Patriot Henry, Noble Rhetorician


A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic, by Henry Mayer, New York: Franklin Watts, 529 pages, $22.50

In the last few years, we have been bombarded with empty symbols of patriotism: flag-waving, fireworks, shouts of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" And now we have to gird ourselves for the next great outburst celebrating the bicentennial of the Constitution. In the classical, Aristotelian tradition, these effusions would be considered examples of "base rhetoric," the use of symbols devoid of real content to manipulate the emotions of the public on behalf of the nation-state.

But there is another tradition of rhetoric: "noble rhetoric," in which the rhetorician takes the truths and principles arrived at by reason and presents them (originally in oratory and later also in writing) in the most persuasive and emotionally rousing manner. In that way, head and heart, reason and emotion are married, and convictions spread and intensify.

There will be no celebration, during the Constitution's bicentennial, of the great Patrick Henry, one of the superb examples in American history of a noble rhetorician, one of history's great orators who bent his splendid rhetorical powers to the service not only of principle but of libertarian, individualist principle at that. There will be no celebration, because Henry was one of the major fighters against the new constitution and in defense of liberty.

Henry Mayer's A Son of Thunder, a political biography of Patrick Henry, is a superb evocation of Henry, his revolutionary principles, and the lifelong leadership he exercised on their behalf. But it also serves as an example of noble rhetoric and the proper way to write political biography.

Nowadays there are two contrasting styles of biography. One, the chronicle, is a massive, thousand-page description of every day in the life of the subject. The result is a bloodless almanac that misses the forest for the trees and in its boring quest for completeness leaves out the essential events and drama of the subject's life. In political biography, in particular, the essential story of the person is one of high moral drama, of an excitement that almanac-style biography inevitably misses completely. The opposite pole of modern biography is the pseudohistory that reads like a novel, in which the author misleadingly puts thoughts and even words into his protagonist's head for which there is no scintilla of evidence.

Mayer's book successfully avoids both these pitfalls. It is scholarly and faithful to the historical events. Yet Mayer writes in a lively, exciting fashion, which catches, as no chronicle can, the essence of Patrick Henry and his ideological and political struggles. As a result, Mayer displays keen insight into Henry, his role, the context of his political culture, and the influences upon him.

It is clear from Mayer, even without a record of Patrick Henry's incomparable voice, that he was a great orator. We can see it simply by reading his speeches, even though we do not have accurate transcripts. I urge readers to get the full text of Henry's magnificent speech attacking the Constitution at Virginia's ratifying convention. Henry's rhetorical powers are evident in his refusal to mince words or engage in elegant rodomontade, as did so many of his compatriots. His words are crystal-clear as he penetrates to the heart of the problem without evasion or qualification and condemns the virtually unlimited power that would be conferred by the Constitution upon the central government. Noble rhetoric indeed!

Mayer makes it clear that Henry's persuasiveness and oratorical power stemmed from the fact that Henry differed from most of his contemporaries in the purpose of his speeches. Thus, as the dispute with Britain began to heat up in the colonies, Henry's colleagues in the Virginia House were concerned to frame their speech and their legislative motions in careful, judicious prose that would win them respect in London and among the rest of the elite of the Virginia landed oligarchy of the day. But Henry's aim was to rouse the public to principled resistance to tyranny, to go over the heads of the power elite and stimulate a revolutionary devotion to libertarian principle among the masses of Americans. Hence, the Old Guard, committed to graceful minuets along the corridors of power, hated Henry with a profound passion and never forgave him for introducing a new antistatist style as well as content into American political life.

In addition to this main theme, Henry Mayer understands and presents the subtleties of Henry's position. As a member of an impoverished country gentry, Henry found himself naturally in opposition to the wealthy Virginia oligarchy. But more important was his deep-seated evangelical Christianity, which set him against extravagance and "aristocracy" in government and in favor of simplicity of manners as well as minimal expenditures of government.

Henry's fervent Christianity, in fact, partially accounts for the political isolation of his last years. For among the revolutionary Founding Fathers, only Patrick Henry and his fellow libertarian radical Samuel Adams were ardent Christians. The others, who were younger than Adams and Henry, were virtually all deists, including not only Jefferson and Paine but also the conservative George Washington. Though Henry shared some political values with these Founding Fathers, his Christian emphasis on virtue in government set him apart from the deists.

Henry's demand for a second constitutional convention lost to Madison's adroit maneuver in giving the Antifederalists a sop in the form of the Bill of Rights. Having lost the great struggle over the Constitution, Henry understandably withdrew from political affairs. He was not likely to join the opposition Democratic-Republicans, headed by Madison and Jefferson, since he held them responsible for ratifying the Constitution in the first place. But there was another reason Henry hated the Republicans more than his old enemies the Federalists, with whom he flirted shortly before he died. That was the Republican enthusiasm for the French Revolution, which Henry put down to their common impiety and deism. While Mayer mentions this point, he could have developed it more thoroughly, for otherwise Henry's dalliance with Federalism remains inexplicable.

Henry's inspiring role as an activist and revolutionary speaks directly to concerns of modern proponents of individual liberty. Should those of us who support individual liberty against the tyrannies of the state rest content with enunciating these principles and refuse to work with people who are less systematic in their opposition to the state? Or should we try to advance our principles in the real world by plunging into ideological or political movements that broadly though not totally represent our principles, while at the same time trying to persuade our allies of a consistent position? Certainly this was the path taken by Henry. Sometimes he won and sometimes he lost, but his accomplishments for liberty were enormous.

Not his least accomplishment is the power of his example. Patrick Henry lived his life striving to embody his principles in the real world. Where are the sons of thunder today?

Murray Rothbard is the S.J. Hall Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of the history series Conceived in Liberty, among other works.