Patrick Henry’s Courage & Our Need for It

In this time of our political angst, it’s always nice to look back at how America’s Founders reacted to a tough situation and displayed courage. One of the key moments in the months leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution was a speech given by Patrick Henry.

St. John's ChurchThe Virginia legislature had been sent home by the royal governor. The members had to meet somewhere else to discuss what to do in light of the terrible Coercive Acts that had been passed recently by Parliament. They chose to go upriver from Williamsburg, the capital, and meet in Richmond.

The site for Henry’s speech was St. John’s Church. No one worried that they were discussing political matters in a church; it happened all the time. Henry’s task that day, 23 March 1775, was to convince the legislators that they had to stand up to Britain’s oppression. The members were divided; some wanted to counsel patience, while others said the time for patience had passed after nearly 15 years of constitutional debate.

Henry was decidedly on the side of making preparations in case the royal governor attempted to impose even stricter controls on the colony. He felt it was his job that day to convince the others of the wisdom of that course of action. To do so, he pulled out all the stops in his rhetoric and his dramatic abilities.

While there is no transcript of Henry’s speech, those who heard it remembered it quite well, and we have at least the main points he made. It is one of the most famous speeches in all of American history. Here are some salient excerpts:

Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Notice that he says his obligation before God comes before his obligation to his country. He continues,

Patrick HenryMr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth. . . . Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?

That excerpt shows how Henry interweaves Scripture with his oratory, knowing that his audience will know the source and will consider his words more seriously when he bases them on Scripture. His use of Scripture does not end there:

I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry, for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.

Nowadays, there would be many in the audience, even of legislators, who would not recognize the allusion to Judas betraying Jesus. Times have changed. Henry then goes into a direct appeal:

If we wish to be free; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us.

Sir, we are not weak, if we make proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. . . . Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.

He then becomes prophetic, as the Battle of Lexington and Concord will occur just a few weeks later:

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?

He ends with those stirring words that have been echoed ever since:

Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Carrington GraveEdward Carrington was a man who was standing outside the church listening to Henry’s speech. He was so inspired by it that he requested that his grave be on that very spot outside the window where he peered in and listened. That’s exactly what happened. You can go to St. John’s Church today and see Edward Carrington’s grave on that very spot.

Where are the principled politicians today? Where are the Patrick Henrys in our time?

Political courage seems to be at a low ebb. Concern for the Constitution and the rule of law are little more than slogans or clichés for most politicians.

Instead of courage, we have developed an entirely different mentality:

Give Me Liberty

What a sad spectacle we have become. We need to draw inspiration once again from someone like Patrick Henry. May we regain our courage.

Patrick Henry & the Stamp Act

Why did the Stamp Act, passed by the British government in 1765 and scheduled to go into effect the next year, raise such a furor in the American colonies? What was different about this act and how did they respond to it? As we continue our examination of American history, I will begin to tackle that question today.

Stamp ActThe colonists considered this act poisonous to their liberties. Why?

The act itself was a tax on all legal documents, newspapers, playing cards, and dice. That, in itself, was bad enough because the tax had to be paid in specie—coins—which was in short supply in the colonies. A lot of commerce was conducted via barter.

Another issue was that enforcement of the act was placed in the hands of special admiralty courts that would have no juries of their peers. This was considered a high-handed action at odds with their rights as British citizens.

But the greatest problem was that this tax had been mandated by Parliament, a novelty in British taxation of the colonies. While the colonists acknowledged the right of Parliament to legislate for the empire overall in matters of international trade, they had their own legislatures to tax them directly. Without any representation in Parliament, they saw this tax as arbitrary, something imposed upon them without their consent, which again was contrary to their rights as citizens of the empire.

Patrick HenryThe first salvo against the Stamp Act came from Virginia, spurred on by a new member of its House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry.

Henry, by the force of his arguments, persuaded a reluctant House to pass a number of resolutions stating opposition to the act. In summary, here is what those resolutions declared:

Colonists have always enjoyed the same liberties as all citizens of the British Empire, as if they were living in Britain itself;

All taxation must be by the people’s own representatives to ensure against burdensome taxes;

Britain has always recognized this right of local lawmaking and taxation.

The final resolution is best put in Henry’s own words:

Resolved, therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.

Patrick Henry's Stamp Act SpeechWhile not fully documented, we are told from some sources that Henry gave a rousing speech at the time that almost led to his censure. He is said to have proclaimed,

Caesar had . . . his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third . . .

At this point, there were cries from some of the members that Henry was on the verge of treason because they all knew where he was going with this statement. Caesar had been assassinated in the Roman Senate and Charles I had been beheaded. Henry, reading his audience, finished his statement with the simple warning, “And George the Third may profit by their example.”

After these resolutions passed, Henry wrote down his innermost feelings about the importance of taking this stand:

Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt a nation. Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere, practise virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.

Those words are still applicable today.

The Pilgrim Story: English Separatism

Now that we’ve completed our look at Jamestown in our journey through American history, I’ll give you some posts on the next significant group of settlers. We call them the Pilgrims, but that’s only because they proclaimed they were following God’s leading on their trek to the New World. So “pilgrim” is a later term applied to them. In England, they were known as Separatists, and that name could be dangerous to one’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Henry VIIIWhen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, her nation had been through a real trial with respect to religious beliefs. Her father, Henry VIII, had been a staunch Catholic who had even written against Martin Luther. The pope at that time had honored him with the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Then things went sour.

Henry didn’t have a male heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. His concern for the stability of the throne once he passed away led him to ask the pope for an annulment of the marriage on the basis that he had sinned by marrying his deceased brother’s wife. The English clergy found a passage in Leviticus that they used for their argument in favor of the annulment, but it was clearly a twisting of Scripture for personal reasons.

Popes had not been reluctant in the past to grant such annulments, but this time Henry ran into a brick wall. Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor, and the pope was not eager to alienate him. That led to Henry deciding to break from the Catholic Church and set up England’s own church with him at the head. He then appointed bishops that did his bidding. He set aside Catherine and married Anne Boleyn, who became the mother of Elizabeth.

Henry didn’t get his male heir with Anne, so he had her accused of unfaithfulness and executed. He then married Jane Seymour, who finally gave him a son. But that son, Edward VI, didn’t live past his teenage years, so the daughter of Catherine, a queen the Protestants called Bloody Mary, ascended to the throne. She persecuted Protestants and tried to turn the nation back to Catholicism. She reigned only five years, however, so she didn’t accomplish her goal.

Elizabeth IElizabeth followed Mary to the throne, having stayed alive during the former’s reign by a careful balancing act. She continued that act as queen, deciding that the Church of England—the Anglican Church—would be Protestant in doctrine but look very Catholic. She hoped that would unite the kingdom.

There were, though, some Protestants who were not happy with the idea of the sovereign determining the “true” faith. They had read the Bible for themselves and believed God had given them liberty to set up churches apart from the state so they could follow their consciences in how to worship Him. Those were the Separatists.

They were small in number, but very dedicated to their beliefs, willing to suffer persecution for being faithful to their understanding of Scripture. Queen Elizabeth considered them a thorn in her side, working to divide her kingdom. If they tried to spread their ideas via the printing press, they could even be put to death.

It was a congregation of these Separatists who ultimately decided they had to leave England in order to worship God according to what they saw in Scripture. They are the ones we now call the Pilgrim Fathers.

What were they like? What trials did they endure? Did they exhibit the kind of character worth emulating today? When they came to the New World, how did they treat the natives?

Today was the background; we’ll delve more into the precise history of these people next week.

Honesty, Integrity, & Spurious Quotations

Those who read this blog regularly know that I believe America had a strong Biblical basis at its founding. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. Those of us who believe that, though, need to be careful in passing along quotations we have read in secondary sources to back up our belief. Let me give a few examples of spurious quotations we should avoid using.

George Washington was an Episcopalian who had his own family pew at the Pohick church near his Mount Vernon home. He served as a vestryman. I’ve read minutes of the vestry that show he even purchased the communion plates for the church. There are also a number of solid quotes that indicate his faith was genuine. There is one, however, that always comes to the forefront, but has no original source. He is often quoted as saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world [other sources say “a nation”] without God and the Bible.” Just the fact that there is a discrepancy in the exact wording should be a tipoff that something is amiss. While this is a wonderful statement, unfortunately, it cannot be traced back to anything Washington either spoke or wrote.

Then there’s this supposed quote from Patrick Henry: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was not founded by religionists but by Christians. . . not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” As it turns out, this is actually a statement from the author of an article about Henry, and wrongly attributed to the Virginian of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame.

James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, allegedly commented, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” This one fooled me for some time as it was just so perfect for the principle of self-government that I teach in class. I even used it in my book about Biblical principles and civil government until I had to face the reality that this statement doesn’t appear anywhere in Madison’s writings. Consequently, I removed the quote when it came time for a second edition.

We need to be honest. When I authored my book on the Clinton impeachment, I said the following in its preface:

My presuppositions are first and foremost Biblical in orientation. The grid through which I see the world—my basic worldview—is grounded upon Biblical principles. These principles form the basis for my values, my decisions, and my analysis of right and wrong. These principles also inform my understanding of the role of civil government, placing me on the conservative side of the political spectrum. . . .

But I am also an academic. The training I receive in academia requires that I follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I must be honest and cannot, in good conscience, misrepresent the facts. Properly understood, there is no dichotomy here. My Christianity and my academic training require the same standard. Academic integrity rests upon moral integrity, which I believe flows from Biblical faith. Consequently, when I undertake any research and writing project, I must be true to that faith.

That is my practice, and that is why I thought it important to shed some light on those false quotations. We undermine our position when we latch on to falsehoods to prove a point.

I have another one I want to highlight tomorrow. This one is actually a genuine quote, but it has been twisted out of context. It involves Thomas Jefferson.

See you back here tomorrow?

The Civility Ploy

Tonight is the State of the Union Address.  I predict that the two words we’ll hear repeatedly are “civility” and “investment.” The latter has to do with more government spending disguised as “investing in our future.” The former is now the new catchword for politics.

I believe in civility. While I do have a sense of humor and like to poke fun at absurdities in our public life, there’s a line that should not be crossed. The problem is this—that line is subjective. For instance, is this cartoon uncivil?

Or is it simply illustrating the rather rabid rhetoric that has emanated from the Left, not just in the past few weeks, but ever since I can remember? Surely you recall all the Bush hatred, publicly stated. How about the pictures of Bush as Hitler? Go back to Ronald Reagan and we learn that he was a warmonger who loved to starve schoolchildren and throw old people out on the streets.

In the House last week, one Democrat representative made the Nazi connection again. Republicans, he said, are like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. In what way, you ask? Well, they are lying about healthcare, and that’s the same tactic that Goebbels used. Oh.

One of the positive things about being a historian is that I have studied the political rhetoric found in all periods of American history. What becomes painfully obvious is that the eras of the type of civility urged upon us now have been few. Read the newspapers of the 1790s, for instance, where you see George Washington being called a traitor to his country and accused of trying to set himself as a king. The vituperative language used against Abraham Lincoln is startling, particularly when you consider that a lot of it came from the North, not the South.

The issues I have with the current calls for civility are these: first, the astounding hypocrisy of those who are demanding it; second, the attempt to use that nice-sounding word to undermine genuine debate on the issues. Often, just disagreeing with President Obama makes one a racist or a “hater.” Yet we have to be able to say when we think policies are wrong. How would Patrick Henry fare today?

Kind of weak, isn’t it? I prefer the original.

So, as you watch the State of the Union Address [if you have the stomach for it], watch for those key words, but understand what’s really going on.