Sunday, June 28, 2009

Patrick Henry: Thinking About the American Revolution

"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 for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
— Patrick Henry

This statement sets forth the radical view of an American Patriot, Patrick Henry, a Virginian. He was speaking to an ex-offico meeting of the Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses, in 1775, after it was disbanded by command of the British governor. Henry was the leading spokesman for the radical revolution of the Britain's American colonies. He was at once an advocate of both Federalism, in relationship to Britain, and anti-Federalism within the colonies themselves at the Constitutional Convention in the late-1780s.

How could this occur? We can gain some perspective by examining a later federalist movement in Argentina during the mid-1800s. The central government was located in the province that included Buenos Aires and this province was the contact point with foreign trade and export. The other provinces, mostly agricultural, were isolated from the rest of the world. The gauchos in the interior provinces rose up against the centralized government in the Gaucho Revolution to demand that they be enabled to deal directly with other countries and control their own fate. This war, won by the gauchos, became a prime example of Federalism — the equal confederation of all provinces (or stated) within a country for the benefit of all.

Applying this analogy back on the American colonies in the latter half of the 1700s, we see that what the colonies were seeking was a federalist relationship with mother Britain. But the British required all manufactured goods to come from British firms and all of the raw goods from the colonies be sold only to Britain. The British Parliament and Monarch wanted full control of the colonies in terms of governance; the colonies were given charters by previous English Kings that enabled them to form their own legislatures to deal with local issues. To the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s, all the concerns were local and any attempt by the British to tax or legislate on the colonies were illegitimate. This was an example of American Federalism — the equality of the colonies in the control of their own destiny!

After the defeat of the British and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the colonies became legally independent of British rule. They formed a new government that was based upon a loose confederation of the colonies and a weak central government to deal with a limited range of duties. Each colony functioned essentially as relatively independent states, our working of a federalist state. This was working well for the larger, stronger colonies like Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. It did not work as well for the smaller states. This led to the call for a revision to the Articles of Confederation, under which the young country was working within, by a Constitutional Convention in the late 1780s.

Here the definition of Federalism came to be changed! The proponents for a strong central government within the context of Montesquieu's structure came to be called Federalists. Those that supported state's rights and a weaker central government were called Anti-Federalists. A confusing change in designation. As the new constitution was drafted, many Anti-Federalists, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee, refused to participate. They were offended by the opening words of the draft constitution — "We the People..." This was taken as a move to remove power from the states and give it to the central government. The new government was to be a republic with a separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature, and executive branches. There was a fear among the Anti-Federalists that the strong executive branch would morph into another monarchy.

"I know of no way of judging the future but by the past."

— Patrick Henry

This is the context that we need to keep in mind as we examine the contributions of Patrick Henry. The ideas of many of the American Patriots of this period were aware of the philosophical seeds that we have been considering over the past few days. These ideas came to fruition in the American Revolution; we will not examine the battles of this revolution, but, instead, will focus on the intellectual and bold actions, speeches, and writings of these patriots. So, let's start our journey through this fertile landscape by considering the great orator of the era, Patrick Henry...

Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799)

"Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it."

— Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was a lawyer and an orator and is considered by many to be the firebrand liberal behind the American Revolution. As a freshman member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he managed to have his 'Resolutions' pass to negate the legitimacy of the British parliament to levy taxes upon the American colonies, especially the hated "Stamp Tax" that affected all business transactions. This idea was picked up by other colonies, especially Massachusets where the 'Boston Tea Party' occurred in response to the "Tea Tax". These actions reduced the profits of many British companies and eventually resulted in several of these taxes being withdrawn. However, the gauntlet had been thrown and the colonists began their trek down the road to revolution.

During the revolution, Henry was initially in command of the Army of Virginia, but found a more suitable seat in the Governor's Office instead. He became the first American governor of Virginia and served for the first of his three terms at this time. He mobilized the Virginian forces to join Washington's army. After a brief break, he returned to the Governor's Office for one additional term in the mid-1880s. His oratory skills were used to mobilize public opinion and support for the long revolutionary war. Upon its completion, Henry was a strong supporter of the Articles of Confederation and the relative autonomy of the states.

"Perfect freedom is as necessary to the health and vigor of commerce as it is to the health and vigor of citizenship."

— Patrick Henry

His role in the history of this country, however, was not done when he finished his fourth term as Governor of Virginia. When the Constitutional Convention was called in the late 1880s, he was named as one of the delegates from the state of Virginia. He declined to participate and became an eloquent spokesman for the Anti-Federalist position on the proposed Constitution's strong central government and the direct inclusion of the people as the foundation of the new government instead of the individual states.

His oratory came into play during the intense fight for ratification of the new Constitution by the Virginia legislature. He felt that it did not protect the rights of the states or the population against abuses by the central government. The conflict with the British were too fresh for him to give up the independence that was won through a costly war. While the Virginia legislature DID ratify this Constitution, he was successful in getting a "Bill of Rights" included in the new Constitution as the first ten amendments when congress first met. This satisfied many of the other colonies' concerns as well.
Our country has succeeded in this great experiment in democracy. Our constitutional government has weathered this stormy period and Henry's concerns for this centralized form of government has benefited from this experiment.

"For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know this worst and provide for it."

— Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry's strong oratory was an important factor in both the colonies' rebellion against the British and his insistence on the rights of the states and the people — the "Bill of Rights". He was a defender of America's freedom to the end. In the final scene, he was elected for a final term as a Federalist, but died before taking office.

Thank you, Patrick Henry. You arrived on the scene in time to work your magic and help define a better democracy.

Next Time: We will continue to explore the ideas of another American Patriot by considering Thomas Paine. Join us for this exploration...

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