Patrick Henry, Liberty and Slavery

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In his day Patrick Henry was considered the finest orator in America.  Contemporary accounts often state that the cold words of the text of his speeches can give no true assessment of the impact of the words on his listeners as he spoke them.  I have always regarded his speech of March 23, 1775, prophetic in its prediction of the start of the Revolutionary War, to the Virginia Convention to be his finest, both for its fiery style, and for the timeless truths it conveys:

MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. 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 toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. 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? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, 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. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. 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!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. 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. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

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

It is ironic that a man who could speak so eloquently of liberty was also an owner of slaves.  However, like most of the Founding Fathers who held slaves, he did not deceive himself about the essential injustice of slavery, as we see in a letter he wrote in 1773 to a Quaker:

Patrick Henry to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softening the human heart, in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first Impression of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages, times that seem to have pretensions to boast of high Improvements in the arts, sciences, and refined morality, have brought into general use, and guarded by many laws, a species of violence and tyranny, which our more rude and barbarous, but more honest ancestors detested. Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty, that in such an age, and such a country we find men, professing a religion the most humane, mild, meek, gentle and generous; adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty.

Every thinking honest man rejects it in speculation, how few in practice from conscientious motives? The world in general has denied the people a share of its honors, but the wise will ascribe to the a just tribute of virtuous praise, for the practice of a train of virtues among which your disagreement to slavery will be principally ranked–I cannot but wish well to a people whose system imitates the example of Him whose life was perfect–And believe me, I shall honor the Quakers for their noble effort to abolish slavery. It is equally calculated to promote moral and political good.

Would any one believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and to lament the want of conforming to them–I believe a time will come when an opposition will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil–Every thing we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence for slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity, it is the furthest advance we can make toward justice. We owe to the purity of our religion to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.

Here is an instance that silent meetings have done yet which learned and  elaborate preaching could not effect, so much preferable are the genuine dictates of conscience and a steady attention to its feelings above the teachings of those men who pretend to have found a better guide. I exhort you to persevere in so worthy a resolution. Some of your people disagree, or at least are lukewarm in the abolition of slavery. Many treat the resolution of your meeting with ridicule, and among those who throw contempt on it, are clergymen, whose surest guard against both ridicule and contempt is a certain act of assembly.

I know not where to stop, I could say many things on this subject; a serious review of which gives a gloomy perspective to future times.

All of us are childern of the times in which we live and in many ways we are prisoners of those times.  They shape the way in which we view the world and our perceptions of morality.  Praise is due to a man who can make an effort to see beyond his time and place and to recognize the commonly accepted evils of his own day for what they are.

3 Responses to Patrick Henry, Liberty and Slavery

  • Tom McKenna says:

    Good post, Don. St. John’s, in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, still functions as an Episcopal parish, and they do a wonderful reenactment every year of Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech, and some of the actual debate before and after the speech. Period costumes, real actors, in the actual setting, it’s very neat to watch.

    It’s an interesting point that many southerners even among the aristocracy, such as Jefferson and later, Lee, were not morally comfortable with slavery (obviously, many had no such compunctions). But De Tocqueville observed that “race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

    While slavery was an undeniable moral evil, the racism that undergirded it ironically (?) perdured even more strongly in the North it seems.

  • I would disagree that racism Tom was stronger in the North than in the South, although I would concede that it was virulent enough everywhere in the US, and around the globe for that matter, except, perhaps, among the most extreme abolitionist circles. ( Interesting that Frederick Douglass indicated that of the white men he had known only two treated him with indifference to his color: John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, reflecting the two conflicting wings of anti-slavery sentiment.) In regard to considering slavery an evil, I think most of the Southern Founding Fathers would have agreed with that sentiment. Lee held to that sentiment, although in that, as in most things, he was an honorable throwback to the time of the Founding Fathers and did not reflect the views of his white Southern contemporaries most of whom, at least publicly, regarded slavery as a positive good. In this, as in most things when Americans diverge from the Founding Fathers, tragedy resulted.

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