Day book, May 29 2005

On May 29, 1736 Patrick Henry, American radical and fiery orator of the American Revolution, was born in Hanover County, Virginia. After failing at a number of businesses, he boned up for a few weeks, took the bar exam, passed, and set out a shingle as a lawyer—then, as now, a common path for many a ne’er-do-well.

Here’s the full text of Henry’s speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses for which he is best remembered. And here’s the snippet most recall:

“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!”

That’s not the only notable thing he wrote or siad. For example, this quote on the difference between personal piety and public policy may be an eye-opener for some:

“I know, sir, how well it becomes a liberal man and a Christian to forget and forgive. As individuals professing a holy religion, it is our bounden duty to forgive injuries done us as individuals. But when the character of Christian you add the character of patriot, you are in a different situation. Our mild and holy system of religion inculcates an admirable maxim of forbearance. If your enemy smite one cheek, turn the other to him. But you must stop there. You cannot apply this to your country. As members of a social community, this maxim does not apply to you. When you consider injuries done to your country your political duty tells you of vengeance. Forgive as a private man, but never forgive public injuries. Observations of this nature are exceedingly unpleasant, but it is my duty to use them.”

He favored very strong state governments and a very weak federal government. He argued forcefully towards this end in The Anti-Federalist Papers (specifically number 4, 34, and 40:4). His speech on the ratification of the Constitution has some resonance for the present:

“THIS, sir, is the language of democracy–that a majority of the community have a right to alter government when found to be oppressive. But how different is the genius of your new Constitution from this! How different from the sentiments of freemen that a contemptible minority can prevent the good of the majority! If, then, gentlemen standing on this ground are come to that point, that they are willing to bind themselves and their posterity to be oppressed, I am amazed and inexpressibly astonished. If this be the opinion of the majority, I must submit; but to me, sir, it appears perilous and destructive. I can not help thinking so. Perhaps it may be the result of my age. These may be feelings natural to a man of my years, when the American spirit has left him, and his mental powers, like the members of the body, are decayed. If, sir, amendments are left to the twentieth, or tenth part of the people of America, your liberty is gone for ever.”

Plus a change, plus cest la mme chose.

1 comment… add one
  • “If, sir, amendments are left to the twentieth, or tenth part of the people of America, your liberty is gone for ever.”

    Thank you for the reminder about Patrick Henry’s words of wisdom. His words are just as fresh today, in the wake of the French “Non!” as when he first spoke them.

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