Give us liberty, one occasionally wants to cry, echoing the great Patrick Henry’s liberty-or-death moment at St. John’s Church in Richmond. A great moment it was, as schoolchildren may still be taught. There was more, nonetheless, to Patrick Henry than lung power. The man had heart, and the soul to go with it.
The narrative unfolded by Thomas S. Kidd, a Baylor University scholar, is that of a man with deep, instinctive convictions regarding the necessities of a free and mighty people such as Americans held themselves to be.
His repeated appeals to liberty had a sturdy foundation: The earth was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; a free people, to remain free, required virtue; the Christian church alone was capable of supporting and spreading virtue; the church and its teachings merited support on behalf of freedom. The modern-day gospel of the American Civil Liberties Union - “Get that Nativity scene outta here!” - he would have scorned and opposed to the utmost.
None of the above is precisely new to modern discourse. As Mr. Kidd points out, “advocates of a Christian perspective have [sometimes] gone to extremes in recruiting Henry to their cause” through apocryphal quotations showing him, supposedly, attesting to more than he actually believed. No such quotations are necessary, Mr. Kidd says, “to establish that Henry’s political thought was based on Christian principles.”
Raised an Anglican, Henry remained one throughout life. He promoted a general tax levy for the support not of a single church but, rather, all churches. Presbyterians shot down the measure like a possum grinning from the branch of a gum tree, but Henry remained unshaken in his conviction, shared by the majority of Revolutionary-era Americans, that morality and religion went hand in hand. He was, in essence, Mr. Kidd says, “a Christian republican.”
No slick, occasionally over-the-top salesmanship in the modern mode is necessary to show forth the Patrick Henry school of religious patriotism as profoundly relevant to American purposes. The case he made - unsuccessfully, as it happened - against Virginia’s ratification of the 1787 Constitution centered on a conception of liberty with religion and virtue at its root.
As “his personality blazed in all its power and glory,” he argued against “the Federalists’ nationalistic dream of American glory.” All his concerns, Mr. Kidd says, “were ultimately rooted in his Christian republican ideals and his preference for limited, local government.”
Not that - ahem - other calculations lay low in his reckoning. A slave owner, opposed to human bondage but unwilling all his life to loose the bonds on his own property, Henry feared a strong national government might attack the peculiar institution and initiate a race war. Other worldly concerns circled the great man throughout his life - the desire, for instance, for money. Henry was a large speculator in Western lands. To be sure, he had a large family to support, and his health was always uncertain. He would die at age 63, a few months before George Washington.
It seems improbable to place on Henry’s mighty brow the crown of sainthood. Nor does Mr. Kidd attempt the project in this well-researched, even-tempered book. A committed Christian like Henry was obligated to recognize in himself the elements of sinfulness. The recognition can only have deepened and intensified his view of the dangerous state of men freed of connection to religion - that is to say, a state of being that checked their worst temptations and brought them back regularly to repentance.
The Christian republicanism of Patrick Henry - fiery advocate, stern patriot, sometime governor and military commander of his state - was a fabric of a complicated but appealing pattern. The means of bringing a proud people to a common understanding of duty and obligation were beyond the means of politics, as he understood politics. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, patriots such as John Dickinson embraced the same viewpoint.
Henry could do no more than preach the gospel placed in his hands as lawyer and orator - and hope listeners caught his point. He could celebrate the church and its witness; he could invoke sacred examples. He could not, he would not, compel.
The religion he embraced was a religion of human freedom under the majesty and might of God - such a religion as only irregularly comes in view these days. Likely, Mr. Kidd says, Patrick Henry would “fundamentally object to nearly every feature of today’s titanic national government.”
Ah, well. He said his piece when called on to say it. He prophesied.
William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.