My friend Ben Domenech offers an excellent email newsletter called The Transom. Great links and brief comments, excellent news coverage on politics and political economy, tidbits and humor. Sign up here. Today’s edition included memorable little essay ON PATRICK HENRY, from which I’ll excerpt a good bit:
. . . It was 237 years ago, in Virginia, that Patrick Henry gave a speech that rang out through the colonies and urged the people to stand up for their liberty. . . . There is a line that comes before the more famous conclusion which I have always loved. In making his case that the colonists should be willing to stand even against the armed might of the British Empire, which had put down so many colonial rebellions in the past, Henry urged the Virginians on, saying: “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”
What this means is clear: that there is no excuse for failing to stand up for liberty when that is what is demanded of you, even to the end. And Henry himself proved this in his own life. While an avowed anti-federalist and an opponent of the ratification of the Constitution in the late-1780s, two things changed his mind: he broke with Thomas Jefferson over the French revolution. [Condemning the French approach, he declared] that freedom without virtue descends to anarchy; and he rejected Jefferson's increasingly vile and personal attacks on his old friend George Washington. . . . And Henry rejected outright the nullification doctrine, approved by Jefferson and Madison in the Kentucky-Virginia Resolutions, seeing within it the seeds of the rebellion which later came.
In the late 1790s, a mutual friend took the liberty of forwarding one of Henry's letters to Washington . . . Henry wrote of how his fears regarding misuse of Constitutional powers had been mitigated by Washington’s leadership, and that he no longer doubted that the Federalist approach was the wisest one. Washington was so moved by it that he asked Henry personally to stand for election to the House of Delegates as a Federalist to push back against the nullifiers . . . Henry, astounded by the outreach from the greatest man of the age, of course did his duty and ran, writing to Washington that “My Children would blush to know that you and their Father were Contemporarys, and that when you asked him to throw in his Mite for the public Happiness, he refused to do it" – despite being basically an invalid at this point, sick with stomach cancer.
What happened next, as written in Pulitzer winner Burton J. Hendrick’s Bulwark of the Republic: “The response to this appeal came at Charlotte Courthouse in early March, 1799. A huge crowd gathered, for Patrick Henry had announced that he would address his fellow citizens on that day. After declining to be Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States, he had acceded to Washington’s request, and was about to ask his neighbors to elect him to the state legislature… The hero worship bestowed by the crowd on Henry that morning indicated the importance of his intercession. When the speaker arose, his weakness was manifest. His face was colorless and careworn, his whole frame shaky, his voice, at the beginning, cracked and tremulous. In a few minutes, however, the Henry of the old Virginia House of Burgesses sprang from this emaciated shell. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were denounced with all the vehemence that had once been visited on King George. These proceedings filled him ‘with apprehension and alarm . . . they had planted thorns upon his pillow . . . the state had quitted the sphere in which she had been placed by the Constitution . . . in daring to pronounce upon the validity of Federal laws she had gone out of her jurisdiction.’ . . . Charlotte Courthouse, where this speech was made, is situated less than thirty miles from Appomattox, and from this spot, seventy years afterward, were heard the guns that forced Lee’s surrender. Patrick Henry seemed to have divined all this as the inescapable outcome of the Virginia Resolutions. ‘Such opposition on the part of Virginia’—this was his parting message to his countrymen—'to the acts of the general government must beget their enforcement by military power,' and this would produce 'civil war.' 'Let us trust God,' Henry declaimed, 'and our better judgment to set us right hereafter. United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs.'”
Henry won the election handily, and having proven his point, promptly died before he could be sworn in – vigilant, active, brave to the end.
That’s a tale you won’t often hear told by a latter-day Jeffersonian, but it’s a good one. The French Revolution induced a lot of honest men to question their assumptions anew. The intoxicant of revolution had acquired a Won’t Get Fooled Again edge to it rather quickly. The Jacobins had taken an ax not just to monarchy, but to religion and property as well. They had opened the gates of political hell, allowing all the powers of chaos free reign over the prostrate French nation.
In observing France a lot of Americans learned that there must be order for there to be liberty. Jefferson was, alas, a little slow on the uptake.
But Henry’s estimate of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions seems in this telling notably strident. Were these documents really germ of secession and disunion, or something less fatal?
Patrick Henry was robbed by death of the chance to hear Jefferson’s First Inaugural, in 1801, wherein the new President proclaimed:
But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
On that day in March of 1801, Jefferson’s conciliatory tone marked triumph for the principle of “ballots over bullets,” and began an age of government by compromise that endured for some six decades, and (reformed by a grave passage through war and crisis) endures to this day.
Those “factions which must destroy” American equipoise had differed sharply, bitterly, irresponsibly: but they had failed to destroy. Differences of opinion there had been in abundance. Rhetoric was fierce. The Election of 1800, in its intensity and vehemence, would make a modern operative blush. The truculence had frightened and alienated even the old revolutionary Henry. Meanwhile, the Adams administration, sincerely fearing the French influence on its opponents, had put force of law behind the proscription of some Jacobin agitators. Against this Sedition Act of 1798 Jefferson’s party had hurled every scrap of invective it could lay hands on. Henry’s fear of strife was shared by many men on both sides of the struggle. Nor were demagogues in short supply.
But the really extraordinary tale is this: The first American party struggle, whereby American party factions met in open political warfare, up to and including the great figures of the time, ultimately vindicated the hope announced in The Federalist, that government by “reflection and choice” might at last replace the old curse of government by “force and fraud.” The victory of Jefferson and his Republicans was accepted peacefully.
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.
In the contest of liberty versus order, Jefferson’s Republican faction stood accused of weighing so heavily to the side of liberty as to devastate public order, much as the French revolt had done, issuing in penury and misery and war. So it is particularly arresting how Jefferson, at his inaugural, addresses himself to the partisans of order. He affirms as his solemn duty, “the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad.” More importantly, he grounds his belief in the vigor of republican government in its respect for law: “I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”
And then Jefferson gives us a picture of the free republic bulwarked by the superlative enterprise of free men, pursuing their own vocations under conditions of civic friendship. Men have a right to rise by their own efforts, to enjoy the fruit of their labor. This idea of honest private industry sustaining federal republican government is at the root of the Constitutional teaching of the work from which the Federalist party took its name. The embrace of free enterprise — a commercial republic — is not often permitted to Jefferson, but it was there in his thought as well. Jefferson was never truer to his “we are all Federalists” gesture of reconciliation than when he gave the country this imagery of what America could be:
Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter — with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
To examine the unique role of this embrace of free enterprise is to draw very near to the true beating heart of the American political tradition. And the poetic notes abound. The propinquity of free enterprise to the great compromises that forged the Republic, these resonances of “pursuits of industry and improvement,” cannot fail to strike the mind of the discerning student of history. It is fitting, for instance, that very last political alliance of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, all in common cause, was Hamilton’s plan to restore US credit: ground the new Republic on sound finance and let her open for business.
A great deal more could be said on this tremendous topic — it is one rich in interest and instruction. I’ll confine myself to this last thought: In the first American party struggle, the sovereignty of ballots over bullets was vindicated as a workable innovation in the political science of mankind. Liberty and order. The peaceable transition of power between opposing political parties, which today we take for granted though history discloses few comparable examples, was first accomplished on a grand scale here in America. It was accomplished in part by the cooperative influence of commerce and trade upon the politics of men.