined in the eighteenth century as self-denial in pursuit of the common good – “the line between political principle and personal enrichment” was often blurred in Henry’s career (220). Although his “lifelong championing of virtue was sincere,” Kidd believes, Henry nonetheless “factored financial considerations into his policymaking” (163). During the 1790s, for example, Henry opposed a second war with Britain in part because war promised to depress land values and make it harder to extricate himself from debt. Even his principled opposition to the Constitution was reinforced by concern about its implications for Virginia’s economy and by fear that a much-strengthened federal government would have the power to interfere with slavery, an institution that the slaveholding, liberty-loving Henry had made peace with well before the outbreak of the Revolution.

Equally significant, Kidd complicates our understanding of Henry’s religious views and of their influence on his political philosophy. On the one hand, Henry undeniably viewed religious faith as vital to the health of the republic; virtue was essential in the governance of a free society, and no other institution, he was convinced, could promote virtue as ef-fectively as the church. This conviction was manifested most notably in his efforts after the Revolutionary War to mandate a so-called “general assessment plan” in Virginia that would require the state’s free population to pay taxes to support the Christian church of their choice. While Henry readily accepted the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia, he hoped to recognize “the realities of Christian pluralism” (167) in the state while still reinforcing the public role of religion. Although the plan failed to pass (thanks to an alliance of evangelicals and Enlightenment humanists led by James Madison), the vast majority of Henry’s contemporaries agreed with him that churches served as the primary safeguard of public virtue, differing only as to whether it was acceptable to require indi-viduals to support a church financially. Kidd adds that the defeat of Henry’s plan was for the best, as the alternative model based on the voluntary support of religion “would put Christianity on a much stronger basis in Virginia and America generally” (172). This is the near-universal conclusion among historians, of course, and it may even be correct, but a fuller and more nuanced evaluation would be welcome here.

While Henry’s commitment to the civic importance of religion is clear, the strength of his personal religious faith is difficult to establish. Kidd characterizes Henry as a product of the Great Awakening, but the characteristics that he emphasizes are the orator’s will-ingness to challenge established authority and his penchant for appealing directly to the people, neither of which is unambiguously Christian nor unquestionably the fruit of a liv-ing faith. Like many public figures of his day, Henry was reticent about making the sort of public declaration of private devotion that modern evangelicals now routinely expect from candidates. If he ever experienced an evangelical conversion he left no record of it, and as an adult his church attendance was inconsistent. Indeed, only three years before his death, Henry confessed in a letter to his daughter, “I find much cause to reproach myself that I have lived so long and have given no decided and public proofs of my being a Christian” (234). Kidd concedes that Henry “may have emphasized the social effects of religion more than his own practice of it” (37). Whether this should trouble us Kidd does not say, although one may read between the lines the suggestion, also hinted at in Kidd’s recent God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, that modern evangelicals should give greater weight to candidates’ public values than to their private beliefs.

This is in many ways a model biography. Written intentionally for a broad audience with accessible, engaging prose, it is deeply researched and erudite but wears its erudition lightly. The author’s prose is balanced and judicious, and he chooses to raise questions in the reader’s mind but not answer them. Although his subject leads naturally to discussion of the public role of religion in the American past, Kidd places greater emphasis on questions of power and the structure of government that best preserves liberty, and it is those ques-tions that he underscores in an epilogue exploring the contemporary relevance of Henry’s example. “It is no great leap to imagine that Patrick Henry would fundamentally object to nearly every feature of today’s titanic national government,” Kidd observes (252). While this would appear to make Henry into a hero of political conservatives, Kidd adds that the statesman would be ill at ease anywhere on the modern American political continuum. He would “disapprove equally of the massive, top-down social programs championed by the Left” and “the globetrotting military power championed by the Right” (252).

Kidd never forgets that the past per se wields no moral authority in the present; the path that the United States has taken since 1787 is not intrinsically wrong because Patrick Henry would have opposed it. At the same time, the author takes advantage of history’s greatest strength, namely the ability to use the past to make the present seem strange to us, to enable us to see – and in seeing, to question – ways of thinking and being that we might otherwise take for granted. Henry’s life story cannot tell us the direction we should go, but it can help us to see the path we have chosen. It reminds us, as Kidd summarizes, that we “have chosen national power over centralized government and individualized freedom over virtue” (254). The hard moral work of evaluating those choices remains.

Cite this article
Robert Tracy McKenzie, “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 442-445

Robert Tracy McKenzie

Reviewed by Robert Tracy McKenzie, History, Wheaton College