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

Posted on 02/22/2012 6:35:14 PM PST by neverdem

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.

Ryan L. Cole writes on politics and culture from Indianapolis.



TOPICS: Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Politics/Elections; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: constitution; patrickhenry

1 posted on 02/22/2012 6:35:27 PM PST by neverdem
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To: Pharmboy

Ping


2 posted on 02/22/2012 6:37:33 PM PST by neverdem (Xin loi minh oi)
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To: neverdem

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 dead on.


3 posted on 02/22/2012 7:04:48 PM PST by freedomfiter2 (Brutal acts of commission and yawning acts of omission both strengthen the hand of the devil.)
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To: neverdem

“Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Goes with:

“I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees”.

Either way, there are mechanisms to set things right.


4 posted on 02/22/2012 7:08:34 PM PST by factoryrat (We are the producers, the creators. Grow it, mine it, build it.)
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To: neverdem

“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.”

This is fantasy. Give me a single example of where the oinking Marxist pigs of OWS called for even a sliver of freedom or sacrifice for others.


5 posted on 02/22/2012 7:11:56 PM PST by sergeantdave
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To: neverdem
Gentlemen may cry "peace, peace" but there is no peace
Why do we stand here idle?
Is life so dear or peace so sweet
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!

And this from a public school education.

6 posted on 02/22/2012 7:38:35 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin (A trillion here, a trillion there, soon you're NOT talking real money)
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To: freedomfiter2

“He was dead on.”

Damn right! He was instrumental in the addition of the “Bill of Rights” to the Constitution.

Without PH and some other patriots, we would be truly effed.


7 posted on 02/22/2012 7:41:04 PM PST by logitech (Who's here so vile, that will not love his country? If any speak, for him I have offended)
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To: DeaconBenjamin

The anti-Federalists were right.


8 posted on 02/22/2012 7:43:31 PM PST by Lurker (The avalanche has begun. The pebbles no longer have a vote.)
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To: logitech

Patrick Henry’s argument for a Bill of Rights:
http://www.constitution.org/rc/rat_va_13.htm

He was past the peak of his extraordinary oratorical powers at the Virginia Ratification Convention but still... awesome.


9 posted on 02/22/2012 7:53:22 PM PST by mrsmith (So... how's the Tea Party nominee for your House seat doing?)
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To: Lurker
I recommend this book.
10 posted on 02/22/2012 8:36:26 PM PST by DeaconBenjamin (A trillion here, a trillion there, soon you're NOT talking real money)
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To: neverdem
In honour of Patrick Henry, allow me to update the libertarian response to socialism:

Give me liberty, or I'll give you death!

11 posted on 02/22/2012 8:45:59 PM PST by anonsquared
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To: kalee

Placemarker


12 posted on 02/22/2012 8:50:04 PM PST by kalee (The offenses we give, we write in the dust; Those we take, we engrave in marble. J Huett 1658)
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To: neverdem

Not sure I’m ready to rate Dr. Kidd’s work with high regard but will give it a look. Perhaps, given the subject matter I will dispose of that view.
Thx for the post.


13 posted on 02/22/2012 9:36:03 PM PST by bksanders (i prolly spelt my taggline rong)
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To: freedomfiter2

His fears were realized under the post 16th Amendment Constitution, not the Constitution of 1787.


14 posted on 02/23/2012 2:59:22 AM PST by Jacquerie (No court will save us from ourselves.)
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To: Lurker

They were mostly wrong.


15 posted on 02/23/2012 3:05:57 AM PST by Jacquerie (No court will save us from ourselves.)
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To: DeaconBenjamin
Maier struck me as overall hostile to the Constitution. Yes, her book is informative.
16 posted on 02/23/2012 3:34:56 AM PST by Jacquerie (No court will save us from ourselves.)
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To: Jacquerie

His fears were realized under the post 16th Amendment Constitution, not the Constitution of 1787.

The seeds were planted in 1787 when the Federal government was given the job of policing itself. Without explicit authority given to the states, they lost the ability to reign in an out of control federal government. Before the 16th amendment, the feds decided they had the authority to wage war to maintain a forced union.


17 posted on 02/23/2012 4:02:35 AM PST by freedomfiter2 (Brutal acts of commission and yawning acts of omission both strengthen the hand of the devil.)
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To: freedomfiter2
The seed that was planted saved us from anarchy under the Articles of Confederation.

The sovereign people are charged with policing the government. The Constitution did not fail us, we have failed the Constitution.

As for 1861,
Article I Section 10: "No state shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance . . . "
Article I Section 8, Congress is empowered to . . . "suppress insurrections."

18 posted on 02/23/2012 4:36:46 AM PST by Jacquerie (No court will save us from ourselves.)
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To: neverdem

John Henry, Patrick’ father, was my great x 8 grandfather.


19 posted on 02/23/2012 4:42:06 AM PST by abishai
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To: Jacquerie

It is not the book that I would have written, but I have never seen comparable discussion of the ratification conventions as well as the interstate discussions between federalists and between antifederalists.


20 posted on 02/23/2012 5:18:23 AM PST by DeaconBenjamin (A trillion here, a trillion there, soon you're NOT talking real money)
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To: DeaconBenjamin
Here is a logical follow on:


21 posted on 02/23/2012 6:36:35 AM PST by Jacquerie (No court will save us from ourselves.)
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To: Jacquerie

As for 1861,
Article I Section 10: “No state shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance . . . “
Article I Section 8, Congress is empowered to . . . “suppress insurrections.”

The southern states were no longer under the authority of the US. There was no insurrection. Until nearly the end of the war the violence was all on Confederate soil.


22 posted on 02/23/2012 4:47:22 PM PST by freedomfiter2 (Brutal acts of commission and yawning acts of omission both strengthen the hand of the devil.)
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