Richard Schumann on Patrick Henry and Independence

Whenever there was trouble in Williamsburg, it’s a sure bet Patrick Henry was in the middle of it.


Lloyd Dobyns: Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. For July 4th, we turn our thoughts to independence. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and this is Independence Day. Today I’m speaking with Richard Schumann. And, at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s Patrick Henry.

Lloyd: I guess the first question is, everybody remembers Patrick Henry as something of a hothead in the movement toward independence – was he really?

Richard Schumann: In a way yes, and in a way, no. He’s a lawyer, so we could make the case both ways. In one way, he is a hothead, certainly, in that he takes some risks that no one else would dare to do. He presented his Stamp Act resolutions in 1765. He elicited cries of treason upon a number of occasions. But then, another way of looking at it, too, is he’s not a hothead at all; he is extremely conservative. Remember, there’s the British Constitution. There are certain rights that we have here in America that have been assured us by our ancient charter, by the British Constitution – and he’s only wanting to preserve that! So you could argue that the real hotheads, the people who are trying to turn things over and deprive Americans of their rights are the fellows in Great Britain.

Lloyd: Yet, he was among those who wanted Virginia to declare independence; he was one of the early people in favor of independence. What was that about?

Richard: He was the chief advocate of independence. As early as 1772, he makes a couple of statements in letters – that happily survive – that are very significant. By 1772, he’d already realized that there was a unique, special, distinct American identity, that we were somehow different all of a sudden from our English cousins across the sea. And he believed that the time was already at hand – before anyone else did, I am confident of that – that it was time for us to no longer think of ourselves as a colonies of a distant empire, one grown corrupt and tyrannical, but rather as a separate people in a new land, as Americans.

Lloyd: Why corrupt and tyrannical?

Richard: Well, the British government, first of all, does something that we in Virginia never would have considered, and that is they paid salaries to their politicians. The House of Commons was filled with placement and pensioners, there was some terrible gross mismanagement of several corporations, and the politicians were all tied into such companies as the East India Company, for example, and it just got to the point where Whigs and Tories, two different political parties in the House of Commons, started voting upon things not in the best interests of the empire, or even voting the way their constituents wanted them to; but they were rather voting upon questions the way their faction leaders instructed them to in order to seize or maintain political power. And, what’s very interesting is there’s a lot of that kind of wrangling going on in our own American government right now.

Lloyd: Which was the next thing I was gong to ask you – the government then, the government now. There were, I guess Loyalists and Tories in the government then. There are Democrats and Republicans now. Do you see a similarity?

Richard: There are countless similarities in the time of the 18th century in America and in the times that we’re facing today. You look at a newspaper today; the headlines today are the same as they were in the 18th century – the same things, the same ideas being grappled over and debated – such things as who votes, who doesn’t vote, the system of slavery. There are some people who believe it’s ended – is it? The strong central government verses local state control. Religion – separation of church and state; all those things were debated furiously back then, too.

Lloyd: So we haven’t made any progress from 1700 to 2100?

Richard: I think we’ve made progress, certainly, at the same time, because after all, we’ve established a grand new experiment. This democratic republic of Virginia, and all America eventually, was never attempted before. And, it’s worked! I think the founders would be amazed and quite proud that it had lasted so long, but times change, too. The founders never conceived of a day that rockets could be launched from halfway across the world to destroy entire cities. They never imagined a day that communications could be instantaneous, that someone in China, for example, could type an email, and it would be received immediately by someone in New York City. So things have changed, but the issues are very much the same.

Lloyd: You mentioned slavery. Patrick Henry was a slaveholder.

Richard: Oh, yes.

Lloyd: And, if memory serves, he did not free his slaves on his death as Washington did.

Richard: He did not free all of them. He allowed his second wife to free one or two of them “as she sees fit.” But the rest of the slaves he had to divvy up amongst all of his many kids. Remember, in Virginia in the 18th century, we are an agricultural society; we are a nation of farmers. You can’t just leave a thousand acres of land to your son or your daughter. You’ve got to leave them some means of working that land, and that, unfortunately, is slaves.

Lloyd: No tractors.

Richard: No tractors.

Lloyd: It’s difficult to remember how restricted people were in the 18th century in what they could actually do. But, uh, I guess that is one reason for it.

Lloyd: Who were your political enemies? Who were Patrick Henry’s political enemies?

Richard: Well, certainly everybody in Great Britain.

(Both laugh heartily)

Lloyd: Okay…

Richard: He had some rivals here in Virginia, too – men who were sometimes described as “cool, conservative men.” Sometimes he would derogatorily call these men “the eastern aristocrats, the tidewater gentry, the old guard,” and sometimes he’d come right out and call them “submissionists.” These fellows were perfectly happy to sacrifice their liberty for a little bit of security. Some of the bigger names that people might recognize are Edmund Pendleton of Caroline County. He was a very influential, very eloquent, very bright lawyer. The treasurer of Virginia, Robert Carter Nicholas, of James City County, he was another.

There were a number of the old conservative men, who very much resented Patrick Henry coming in as a freshman burgess and just throwing all the rules to heck. Just as many freshman congressmen today are expected to be rather quiet, you know. Your first couple of years that you might be in office, sit on your hands, don’t say anything; don’t make any waves. Well, Patrick Henry had only been elected for the first time eight days before he gave the Stamp Act resolutions. A lot of them wouldn’t forget that for a long time.

Lloyd: (Laughs) So, he was as much a revolutionary among his own as he was in Great Britain.

Richard: Absolutely.

Lloyd: Have you studied enough to know why he would be that…I mean he must have understood that if you didn’t wait your turn, that you would draw criticism, but he obviously didn’t care.

Richard: No, he didn’t. There was a higher purpose. And that was liberty – securing liberty. I believe that Mr. Henry understood rather early on that there was something of a generational gap happening. The old conservative guard, the tidewater elite had known a time when they did enjoy all the same rights, liberties, privileges, franchises as free born Englishmen, but some of the young bucks, especially those coming from the back country, the woods of Hanover County as Patrick Henry did, they’d never known that, and there was something about living far away from the capital city of Williamsburg that they became very much used to very limited involvement of government in their daily lives. And then all of a sudden, that began to change. Parliament started asserting an authority they never had before, they never exerted before, and he didn’t like it.

Lloyd: I asked you who Patrick Henry’s enemies were, political enemies. Who were his allies?

Richard: Oh, some names that everyone should be aware of certainly today – Colonel George Mason, for example, the true father of the Bill of Rights. He was closely allied, for much of his early years at least, with Thomas Jefferson. Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, George Wythe…to some lesser degree, first, Colonel George Washington of Fairfax County. Generally speaking, whenever trouble was caused in Williamsburg, it was caused by those men, chiefest amongst them, in my view, Pat Henry.

Lloyd: And that was because of the generation gap, I suppose.

Richard: I think largely that had much to do with it. Yes,

Lloyd: Suppose the old line – and this is a suppose question, which of course nobody can answer – but suppose the old guard, the tidewater gentry had been a little more accommodating, what do you think would have happened?

Richard: I think independence was inevitable anyway.

Lloyd: Oh.

Richard: Patrick Henry in 1772 describes “the fiery American spirit.” He’d already observed that there was a distinct character of the people of America – a fierce independency of spirit that would not be broken, no matter what evils might be hurled up upon it.

What could explain that difference in character? I suppose it’s a number of things. First off, you must remember that this idea that everyone at the time of the American Revolution who lived here in America was born in Great Britain and then came here during their lifetimes for a new opportunity – that’s nonsense. 90 percent of Americans are native born to America by the time of the Declaration of Independence. We’re here in North America. There’s a great ocean – the Atlantic Ocean – that separates us from Europe. It takes nearly two months to just cross the ocean. So, there’s that remoteness – the vast expanse of the beautiful countryside, such as it was.

There were limitless opportunities to everyone here in America. There are some places in Virginia that a man could purchase rich fertile land to farm, to make something for his future generations; and he could purchase that for a penny an acre. That’s unheard of in Europe. Then there was that limited involvement of government in their daily lives, so all these things put together created this new spirit. And I think Mr. Henry was one of the first to recognize that and believe that this emerging American identity is one that shouldn’t be suppressed by any foreign power, but rather it should be encouraged.

So, he took it upon himself, largely owing to his devout faith in religion. He is a devout Christian, that cannot be expressed too often or too strongly, so put all those things together, and he realized it was the will of God that he lead this new nation into a new place.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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