Patrick Henry: Enemy of the State
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
Little is said today of Patrick Henry. He still makes it into a book on American history here and there primarily because he was without a doubt one of the greatest (if not the greatest) orator of his generation, and when the American revolution became imminent in the 1770’s he was among those who had the greatest grasp of when the conflict would come and what it would bring.
The episode in his life that apparently warrants mention by mainstream historians is his speech to the House of Burgesses — which was meeting illegally without the consent of the Crown’s governor. It was late March 1775 — before the farmers of Lexington and Concord had had the opportunity to humiliate the most powerful army on Earth — and Henry knew that a clash of arms was near. In an effort to win support for a bill that would raise an army for Virginia and illegally appoint officers without the consent of the Crown, Henry clamored for the Virginia militia to take arms against the British:
"The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms…Let it come. I repeat, Sir, Let it come…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!"
Today, these comments are treated as hyperbole, a mere gentleman’s exercise in arousing legislators to action. With Henry, nothing could be further from the truth. For as Murray Rothbard has pointed out numerous times, the court historians of our age would have us believe that the American revolution was no revolution at all, but merely an unfortunate disagreement among refined compatriots. But for Patrick Henry — and he was certainly not alone in such sentiments — British rule was nothing short of barbaric tyranny, a despotism to be ripped from American soil no matter what the price in blood.
In 1775, Patrick Henry was not simply attempting to arouse the passions of his fellow Virginians. He was suggesting a practical course of action: arming the population of Virginia against the troops of the British Crown. By late April he was making good on his own exhortations, and following the British seizure of a cache of arms owned by the Virginia militia, Henry himself led a militia company in a raid on the British capturing British funds as compensation for the theft of the arms. The governor of Virginia declared Henry an outlaw, and he went into hiding as a champion of the Revolution.
Henry never wavered in his support of American independence during the eight years of the Revolution, but perhaps his most valiant effort to preserve American liberties came with the ratification debates over the Constitution of 1787. Henry was a defender of the Articles of Confederation, the government formed during the waning days of the Revolutions, and which had provided the colonies peace and international recognition ever since.
At the Virginia ratification debates of 1788, Patrick Henry denied that the propaganda of the Federalists was based on anything but scare tactics, and defied the Federalists to provide convincing evidence that the Articles of Confederation had not provided what the colonists had fought for in the Revolution. Indeed, Henry contended, to adopt the new Constitution would be akin to a Revolution greater than the one just finished, except this revolution was of an older variety:
"Revolutions like this have happened in almost every country in Europe: similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome: instances of the people losing their liberty by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few. We are cautioned…against faction and turbulence: I acknowledge that licentiousness is dangerous, and that it ought to be provided against: I acknowledge also the new form of Government may effectually prevent it: Yet, there is another thing it will as effectually do: it will oppress and ruin the people…I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people or by the tyranny of rulers? I imagine, Sir, you will find the balance on the side of tyranny."
The real reason behind scrapping the old constitution, Henry suspected, was really that of garnering more power for those who had already tasted the perks of consolidated government. They hid this behind a faade of “economic prosperity,” but Patrick Henry contended that such things were not the business of governments: “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and prosperous people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the end of your government.” For when government gives free men the power to secure their own rights, economic prosperity can only follow. But when men of government come to claiming the need to tax to increase your liberty and prosperity, beware. After all, Henry tells us, liberty is the foundation of prosperity, not the other way around. Nations like Great Britain become great “not because their government is strong and energetic,” but because “liberty is its direct end and foundation.” (Fortunately, Henry didn’t live to see the nightmarish British Empire of the 19th century.)
In addition, Henry was not one to rely on parchment barriers to keep the grasping hand of the state at bay. To believe that mere laws, created by men, could keep a mighty government at bay is a delusion — a fool’s game of wishful thinking. Just as he had prophesized before the beginning of the Revolution, liberty would never be preserved by anything but force:
"Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined…The Honorable Gentleman who presides told us, that to prevent abuses in our government, we will assemble in Convention, recall our delegated powers, and punish our servants for abusing the trust reposed to them. Oh, Sir, we should have fine times indeed, if to punish tyrants, it were only necessary to assemble the people! Your arms wherewith you could defend yourselves are gone…Did you ever read of any revolution in any nation, brought about by the punishment of those in power, inflicted by those who had no power at all? A standing army we shall have also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny: And how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders?
Henry knew there was but one means to preserving liberty: a de jure and de facto separation of power between the independent states and an American Union. Anything less was mere imagination. A Congressman here and a Senator there does nothing to preserve liberty. For where the force resides, there also will the power be. The states will merely be reduced to bureaucratic districts of the consolidated government.
Looking back across the centuries, it is difficult to contend that Henry was wrong. He had boycotted the Constitutional Convention of 1787 because, as he so eloquently put it, "I smell a rat" and suspected the worst: that the independent colonies that had thrived for over a century were to be herded under one consolidated government, a vast government apparatus founded not on liberty, but on the bureaucratic dreams of monarchists and mercantilists like Alexander Hamilton.
In his final stand against the new order, Patrick Henry presented his audience with a choice — a choice between empire and liberty:
"If we admit this consolidated government, it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object…But now, Sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire."
And quite an empire it has become. Today, as Americans, half our incomes are taxed away to that consolidated government; we send our sons to die toppling dictators armed and financed by those same taxes; we bleat like sheep for protection from each other and every foreign bogeyman near and far, and we call it liberty!
And for most Americans today, Patrick Henry is no doubt seen as a hopeless romantic, an impractical partisan of an imperfect ideology. He should have compromised and joined the Convention, we are told. His vision for America is in the dustbin of history. A fine man for a revolution perhaps, but of little use for our civilized government of today. Such are the rationalizations we now must resort to.
Patrick Henry may have failed to prevent the destruction of the free states of 18th century America, but he speaks to us across the centuries. Henry provides us with an eloquent example of those men of principle who put liberty first and were not afraid to fight for it. Today, as we beg for scraps at government’s table, perhaps we could learn a little something about courage and liberty from Mr. Henry.
Unlike Henry, we have bought the lie that government made us rich, and that government can keep us that way. We have accepted the farce that an armed and independent people means nothing in the face of great dangers in far away lands. Indeed, these are the same lies spouted in Henry’s time. As Patrick Henry knew, Federalists, the ideological great-grandfathers of our own tax-happy centralizers, built everything on fear. Fear of economic decay, fear of foreign enemies, and fear of disunity. For a civilized and free people, the answers to such fears could no more be found in the hands of government in 1788 as today. Indeed, for Henry, it is those hands that are the only true threat to liberty.
"Fear is the passion of slaves" Henry tells us, for an armed and confident people are sure of their liberties, and not afraid to demand them. But we live in a country ruled by fear. Fear of terrorists, or criminals, or punishment by the state. How then, can we conclude anything other than that we are ourselves slaves? It would appear that we can not, and Patrick Henry would no doubt agree.