American Culture

If this be inaccuracy, make the most of it: the Tea Party tosses the true Patrick Henry overboard

If you visit Colonial Williamsburg, you can’t miss the big three: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.  They’re everywhere: portrayed by actors, mentioned in presentations, sold as bobbleheads (OK, I didn’t see the bobbleheads, but I’m sure they were there).  Visitors cheer the actors portraying them almost as if they were the real individuals.  I’m most familiar with that great historical conundrum, Jefferson, reasonably conversant about Washington.  Henry?  Not so much.

Patrick Henry is one of those historical one-hit-wonders:  “Give me liberty or give me death!”  Consequently, he makes the perfect philosophical ancestor for the Tea Party:  easy to understand, memorable and the perfect embodiment of their passionate, grassroots opposition to Big Government.  Except that’s not entirely true.  Neither Patrick Henry nor his Tea Party descendants are what they seem.

The Tea Party (I’ll use the singular for convenience–I understand that there are variations and subspecies) continues to characterize itself as the people’s party:

“Much akin to the original Boston Tea Party of 1773 in spirit, today’s modern Tea Party movement is an organic homegrown response to a recklessly irresponsible government that has become unresponsive to the people. . . .  Since 2009 the Tea Party movement has awakened a previously silent swell of patriots in a common cause of telling a government on the march towards socialism, enough is enough!” (Tea Party Corner)

It’s no longer news that this is not accurate.  The overwhelming majority of Tea Party members have a history of adherence to conservatism, many to the Republican Party, especially its more socially and economically conservative factions.  But the myth of spontaneous political combustion is so much more appealing, so much more useful in attracting and inciting the credulous and fervent.  Just as many partisan-leaning voters want to style themselves as independents, so many  Tea-Partiers  prefer the self-image of the newly-emerged patriot, springing forth in full-armor from Zeus’ head.

Oh, wait.  Not Zeus.  We need a more relevant image.  Not a thunderbolt-wielding, incestuous, false idol relic from a long-discredited polytheistic “religion.”  No, that won’t do at all.  What we need is a strong, virtuous mortal who shares the faith, ideology, and culture of his adherents.  A benevolent patriarch, a father-figure.  Perhaps a Founding Father.  Enter Patrick Henry.

Every American student learns the basics.  Patrick Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the oldest legislative body in the United States.  After the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Henry delivered a fiery speech opposed to the tax specifically and British injustice more generally.  It ended with the exhortation,

“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!”

Patrick Henry later became an Anti-Federalist, a member of the faction opposed to Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and the new Constitution because it did not protect individual or state’s rights.

So far, so good:  orator, patriot, leader.  That’s about where the standard textbooks leave Henry.  But, for Tea Party and conservative purposes, he needs to be more fully developed.

Henry the Entrepreneur:  “Private businessman. . . Henry began his professional life in the private sector as an apprentice to a storekeeper.  He married Sarah Shelton and continued his path in private business by managing a 600 acre tobacco farm in Hanover County, called Pine Slash.” (Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty)

Henry the Scholar:Home-schooled and self taught, he was well-read and well-tutored under the guidance of his college-educated father and uncle.” (Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty)

Henry the Christian:  “‘There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion.  It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by ‘religionists’ but by Christians–not on religion but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'” (Does Patrick Henry speak to us Patriots today??? I pray he does!)

Except that this embroidery is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.  Even his most famous speech, ending in “give me liberty or give me death,” is at best, an approximation.  No one tried to reconstruct this speech for 33 years after it was delivered, it was not transcribed at the time and Henry, as usual, left no written text.  But never let a fact get in the way of a good story.

Patrick Henry was an indifferent scholar until he was tutored at home by his father and others, and even then did not excel at his studies.  His family seemed to be concerned about his lack of direction (which may be more accepted among 21st Century teenagers than those of the 18th century).  His father set Patrick up in business at age 15 with an older brother, but the store quickly failed.  At age 18 he married the 16-year-old daughter of a local innkeeper who gave the couple a 600-acre farm and 6 slaves.  Within two years, the farm house burned down and Henry gave up farming for another short-lived attempt at being a merchant.  When the second store failed, the young family moved to the inn owned by Patrick’s father-in-law and Henry went to work in the inn which was near the local court house.  Patrick Henry eventually started reading law and within a few years was accepted into the legal profession by a group of prominent attorneys who controlled the local practice. Henry was a devout Christian who was influenced by both the Anglican and Presbyterian churches.

But the inaccuracies are spectacular.  The “Christian country” quote above can be traced to an article in a magazine called The Virginian from 1956 that was partially about Patrick Henry and quoted his will.  The words that follow the legitimate quote are also often attributed to Henry and often used to defend the notion that the Founding Fathers intended the US to be a Christian nation. (Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry on “Religionists”)  Another erroneous source reports him to have been associated with the Quakers. (Patrick Henry And His Cause)  One site elevates Henry’s determination to be a lawyer to such a height that he decided to “study for six weeks and take the bar exam, which he passed, and begin work as a lawyer.” (Patrick Henry)  On a website intended for use by teachers and homeschoolers there is this whopper about the original Boston Tea Party:

“The Sons of Liberty which carried out this act, were comprised of a number of well-known patriots including: Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams.” (

What is even more interesting is how many of the Tea Party/Conservative sites that identify with Patrick Henry leave out those aspects of his life that show him as successful, in part, because he learned the art of political compromise, even with those whose views he once opposed.  One author proclaims that in this period, “George Mason and Patrick Henry were strongly opposed to the idea of a central government” but that was not the case. (The Blogmocracy)  Henry served five one-year terms as governor of Virginia, from 1776-79 and 1784-86, while the US was governed by the Articles of Confederation and the State of Virginia was more autonomous.  The position of Governor was fairly weak in Virginia, but he was charged with gathering material support for the Revolutionary War and Henry did that successfully in keeping with his strong support for independence and belief in the states’ rights.

Many sites put primary emphasis on Patrick Henry’s role as an Anti-Federalist: an opponent of the US Constitution that replaced the Articles of Confederation.  Henry turned down the opportunity to participate in the Constitutional Convention because he was opposed to the meeting’s secrecy and supported the governing structure under the Articles (strong states, weak central government).  Later, he objected to both the contents of the new Constitution (especially the strong executive and the weakened authority of the states) and its deficiencies (weak system of checks and balances and lack of protections for individual rights) and opposed its ratification.

Here’s what conservatives leave out:  within a few years of the ratification of the Constitution, when being an Anti-Federalist became irrelevant in a federal system, Patrick Henry became a Federalist.  George Washington offered a number of positions to Henry, including ambassador and Secretary of State, but the appointments were declined.

Tea Partiers and conservatives, with their opposition to taxes as wrong in principle and an infringement on individual liberty, would be surprised that Patrick Henry was not opposed to all taxes.  In fact he backed a measure to continue a colonial Virginia tax on all citizens to pay for the support of Christian school teachers (in fact the tax would have expanded under Henry because the original only supported Anglican churches and church-sponsored schools, and the proposed version would have included other Christian denominations).  There was no exemption for non-Christians or support for non-Christian institutions.

Henry’s proposal was partially in response to rival Thomas Jefferson’s 1777 “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which would have disestablished the Church of England, separated church and state, and guaranteed religious freedom within Virginia.  Henry opposed the bill for nine years until it was finally passed in 1786 with the assistance of Jefferson ally and Henry rival, James Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.”  This work, not that of Patrick Henry, laid the groundwork for the freedom of and from religion that we have today.

One more point:  Patrick Henry was born into a well-to-do family and became a very wealthy man.  As a curator pointed out in Williamsburg, a woman could rise through marriage, but a man was born into his class–and Patrick Henry was definitely upper class.  He may have spent some brief time as a shop or inn keeper, but that was never going to keep him in the style to which he was born or accustomed.  One of his motivations for a career in law was purely practical:  he was married twice and had 17 children.  His first wife suffered from an extended mental illness before dying in 1775.  He accumulated property through marriage and land speculation, and was one of the largest landholders in Virginia by the time that he died, with parcels scattered from eastern Virgina to what is now Kentucky.  Could he have been included in the 1%?  That’s hard to say and ahistorical at any rate.  But he did have a vested interest in protecting the privileges to which he was entitled, such as the right vote and hold office, privileges which were denied to people of color, women, and white males who were not freeholders of sufficient amounts of non-mortgaged property.

Many Tea Partiers would like to picture a Patrick Henry frozen in time in the decade from 1765 to 1775, when he was at the height of his rabble-rousing, before he shouldered greater responsibilities with more temperance.  Here is how one writer put it:

When Patrick Henry shouted “Give me liberty or give me death!” he understood that life means nothing if it is bought at the cost of liberty. If he spoke such words today he would be viewed as a “violent extremist”. The colonists did not hold bipartisan committees to compromise with the unjust laws; they recognized them as a threat and used all means, from violent protest, to vandalism, to war to fight them.  The American colonists were extremists, unwilling to settle for anything but total liberty. It is time we adopt that same attitude.  (Patrick Henry: Violent Extremist?)

The problem with such interpretations is that they neglect or avoid, through ignorance or deception, the fact that Patrick Henry, like fellow Virginians Washington and Jefferson, was a complicated individual whose positions were not always consistent or clear.  Just like today’s politicians.  Or voters.  Or partisans.

4 replies »

  1. Excellent post, but I never expected the Tea Party types to be accurate about history. They can’t even remember what happened in the Great Depression or the last presidency. How can you expect them to remember what Thomas Henry or George Franklin did?

    It does raise another thought though, on what is history anyway but a consensus simplification. There is a story about Frank Lloyd Wright. Allegedly he was preparing drawings for an exhibition to show how Japan influenced his evolution of the prarie style. He arranged a set of drawings in order, and the curator pointed out that one had a date a few years earlier than it should have if Wright’s story of his development was correct. Wright supposedly pulled out an eraser, erased the date and wrote in a new one, to the curator’s horror. Admittedly, Wright was a bit of a humbug, but I think the story makes a point. History is always a rewriting, and I am not sure the Tea Party is completely foolish here.

  2. Thanks Cat. I learned that version of PH’s speech … the WHOLE damned thing … so I could recite it in my fourth grade, Virginia history class. We all did. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that Henry was an asshole, with decided leanings towards limiting religious freedom. He also wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

    Come to think of it, that makes him the prefect Tea Bagger, doesn’t it?

  3. Actually, when I started this I was planning on going in the “Patrick Henry and the Tea Party deserve each other” direction. And, to some degree, I’m still there on this one. Henry comes off like the student who never does his/her homework but coasts through class on a sled of glibness that passes for “deep thought.” You know, the old “if you can’t dazzle ’em with grace, baffle ’em with BS” school of thought. I’ve had students who can string big word together so beautifully and effortlessly that you can get lost in the “forest” so badly that you don’t realize until later that it’s really a “desert.”

    @JS The religion piece is where I think PH and the Tea Party have the most in common: for all their talk about taxes, the economy, and fiscal matters, what many really seem to want is the kind of Christian state that Henry backed.

    @Otherwise I hadn’t heard that one about Wright. But, then again, he wasn’t a historian. It’s left to those guys to try to determine the accuracy of things and correct the record. That was certainly an issue on this piece.