Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots

There's been something of a trend in the last few years of biographers spending time and effort to recount the lives of American founders outside what some of us refer to as the "Top Tier" (Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton).  Books recounting the lives and work of Abigail Adams, John Jay, Samuel Adams, Charles Carroll, Thomas Paine and others are becoming more and more common.  And on the whole, that is a very salutary development. Our Revolution and Republic were made not only by a relatively few great men, but by many people working (sometimes at cross purposes!) to build and "secure the blessings of liberty" for themselves and for their "posterity" (to quote the Preamble of the Constitution).

One founder who has benefitted from this trend in biography is the great Virginian Patrick Henry. Once considered a "Top Tier" founder by most historians, Henry's overall status has declined since the 1930's, when a fixation on those founders of long-ranging national stature took hold on most prominent historians and biographers.  Fueled by the "Jeffersonian ends via Hamiltonian means" ideology of the Roosevelt administration, the focus on Jefferson in particular but also Madison and to a lesser extent Jefferson's nemesis Alexander Hamilton, shaped a good deal of popular history well into the current period.  Patrick Henry, a politician who was most at home in Virginia and who never aspired to the presidency, was left behind -- a quirky, Southern, states-rights kind of founding father who was increasingly overlooked by an historical profession that was more and more enamored by the power of nationalized government. 

One book that seeks to bring Henry back into the limelight is Thomas S. Kidd's biography of the great Virginian, Patrick Henry:  First Among Patriots (Basic Books: 2011).  Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor University, has published extensively on American religious history, and he brings a keen eye towards the deep principles -- some religious, some secular -- that formed the foundation of Henry's career as a lawyer, patriot and politician.  Kidd begins his biography with an overview of Henry's place in popular consciousness over time, detailing the ebbs and flows in the attention paid to him.  Once the narrative turns to Henry himself, Kidd provides a detailed and contextualized overview of the broader social forces at work in Henry's life.  Backcountry Virginia is described & explained, the impact of the Great Awakening is discussed and the beginnings of the crisis with Great Britain are set out -- all with an eye towards explaining how these broader forces worked to shape the social, theological and political environment in which Henry found himself.  Insightfully, Kidd's exploration of Henry's world never falls into the trap of ascribing Henry's character and beliefs solely to the surrounding culture -- instead Kidd paints a nuanced picture of the interaction of Henry's own distinct personality with the institutions and issues of his day.

And what issues they were!  As Kidd notes, Henry was in the thick of virtually all of the major trends and episodes in the late colonial, revolutionary and early republic periods in American history.  From the explosion in evangelical Protestant religiosity during the Great Awakening -- a religious fervor that without question accelerated the pace towards the Revolution -- to the fiery debates over American independence, Henry was there, consistently struggling against the notion of centralized government authority under the crown.  Then, after the Revolution's success, Henry took up again the banner against centralized authority by becoming a leader in the fight against the ratification of the current Constitution, preferring the looser form of national government provided by the earlier Articles of Confederation.  With the Constitution's passage, Henry became a leading voice against the Federalist majority during the Washington administration and the first part of the Adams' administration.  Then, alarmed at the growing radicalism of Jefferson and his emergent Democratic Republican political party, Henry made the choice to defend the principles of order and the rule of law against what he saw as the the corrupt and violent disposition of Jefferson & his disciples.  Even the passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts could not persuade Henry to join the Jeffersonians.  Instead, he held his tongue in spite of private opposition to the Acts, and endorsed fellow Virginia Federalist and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall for a seat in Congress.  Thanks to Henry's support, Marshall won a narrow victory.  Thus was Henry's way paved towards a role at the end of his life as a major player in national &  Federalist politics.

The anti-Christian ideology of the French Revolution also moved Henry in a more conservative direction, as he realized that he forces unleashed by Revolutionary France had the potential to destroy the bonds of ordered liberty itself.  Up until that time, Henry had been active in fighting against the Federalists, going so far as to peacefully work towards the creation of separate republics in the west as American settlers spread out across the continent.  No more.  In his private correspondence, he began to identify more and more strongly as an orthodox Christian.  In one letter to his daughter Betsy, Henry distanced himself from the Deistic movement and lamented that he had made more public affirmations of his own Christian faith:
Amongst other strange things said of me, I hear it is aid by the Deists that I am one of their number, and indeed that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory, because I think religion of infinitely higher importance the politics, and 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. But indeed by dear child this is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast.
With the rise of the Democratic Republicans and French-influenced political ideology, Henry took stock of the times and make a momentous political move.  At first privately and then publicly, he shifted to the Federalist Party, allying himself directly with his former opponents.  From a critic of the Constitution he became one of its most ardent advocates, defending loudly the national charter that he had so resolutely opposed.  For Henry, what was at stake in the Federalist-Jeffersonian struggle was the notion that free and republican government was possible only with a virtuous and devout citizenry.  As Kidd reports, Henry wrote a scathing denunciation of the ideology of the French Revolution, going so far as to state that it was, in Henry's words, "destroying the great pillars of all government and of social life; I means virtue, morality and religion."  It was to prevent this acidic ideology from warping the American experiment in ordered liberty that Henry embraced the Federalist Party.

Kidd does a very solid job of describing the different intellectual components of Henry's political career.  As an historian of religion, Kidd pays particular attention to the spiritual beliefs that animated Henry, both in his private and public life.  Henry's commitment to both established religion and religious liberty are explored, with Kidd providing particular detail to Henry's early prominence as a trial lawyer defending religious establishment in colonial Virginia.  Kidd demonstrates that Henry's early support of establishment in Virginia was of a piece with his concern over centralized authority -- by emphasizing that it was the Virginia colonial government that established religion in the colony, Henry struck a blow against royal control of the Christian churches in Virginia.  Since the church was established by the colony rather than by the crown, the church was accountable not to the King but to the colonial government and its laws.  The clergy's civil appointments could therefore be revoked by the colonial government if the clergy sided with the King against the Virginia authorities.  Thus colonial establishment of religion, for Henry, was a key institutional limitation on the power of the crown, reinforcing the decentralized nature of the British Empire while at the same time strengthening local allegiances and local accountability.  As such, establishment was a tool that could be used to expand the liberty of the colony, providing a buttress to its efforts at local control.

In addition to detailing the efforts Henry made throughout his career to advance the cause of liberty, Kidd does not shy away from the great stain on Henry's political life, his defense of the institution of chattel slavery.  Like many of the founders, Henry was quick to denounce slavery in the abstract while clinging tightly to the institution in practice.  Henry's practical embrace of slavery included engaging in the odious slave trade, oftentimes clouded with a great deal of self-delusion about the moral virtue of the act of buying and selling his fellow human beings.  Kidd recounts one episode where Henry sought to purchase slaves from a neighboring estate he was attempting to buy.  "Henry was concerned that they [the slaves] were too expensive," Kidd recounts, "but in a magnanimous tone he wrote that 'they are so extremely desirous of staying with me, I consent to take them.'"  Henry here manages to turn his act of buying human flesh into an act of kindness towards those enslaved.  As Kidd notes, Henry's talk of liberty and his anti-slavery rhetoric aside, the Virginian "would never fundamentally alter his attitude about trafficking in slaves."  Enmeshed in an economic system built on slavery, Henry's own wealth and privilege were dependent on the peculiar institution.  "Land and slaves," as Kidd explains, "were Henry's means of securing his financial security."

In the last chapter of the book, Kidd provides a even-handed evaluation of the political principles that undergirded Henry's views.  Detailing the use and in some cases the abuse of Henry's memory by both liberal and conservative partisans, Kidd does a solid job of conveying the complexities of Henry's views and how different his concerns were from those of the modern era.  At the same time, Kidd notes that Henry was of all the major founders the most religiously orthodox, holding to the basic tenants of Anglican Protestantism.  Henry also held a solid conviction in the need not only for localized government but also for public morality -- for the governing structures of a society to be grounded on virtue and the common good.  As Kidd writes, if Henry were to come back today, his message would be challenging to all the major players in our political climate. "True freedom, he might warn us, lies not in doing whatever we want.  Freedom is doing what we should do, for the sake of community and the republic."

Patrick Henry deserves far more attention today than he is getting.  Kidd's book goes a long way in correcting that problem.  It is well worth reading.  


Tom Van Dyke said...

Ace work, Mark. Thx for sharing.

if Henry were to come back today, his message would be challenging to all the major players in our political climate. "True freedom, he might warn us, lies not in doing whatever we want. Freedom is doing what we should do, for the sake of community and the republic."

That was indeed the prevailing worldview of the Founding era. See also Barry Alan Shain,

or this essay by him here:

Religious Conscience and Original Sin: An Exploration of America’s Protestant Foundations - David Womersely, Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century [2006]

Mark D. said...

Thanks for the kind words regarding my post, and for the links to other sources on the founders' view of liberty. It is something that we sorely need in our own society now, the idea that liberty is a positive idea, one that calls us to fulfill a duty to the community and our republic, rather than simply seeing it as the right to do what we want.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mark, and thx again for your review.

one that calls us to fulfill a duty to the community and our republic

And pls permit me to say this, possibly to the surprise of left and right hereabouts, that our government did indeed become the refuge of last resort in the FDR days, if not to end slavery.

rather than simply seeing it as the right to do what we want.

Well, in his public life he wrote the most inspiring piece of rhetoric in American history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

But in his private life, Jefferson's feet were made of clay. To sell all he owned to set his slaves free and provide them with what they needed to make it on their He was a hedonist, let's face it. He did whatever he wanted.

That he was not a saint, not near the equal of one of the greatest men in man's history, George Washington, who refused the crown that his fellow Americans would have gladly given him---rendered him by merit...

I think we must look past these "key" Founders if Jefferson is among them. There were far far better men among the "second tier," perhaps most of them.

Jefferson did little in the Revolution and was in France during the Constitutional Convention.

Thank God. I doubt either one would have succeeded if he'd done any more to "help."

Mark D. said...

I completely agree. Less time spent on Jefferson and the top tier, more spent on the people who did the lion's share of the actual lifting in creating our constitutional and political order. The "second tier" were in many ways more important than the "top tier."

jimmiraybob said...

But in his private life, Jefferson's feet were made of clay. To sell all he owned to set his slaves free and provide them with what they needed to make it on their He was a hedonist, let's face it. He did whatever he wanted.

You must have missed the paragraph about Henry and slavery.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, i didn't. That he was right about many things doesn't make Henry a necessarily good man.

Jason Pappas said...

Glad to hear of the new book on Henry. The bio that I read was by Moses Coit Tyler (first published in 1887). I could benefit from the scholarship done in the last ... century.