One of the most compelling reasons I head down to Williamsburg as often as I do is the bookstore located in the Williamsburg visitor’s center. I love browsing the shelves, speaking with the excellent manager, and taking home a stack of books heavier than I can carry. Some times when I head down to the store I’ll have an idea of what I want to look for among the shelves. This year, I though it would be a good time to read a biography on Patrick Henry. So I did. A Son of Thunder, by Henry Mayer, is a well-written volume expounding on the life of an oft-quote (though, I would argue, rarely understood) founding father. It illustrates Henry’s sincerity of belief, alarming contradictions, and deep desire to see American’s become a free people.Henry came from humble roots, the son of a floundering father and a mother caught up in Evangelical zeal. He spent portions of his youth attending Presbyterian meetings and, while he never himself left the established church, Henry developed an appreciation for both the dramatic preaching style and the zealous adherence to religion the members of that community shared. This dual appreciation made Henry first one of the most notable orators of the day and then one of the earliest champions of religious liberty in the American continent. He was a skilled attorney, and quickly established himself as a defending of common people against the old aristocracy of Virginia planters. It was Henry’s oratory in the House of Burgesses which sparked the general resistance to the Stamp Act, and launched him into the being one of the first Americans to publicly challenge the right of the King to rule the American Colonies. Mayer successfully shows Henry’s roll in spurring the colonies toward unity with each other and independence from England.
Yet, Mayer also shows how Henry’s influence was very much a roller-coaster throughout his public career. He posited his political credentials on his ability to read public sentiment. When he knew the public was riled up in a cause he supported, Henry charged forward in a stampede for victory. When he became aware, however, that he had run ahead of the crowd Henry frequently backed down. In the moments when he was running with the crowd of public sentiment, Henry’s stature could be matched by few of the other founding fathers. When he found himself out on a limb, however, his zealous oration often minimized his influence for a season. Ironically, one of his most celebrated statements from the First Continental Congress, “I am not a Virginian, but an American” was one of those moments where Henry’s influence diminished. The other delegates, indeed the bulk of the population, didn’t share his sentiment. Henry’s frequent appeals to popular opinion made him appear to be a demagogue in the eyes of his political opponents, and they used his occasional walks out on to weak branches to reel him in.
Henry’s greatest accomplishment, however, is one for which is receives little praise. The mythology surrounding the writing, presenting, and ratifying our current constitution often paints an image of celebratory romp as the people celebrated the great wisdom found in the document (at least, this is what my schools always displayed). This could not be further from the truth. In fact, there was strong resistance to the document – which many viewed as a deeply flawed document at best. Patrick Henry led the charge against ratification based on two main faults. First, Henry was deeply suspicious of the ambiguities regarding the powers of the document. To Henry, there was far too much room for the proposed federal government to assume “implied powers.” This was, in his mind, an invitation for tyranny. Second, Henry was aghast at the lack of a declaration of rights such as the one found in the Virginia constitution. Without such a declaration, Henry expounded, there was nothing to truly check the encroachment of federal power upon individual liberty. Henry proposed that Virginia put off ratification until amendments could be made to the constitution so that the liberties of the people would not be trampled upon. In one sense, Henry’s recommendation for amendments prior to ratification was a bit of a farce. His real goal seems to have been to force a second convention in order work on amending the Articles of Confederation and dumping the proposed constitution. His more extreme stance, however, enabled popular sentiment to galvanize support for what we call the Bill Rights – amendments Henry’s main opponent in the ratification debate, James Madison, vehemently denied were necessary at all.
Henry’s opposition to the federal constitution is often portrayed as little more than a footnote – an alarmist reaction from an old rebel who didn’t understand that the revolution was over. This does neither the ratification debate nor Henry justice. Henry’s assumption was that an unchecked federal government was the greatest threat to liberty that could be had. He also held that the federal government, as conceived, would lead to the wanton pursuit of luxury and indebtedness. On the other side Madison saw anarchy as the greatest threat to a free people, and held that for America to stand in the world a strong central government was needed. The question is is often put forward, “Who was right?” It seems that both sides were correct. The Federal government began assuming powers almost from the moment it opened it’s doors, and the pursuit of luxury and privilege could be considered an American pastime – a far cry from the old ideal of the frugal yeoman farmer many of the founders had for the country. Madison, in fact, was one of the founders of the Democratic-Republican party. This party, in opposition to the Federalists, tried to keep the federal government small. On the other hand, Henry’s view of the world was never very broad. It was more dangerous and unstable than the country gentleman ever seemed to grasp. If America was to thrive, then it needed the industry, commerce, and access to overseas markets that a strong central government could give. Without the federal constitution the union may have been broken up in the 1790’s. Madison helped make sure the union survived, Henry helped make sure it would remain free.
I am thankful to have been able to read this volume on Patrick Henry’s life. He is a well-known agitator, and yet little understood. I know him a little better now. I’m still not sure if I like him (some of his glaring inconsistencies, notably on slavery, drive me nuts), but I have respect for him and I am grateful for the work he did in trying his best to establish a free society in the United States.