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Christian patriot

Q&A | Patrick Henry, says biographer Thomas Kidd, would not be surprised by today's runaway federal government

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

Less than a year to go until the first presidential election in which Tea Party activists, who speak of the ideals of the American Revolution, will play a large role-but what were those ideals? Basic Books has just published Thomas Kidd's Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, a biography of the man known as "the voice of the American revolution." Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University.

Patrick Henry was homeschooled? Henry was born in 1736, when there was almost no educational infrastructure in Virginia, except in the major towns. His father largely schooled him at home. This mainly meant reading and history and classics: He had deep exposure to the Christian tradition, to Greek and Roman antiquity, to the heroes of the ancient past and the Reformation. This stuck with him through his career.

How did pastor Samuel Davies influence Henry? Davies was a Presbyterian pastor in Hanover, Va., close by where Henry's family lived. When Henry was a teenager his mother became involved with Davies' church. She had Patrick repeat back the Scripture passage and the essence of the sermon on the horse ride home. He remembered those scenes of Davies' revival preaching: very learned but also very emotional. And later on in his career, Henry's critics would say that Henry spoke like an evangelical minister.

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Did theological rebellion against the State church clear the path for political and economic rebellion? The Great Awakening was, among other things, the first great colonial uprising against State power. To question the established ministers' authority was to attack the State's authority over your conscience and religious practice. Henry, because of his schooling and Christian convictions, had a deep suspicion about political power itself: He thought a powerful government will almost inevitably become tyrannical, because of the nature of man.

Henry was quick to see problems arising in 1765. Henry had just been elected to the colonial legislature in Virginia when news of the Stamp Act came. It didn't bother him that he was a freshman legislator: He jumped right in, took everything to its logical conclusion, and said, "This is the rise of tyranny."

And 10 years later ... Everything came to a head in 1775. The British army had an increasingly menacing presence, particularly in Massachusetts. Henry urged Virginians to prepare for conflict. Others said, "No, we've got to continue to pursue a reconciliation." Henry said they'd been doing that for 10 years and getting nowhere. At the end of the speech he said, 'I know not what others may do, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!'"

When the war began, why did Virginians make Henry their military commander? They basically said, "You're the one who asked for this, now you're the commander-in-chief of Virginia's armed forces"-even though Henry had effectively no military experience whatsoever. They quickly realized this was not the best use of his time, so he moved back into the legislature, and then was governor of Virginia for much of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, didn't Madison and Henry battle about religious liberty? In 1784 Henry was one of many leading Virginians who wanted to resume public funding for religion.

Didn't he want everyone to support a church, but to be free to choose which one? Henry's idea was to require people to give a tithe, but they could designate the recipient of it-Episcopal or Baptist or Presbyterian or whatever.

And the tithe wasn't just for church services, but for education and social services as well. Right, because you have to have a virtuous republic if it is to survive-and the historic source of virtue in society is the church. Henry thought government needed to support this. That set up a disagreement between him and Madison, Jefferson, and their allies. In 1784 and 1785 Henry tried to get what was called the General Assessment for Religion, a "plural establishment." Madison commandeered the situation and got Henry put in the governor's house, which was a way to remove him from the legislature and get his influence taken out. Madison won in 1786.

In 1787, why was Henry concerned about the Constitution? He thought human nature will naturally abuse consolidated political power, so what we need is a diffuse, state-based kind of government. He thought the Articles of Confederation needed some revising, but he didn't think a strong national government was the answer.

How are Henry's views relevant to us now? Henry would look at the kind of government we have now and say, if he were in a bad mood, "I told you so." The Articles of Confederation government had no authority to tax, and Henry said, "You will never be able to control the size of this government, if you give it that authority. It will become a gargantuan, uncontrollable thing that will feed upon itself." That prophecy did not come true until after the Civil War, but Henry would look at what we have today and say, "This was going to happen eventually."


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