Patrick Henry

First Among Patriots


By Thomas S. Kidd

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Most Americans know Patrick Henry as a fiery speaker whose pronouncement “Give me liberty or give me death!” rallied American defiance to the British Crown. But Henry’s skills as an orator — sharpened in the small towns and courtrooms of colonial Virginia — are only one part of his vast, but largely forgotten, legacy. As historian Thomas S. Kidd shows, Henry cherished a vision of America as a virtuous republic with a clearly circumscribed central government. These ideals brought him into bitter conflict with other Founders and were crystallized in his vociferous opposition to the U.S. Constitution.

In Patrick Henry, Kidd pulls back the curtain on one of our most radical, passionate Founders, showing that until we understand Henry himself, we will neglect many of the Revolution’s animating values.


Also by Thomas S. Kidd
God of Liberty
American Christians and Islam
The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical
Christianity in Colonial America
The Great Awakening: A Brief History
with Documents
The Protestant Interest

In memory of my father, Michael S. Kidd, a native of southwest Virginia and graduate of Emory and Henry College

"The Nefarious and Highly Criminal" Patrick Henry Patrick Henry in American Memory
PATRICK HENRY'S CAREER was celebrated the most for his speeches. His performances summoned the memory of ancient heroes of the Greek and Roman republics who rallied their citizens to a noble and urgent cause with orations that changed history and made history themselves. But one of Henry's speeches thunders above his others in American patriotic memory: the address to the Virginia Convention at St. John's Church in Richmond in 1775, when he shamed reluctant colonial delegates into taking defensive measures against the British. Tension between crown and colonists was at a historic high, and many Americans expected war to begin shortly. Some Virginia delegates continued to push for reconciliation with Britain, which to Henry seemed cowardly. "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!" he declared, his voice echoing in the rafters of the white clapboard church, the only building in Richmond large enough to hold the delegates. "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!" With this, Henry raised his arms and bellowed, "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"1
The speech represented Henry as "his pure self," said future Virginia governor Edmund Randolph. "It blazed so as to warm the coldest heart. In the sacred place of meeting, the church, the imagination had no difficulty to conceive, when he launched forth in solemn tones various causes of scruple against oppressors, that the British king was lying prostrate from the thunder of heaven." Without a doubt, Henry's rousing call to arms was the most electrifying speech of the Revolution.2
There was, however, another, lesser-known speech that framed Henry's remarkable career, a speech that revealed a different but no less fervent aspect of Henry's belief in political liberty. It came thirteen years later, at the Virginia convention tasked with evaluating the new U.S. Constitution, and accepting or rejecting the charter that would bind Americans into a firmer union. The vote among the delegates for ratification would be very close. Henry warned that in his mind's eye he could see angels watching, "reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which in the progress of time will happen in America, and consequent happiness or misery of mankind—I am led to believe that much of the account on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide."3
But here is the surprise: Henry was an anti-federalist. He believed that Americans would secure their own destruction if they ratified the Constitution.
With its stirring summons to "liberty or death," Henry's 1775 oration fits easily into American patriotic history. It is more difficult to account for Henry's opposition to the Constitution, because it leads us to confront a less familiar, and more problematic and enduring question raised by the American Revolution: Now that the people had won liberty, how might it be preserved? No one deserved more credit for the Revolution than Henry, and that fact alone makes his life a compelling one to study. But by 1788, Henry had begun to fear that the Revolution was in deep trouble. For him, the Constitution was no culmination of the Revolution. Ratifying the Constitution betrayed the Revolution because it threatened to forfeit America's freedom.
Some Federalists—supporters of the Constitution—truly loathed Henry for his opposition to the Constitution. The French writer St. John de Crèvecoeur, a longtime resident of New York and vehement Federalist, wrote to a friend from Virginia that the "nefarious and highly criminal P. Henry" was trying to destroy the incipient Union. "Now is the critical hour and which in Virginia remarkable from the opinion of Mr. Henry the fate of America seems now to depend." If the Constitution failed there, Crèvecoeur believed, "the flames of civil war I am persuaded will be first kindled in your country, for both parties are and will be still more incensed against each other."4
The fifty-two-year-old Henry was used to these kinds of accusations. He had heard them for most of his adult life, beginning with his legislative resolutions against the Stamp Act in 1765, the action that inaugurated the Revolutionary crisis with Britain. "Twenty-three years ago," Henry mused, "I was supposed a traitor to my country: I was then said to be a bane of sedition, because I supported the rights of my country." And here he was again—a man first among patriots, denounced as a turncoat.5
In his final speech at the Richmond ratifying convention, Henry evoked a vision of monitory angelic figures, to emphasize the gravity of Virginia's decision. The vote over ratification was an epochal moment in the history of human liberty, Henry declared. "I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant.—I see it—I feel it.—I see beings of a higher order, anxious concerning our decision." As he pleaded with his colleagues not to shackle themselves by consenting to this powerful new government, a howling storm arose outside the hall. Thunder crashed; delegates took cover under tables. Henry's first biographer wrote that the "spirits whom he had called, seemed to have come at his bidding." And yet when the vote was cast, Henry lost. Virginia—and the United States—embraced the Constitution.6
Patrick Henry always wondered whether Americans had the moral and political fortitude to safeguard the American Revolution. To him, the Revolution promised a return to the best kind of republic: a virtuous society with robust local governments. In his view, and the view of many other patriots, moral dissipation and consolidated political power set the stage for tyranny. From his own education in the classics, he knew that republics had fallen many times throughout history. Henry had witnessed, and eloquently decried, the tyranny that had threatened the American colonies from 1765 to 1775 and incited a revolution. In 1788, with the war for independence won, Henry believed that the new republic was in peril again. Although he would reconcile himself tentatively to the outcome of ratification, Henry never got over the feeling that when Virginia approved the Constitution, the Revolution was lost. This patriot believed that he had helped America win its independence, only to find the legacy of the Revolution forsaken by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
Can we still place Henry in the pantheon of leading Founders if he opposed the Constitution? Can a sincere patriot question the Constitution itself, the document that has ostensibly become the bedrock of national freedom? Whatever we think of his resistance to the "more perfect union" embraced by other patriots, Henry's opposition to the Constitution was born out of the cause that defined his career, an unshakeable commitment to liberty.

Patrick Henry and Backcountry Virginia
PATRICK HENRY WAS WORKING as a part-time barkeeper when Thomas Jefferson first met him. It was Christmas 1759, and the seventeen-year-old Jefferson was going to college at William and Mary, spending the Christmas holidays at the Hanover, Virginia, home of a family friend, Captain Nathaniel West Dandridge. Hanover, the midway point on the journey from Jefferson's Albemarle County home to the college at Williamsburg, was also the new home of Patrick Henry, who was twenty-three years old, and his young family.
Henry was also a good friend of Dandridge's; five years later, he would become Dandridge's lawyer. But that association seemed improbable in 1759: Henry had already failed twice as a shopkeeper, he had recently lost his family home in a fire, and his prospects appeared uncertain at best. Neither he nor Jefferson came from elite families, but Jefferson's parents at least had the means to send him to college. Unlike Jefferson, Patrick would never receive any formal higher education. That Christmas, he was just trying to feed his family, which is what had brought him to work at his father-in-law's tavern and inn, just across from the Hanover courthouse. Patrick served drinks and tended to the needs of lodgers who had traveled by horse and carriage to address grievances and settle accounts in the bustling county seat on the edge of Virginia's farm frontier. On court days, little Hanover took on the festive air of a carnival, attracting all kinds of peddlers and performers. Men took bets on cockfights, horse races, and boxing matches, and hooted at convicted criminals sentenced to stand in the wooden pillory outside the courthouse. As he poured hot toddies and home-brewed beer for the guests and watched them play backgammon, dice, and cards, he pondered the future. He could not tend bar forever. Thomas Jefferson was young enough and well-off enough to enjoy years of contemplative study and political reflection. Henry, older, poorer, with two young children and a needy wife, had to find his calling in life as soon as possible; he needed a good career.1
Despite the difference in their age and situation, Jefferson and Henry became friends during Henry's daily visits to the Dandridge home. During the twelve days of Christmas, they enjoyed the "usual revelries of the season," as Jefferson put it. Henry undoubtedly joined in the fun, playing the violin and taking turns in the dances that animated a household like Dandridge's in eighteenth-century Virginia. His wife, Sarah, a quiet, dutiful twenty-one-year-old, might also have joined in the reels down the length of Dandridge's parlor. And of course there was food: the colonists' celebrations from Christmas to Twelfth Night (January 5) featured gastronomic delights bordering on the gluttonous. For example, in 1771, the Christmas menu for the Fairfax family of northern Virginia included "six mince pies, seven custards, twelve tarts, one chicken pie, and four puddings."2
Although Jefferson observed Henry to be a bit coarse, he also found him charming. "His passion was music, dancing, and pleasantry," Jefferson recalled. "He excelled in the last, and it attached everyone to him." Patrick Henry had not proved himself successful in farming or business, but he won people's affections with his joyful embrace of the life he shared with other rural Virginians. He would find his vocation through the bonds that his conviviality created with his fellow citizens. Over the next five years he would move from behind his father-in-law's bar to join the bar—the legal profession—and rapidly rise in local politics. Yet he would remain close enough to the people among whom he lived to understand and represent their hopes and anxieties. Personality and place formed Patrick Henry's politics.3
WHEN PATRICK HENRY'S FATHER, John, arrived in America in 1727, Virginia was 120 years old, the oldest of England's surviving North American colonies. The original Jamestown settlers had dreamed of gold and quick riches, but they found colonizing this new land much harder than they could have imagined. They endured famine and disease, and engaged in brutal conflicts with local Native Americans affiliated with the great chief Powhatan. One starving settler killed and ate his wife, for which he himself was burned at the stake.
By the late 1610s, Virginians began to turn to tobacco as their economic salvation. Native Americans had smoked tobacco long before Europeans arrived in the New World, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries European colonists began to ship the crop back to Europe. When smoked or chewed, tobacco releases the powerful compound nicotine, a drug that produced just as pleasant, potentially addictive sensations then as it does today. Virginia had excellent soil for growing tobacco, and once cured by drying, the crop would easily ship to European markets. The growth of tobacco output from the Chesapeake colonies not only rescued the new colony from disaster but also brought prosperity to its growers, expanding from sixty thousand pounds in 1620 to twenty-eight million pounds by the 1680s.4
Who would undertake the hot and blistering work of growing and harvesting the brown gold of tobacco? Virginians needed workers to man its fields, but the tobacco barons did not originally rely on the labor of African slaves. In early seventeenth-century Virginia, whites came as indentured servants, with relatively small numbers of African-Americans serving as slaves. The white servants accepted indenture in exchange for passage to the New World, hoping that if they lived beyond the term of their contracted labor, they might even acquire land themselves. The black slaves had no such hope.
But for many, even hope turned to horror. Early Virginia was a charnel house. Neither whites nor blacks could expect to live long after their arrival. They died in droves from disease and in fights with local Native Americans. In time, as tobacco became profitable and conditions in the colony's fields became less deadly, more poor whites in England scrambled to get on ships bound for Virginia, drawn by the illusory promise of wealth. So many destitute whites poured in that some elite settlers feared that the colony had become "a sink to drain England of her filth and scum," as one Virginian put it in 1676.5
The white servants who lived long enough to earn freedom from indenture (usually a term of seven years or less) often found themselves unable to achieve their dream of independence. Pushed farther and farther into the backcountry to find available land, they normally lived in windowless, dirt-floor shacks and tended hastily cleared fields dotted with burned stumps of trees. The poor farmers resented the tidewater "planters," as the tobacco nobles became known. Yet they hated Native Americans even more, because they perceived the region's original settlers to be standing in the way of security and prosperity. Compounding the predicament of small tobacco farmers, in the 1660s tobacco prices began to drop precipitously, thanks to the growing number of producers, but British-appointed authorities still maintained high taxes on their small plots of land. Callous British officials in London aggravated the situation with the Navigation Acts, which required farmers to ship their tobacco only to England, on English ships, and made tobacco surpluses even more acute. The colony began to boil with instability.
In 1676, a hundred years before America's independence, Virginia erupted into a civil war known as Bacon's Rebellion. Angry white settlers found a leader in young Nathaniel Bacon, a recent arrival from England and a relative of Virginia's governor, William Berkeley. Though most members of the elite sided with the Virginia government, Bacon sympathized with the plight of the poor colonists; he viewed Berkeley as a weak leader and saw an opportunity to gain power for the oppressed farmers and himself at the expense of Native Americans. Bacon and his followers—a "Rabble Crue," Berkeley's supporters called them—began indiscriminately attacking Native Americans, both foes and former friends. When Bacon refused to end the unsanctioned attacks, Berkeley declared him a rebel against the colony. Bacon then turned his forces against Berkeley and the capital at Jamestown, which he burned to the ground in September 1676. But when Bacon abruptly died of the "bloody flux," or dysentery, the rebellion fizzled. Thereafter, Virginia stabilized and flourished, partly because the colonial assembly significantly reduced taxes on the poor farmers. Indentured servants spurned Virginia and increasingly gravitated to newer English colonies, such as Pennsylvania, making the problem of the landless poor whites less severe.6
The shrinking pool of white workers had tragic consequences. Virginia planters began to import more African slaves to work the tobacco fields. In 1700, the 13,000 Africans in Virginia represented 13 percent of the colony's population, but by 1750, their numbers were up to 150,000, or 40 percent of its inhabitants. (The white population in Virginia also grew rapidly, from 90,000 in 1700 to 225,000 in 1750.) Whites now perceived slaves, land, and tobacco as the keys to economic success and personal independence. Race divided eighteenth-century Virginia in a way that it had not a century earlier.
Young Patrick Henry, a child of the mid-eighteenth century, grew up in a world of relatively new, yet deep-seated racism. To the white planters, the burgeoning black population—the very people whose captive presence ensured the elites' prosperity—seemed to them alien and menacing: they arrived from west Africa not speaking English, they were not Christians (aside from a handful of whom had already been converted to Roman Catholicism, which Virginia Protestants did not count as Christianity), and they often had filed teeth, plaited hair, and ritual scarring. As never before, whites were now deeming blacks to be intrinsically inferior to their owners, suitable only for the servile labor to which they were condemned. A host of new laws codified the cultural separation between whites and blacks. For example, interracial marriage was explicitly banned, as was sex between white women and black men. (The law remained significantly silent on sex between white men and black women.)
By the 1720s, the planters dominated all aspects of political and economic life in Virginia, even as new European immigrants sought to penetrate the ranks of the colony's aristocrats. The elite gentry represented a tiny fraction of the population—maybe no more than 5 percent of whites—yet that social stratum was in fact permeable at its bottom, open to those with good luck and connections. Scots like John Henry (as opposed to the masses of Scots-Irish from Northern Ireland) came in relatively small numbers to America in the colonial era, and most were professionals and businessmen who could realistically aspire to entrepreneurial success. Some Scots sought opportunity in the Virginia backcountry, usually related to the burgeoning tobacco trade. Scottish merchants played a major role in shipping tobacco, which by the 1760s accounted for more than 80 percent of all Scottish imports from mainland North America.7
John Henry was one of the early Scottish immigrants to recognize the opportunities in Chesapeake tobacco farming. He came from Aberdeen, Scotland, where he attended but failed to graduate from college. The reasons that John left college are lost to history, but certainly the pull of prosperity in America helped lure him away from his books. Soon after leaving the university, he secured passage to Virginia, arriving in Hanover County because of a connection there with John Syme (pronounced "sim"), an influential planter.
The American backcountry was not so far back in those days. Hanover County was about sixty miles inland from the new colonial capital at Williamsburg, and just north of the future capital at Richmond, founded in 1737, a year after Patrick's birth. Hanover lay in the Piedmont region of Virginia, well to the east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, both of which were true nether regions of Virginia where European settlers had just begun to trickle in. The original residents of the area encompassing Hanover County were Pamunkey and Chickahominy Indians, who, like most Native Americans, faced calamity from European diseases and dislocation from English settlements.
Hanover County was carved out of New Kent County in 1720 and named for the family of Britain's King George I. When Queen Anne died in 1714, the Hanovers, Protestant Christians originally from Germany, rescued the British monarchy from the prospect of a Catholic ruler. Anne had no surviving children, but British law required that the crown be held by a Protestant, which led the government to pass over more than fifty Catholics with closer blood relations to Anne and make George the king of England. The county received the name of the house of Hanover as a sign of affection for England and its Protestant king. At this time, there was no hint of the anti-monarchical sentiments that Patrick Henry, Hanover County's favorite son, would trumpet a generation later.
The county that became John Henry's new home was fertile and hilly, prime terrain for tobacco and many edible crops. An American Continental soldier visiting Hanover in 1781, hungry from marching, was delighted to forage on the county's abundant watermelons, "the best and finest I have ever seen. This country is full of them; they have large patches of two and three acres of them." He observed that African-American slaves had small garden plots in Hanover, with "great quantities of snaps and collards." Tobacco became the economic mainstay staple of the county, as it was for the colony itself. Patrick Henry would grow up during another boom period in the crop, with the total volume of tobacco exported to Britain rising more than 250 percent between 1725 and 1775. Already by the 1720s, the average person in England smoked about two pounds of tobacco per year.8
For several years John Henry toiled on Syme's plantation. Then in 1731, his fortunes changed. Syme died, widowing his attractive young wife, Sarah. In 1734, John married Sarah, winning not just the widow's hand but also Syme's estate and Sarah's connections to the gentry. Now possessed of over 7,000 acres of land, John Henry became an up-and-coming figure, connected to the old Virginia aristocracy. He continued to acquire land throughout central Virginia, and held a variety of political and military posts. A man who had left Scotland seven years earlier with little more than an incomplete education and a strong ambition now was a fully rooted member of the burgeoning colony. For his son Patrick, John Henry's success would represent the possibilities America availed to an individual with drive and dreams. At times, his father's success would also be something of a reprimand.
ON MAY 29, 1736, Sarah Henry gave birth to Patrick, the second of eleven children born to the Henrys. Patrick was named for John's older brother, who had become a Church of England parson after graduating from college in Scotland. The Reverend Patrick Henry had also emigrated from Scotland to Virginia, and in 1736 he became the rector of St. Paul's Parish in Hanover County; his brother John became a vestryman, a member of the council that governed the affairs of the parish and levied local taxes to support it. They exercised considerable power over those under their watch. Publicly supported religion meant a great deal to the Henry family. They were convinced that a virtuous society required tax-funded churches and the vigilance of parsons and vestrymen like the Henry brothers.9
Patrick Henry received an education that was, for a scion of the new gentry, modest. He learned to read, write, and count at a small common school he attended until he was ten years old. Thereafter, he received no other formal schooling at all—no preparatory academy existed in Hanover until 1778—but as he began his teenage years, he learned Latin, Greek, and advanced mathematics from his father. An autodidact like many of his day, Patrick read deeply in ancient and modern history, no doubt focusing on the heroes of Greek and Roman antiquity and their counterparts in British and European history since the Protestant Reformation. He was hardly uneducated, especially in the liberal arts, but the relative informality of Henry's home education did not herald the emergence of a great statesman. Nevertheless, the close attention he received from his father made him sensitive to the great principles of the British and Western traditions that defined themselves around Christian faith, the liberty espoused by well-known British opposition figures such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, and the concept of virtue, which for an eighteenth-century Anglo-American meant a moral disposition committed to the public good. At his death, Henry possessed about two hundred books—an impressive number for a man of the era—on law, Christianity, and history, with some classical texts in Latin and Greek.10
From this array of sources—literary, cultural, and religious—Henry derived a worldview that was pervasively Christian, with a heavy dose of ancient Greek and Roman influences. Among the foundational beliefs of this worldview was the imperfection of mankind. His King James Bible repeatedly affirmed that (in the words of Paul's letter to the Romans) "there is none righteous, no, not one." Likewise, Henry knew that, in a classic lesson of man's flawed nature, the golden era of the Roman republic had disintegrated into political intrigue, chaos, and civil war. Julius Caesar (assassinated by rivals in 44 BCE) was only the best known casualty of the republic's fall. Rome's turmoil had led inexorably to the rise of the emperors, including notorious tyrants such as Caligula and Nero. Concentrated power could not be trusted in the hands of fallible men. Henry knew that he, too, was fallible. Throughout his life, as family man, farmer, lawyer, and politician, he earnestly sought—not always with complete success—to stay on the path of uprightness.
From his reading, from absorbing his father's principles, and through the very air he breathed in a Virginia populated by people who had escaped an Old World rife with conflict, oppression, and lack of individual opportunity, Patrick Henry believed that the imperfection of men made fragile the kind of liberty he and his family enjoyed. It was in the nature of human beings, he learned, always to grasp for what was not theirs, seeking dominion over others in a way that threatened the common good and undermined the stability of the state. Good government took the realities of human nature into account by balancing power between the interests and branches within it, yet even the best government was subject to corruption. To young Patrick Henry, the men of a republic (in his era, women would normally not have been included in this political


On Sale
Nov 22, 2011
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Thomas S. Kidd

About the Author

Thomas S. Kidd is Associate Professor of History at Baylor University. The author of several books on topics in American religious history, he lives in Woodway, Texas.

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