Thomas Jefferson vs. Patrick Henry

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson and Richard Schumann as Patrick Henry continue their debate on the role of religion in government.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past and Present in July on I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and we are thinking about independence and what it took to achieve that independence in the 18th century. In the last two weeks, we’ve heard Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry’s views on the place of religion in government, on the separation between church and state. This week they confront each other. Bill Barker portrays Thomas Jefferson and Richard Schumann is Patrick Henry for Colonial Williamsburg.

Richard Schumann as Patrick Henry: Very pretty, Mr. Jefferson. Friends, doesn’t Mr. Jefferson have a delightful way of looking at the world? ’Tis the way he wishes it were. But it is not the way it truly is. Men are not angels. We are all of us sinners if left to our own devices. That is when the chaos will commence. That is why we have government in the first place. Men are not angels. Mr. Jefferson, again, you suggest that your bill does not make any mention of caring for the poor and the needy, except that people will be free to contribute, but what if they do not – as they have not, by the way, in these last eight years. You and I are both in agreement that that government is best which governs least. But by your plan, sir, the care of the poor and the needy must necessarily fall to government if you remove it from religion. Where, sir, is that going to be a smaller government? It will not be. Nay, sir, it is my experience – and that of any sensible man – that Man by necessity must be governed by either a power within him, or without of him – either by the word of God, or by the strong arm of Man, either by the Bible or the bayonet. You speak of men being able to choose freely how they will worship their Creator. My plan addresses that. Each person will be able to select to which denomination he wishes those monies to be applied for the betterment of all society.

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson: Mr. Henry, once more, if you will, your plan, your bill is a tax. Your bill is a bill of assessment. We are calling for a tax once more to be placed upon a certain religious opinion. That is that an individual is free to allow their tax monies, their supports, Mr. Henry, in essence a tithing, to be given to the church of their choice, and furthermore, Mr. Henry, a particular church, all encompassed it is the Protestant Christian Church, Mr. Henry. This ignores the Catholic and their equal opportunity, their right, their freedom in nature and nature’s God to put forth monies for the support of their churches, their cathedrals. Mr. Henry, it ignores the Hebrew, as well, to be allowed to put forth money to the support of their temples. Now, I will agree, Mr. Henry, that you have a point that an individual – should they desist from putting forth their money to the support of Protestant Christian churches – may be able to put their monies to the support of academies of learning, and I am very much in favor of that. And, Mr. Henry, you know well though that is not mentioned in my Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, in my bill numbered 79 For the General Diffusion of Knowledge I do allow for the erection of school houses all throughout Virginia for the people to be free to put forth their monies for the support of a common curriculum that may be attended to by the poor as well as the wealthy, the female as well as the male, but this is separate entirely from the object of religion. And this is why, Mr. Henry, again, my bill does not deny nor prohibit any people, any church, any congregation to support their poor houses and asylums or to support academies of learning should they choose. And indeed if the people see fit to support asylums and poor houses, they certainly are free to do so within their native vicinities. In fact, amongst the various revisals of the ancient monarchical code of Virginia, Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Wythe and myself have suggested that the public be free to put forth monies for the erection of poor houses, that this is necessary in the maintenance of a civil society. So, no Mr. Henry, do not think that my effort to dislodge the ecclesiastical law with the civil authority is an effort to deny the people the right to support asylums, poor houses, or institutions of learning.

Henry: Mr. Jefferson, you are deceiving our countrymen who are listening to us at this present time. You speak as though there are vast numbers of Catholics and Hebrews within our country – there are not, sir! I’d be much surprised if there be two dozen Catholics; I know of one Hebrew only in the entirety of the Commonwealth. Now at such time in future as their numbers increase – and I pray that they will – why then, they, too, will be able to put monies forth towards the religions of their own choosing.

Jefferson: Ahhhh….

Henry: But recall, sir, here in Virginia, this great country of Virginia was established not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religion but on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for that reason alone people of other faiths do have the freedom to worship here. I’ll remind you too, sir, that it was in this city of Williamsburg, in 1776 when we created the most important document ever conceived by mankind – with the exception of the Holy Writ itself. I speak of the Virginia Declaration of Rights – God-given rights, that cannot be taken away by government at any time in future. Now, the chief architect of that bill, as you know full well, was our close friend Colonel George Mason. However, I, sir, authored article 16, which specifically deals with religion, and these words are mine, and I quote, “that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.” It does not say specifically or exclusively “Protestants” – all persons, but at this time, sir, the numbers of those who are not Protestant cannot sustain any change in my bill.

Jefferson: Mr. Henry, I might remind you that Colonel Mason’s Bill of Rights is want to find in its last article precisely what you said but as well extended to Christian principles, I believe is mentioned therein. Mr. Henry, we have more in common than you might think. I do not deny the virtue, the morals of Christian principles, and yet it is not the duty of our government, it is not the duty of any bill of rights to assert that one particular religious opinion should be held over any others. Mr. Henry, you make mention that we have been founded as a Christian nation, should we not make more sense to say that this land has been settled by so many, so many who have sought these shores as a promised land, those of the oppressed kingdoms of Europe and about the globe, who have come here, sir, to prosper, to pursue their happiness, let alone the acquisition of property and to provide influence accordingly. No, Mr. Henry, shall oppressed humanity find no asylum upon this globe – Christian or otherwise? Mr. Henry, who provides such an asylum here in now these United States of America, we all agree, yes, our Creator, Divine Providence. But, Mr. Henry, we should not assume that as the [head of the] family of man He is to recognize one particular religious opinion over another. He is the God of all. And, so, we are blessed here, as His family of Man, there has been no greater representation of such a diversity of this family than here now in these United States of America, Mr. Henry. And though you say there may not be so many Catholics here in Virginia, nor so many Hebrews, Mr. Henry, let us venture northwards beyond the north border of Virginia into Maryland, and what will we see – a predominance of Catholics settled there. And who is to say that there may be far many more Hebrews in the city of Philadelphia or the city New York than we are to see certainly in Norfolk or Richmond. And what shall happen in time? Well, Mr. Henry, upon that point we are agreed. Should there become more Catholics settled here in Virginia, more Hebrews, well then you say and I agree, well then yes, the citizen body should have their opinion and their vote recognized. And there under your bill of assessment surely they might support their own cathedrals, their own temples. Mr. Henry, I believe we should recognize these are the United States of America. We are governed by one federal system for our protection, our safety, a system of taxation relative to the preservation of the two former. And as with you, Mr. Henry, I am very much opposed to allowing our federal system to grow any further beyond that, for we are both agreed, should the people allow it, sir, should we allow it, we might create our government to become a business unto itself, which will surely require more taxes in order to support it. I am in favor of the maintenance of the states and their rights accordingly, the maintenance of their political economy, but Mr. Henry, we cannot deny that we were 13 individual nations that came together not only for our common safety and defense, 13 individual nations came together for the common good. And, therefore, though there might not be so many Catholics or Hebrews here in Virginia, let us recognize that it is a natural right, it should be incorporate in a Bill of Rights for all of our states that every individual has the right to pursue their religious opinion as they choose and that no tax, no assessment should be drawn from the people to support one particular church, or one particular religious opinion over another. Again, Mr. Henry, I reiterate, if we allow it, we will be going backwards instead of moving forwards for the benefit of Man.

Henry: Again, Mr. Jefferson, you are deceiving our listeners. For, you speak as though with my assessment bill, or with your bill for religious freedom, we are determining the course for our sister states. This we are not doing, sir. ’Tis true that we are bound together in this time of emergency just recent passed in a confederacy, but I will ever hold, sir, that Virginia is a free, independent, and sovereign nation unto herself. Our assessment bill dictates only the course of Virginia in future – not of Maryland, or Rhode Island, or any other place.

Jefferson: Mr. Henry, I am purporting that the right of an individual to carry their religious opinion freely is a natural right. And therefore I am purporting that as Virginia was the first on the 15th of May, 1776 to proclaim itself free and independent of Great Britain, you, sir, were there in the venerable House of Burgesses, while I seated in Philadelphia heard this resolution but a week and a half later that Virginia might stand accordingly at the forefront for religious freedom, again, Mr. Henry, do we not both speak on behalf of a freedom for religion. And, therefore, we do have much in common. And, yes, Mr. Henry I am in the belief that as a child of 14 cannot wear the same clothes at the age of 40, our laws and institutions should grow as we grow as a people. So, therefore let us maintain now that no tax should be taken of the people without their will, and to be expended upon the purporting and the establishing, the securing of one religious opinion. But rather that we simply protect and defend the right of all to carry their communion with their Maker as they should choose.

Henry: You sound to me sometimes, Mr. Jefferson, in your ranting, that you seem that we should have a society where there is no taxation of any sort. You certainly cannot believe that taxation is not necessary…

Jefferson: …I said, Mr. Henry…

Henry: …government must keep the peace, protect property, and secure rights…

Jefferson: Precisely, this is what I had been mentioning, that taxes should be taken of the citizen body solely to protect them in their person and their property – not in their opinion. Mr. Henry, may I say, how can any legislative body legislate opinion? Make a law telling an individual what they must think? Mr. Henry, if a people allow so, then what is next – laws telling the people how they should dress, what they should say, or, Mr. Henry, laws telling the people what they should not say?

Henry: It is the duty of government, sir, to protect people from injury, quite so, quite so. And how better than by educating our people, and especially those young persons in our society, to morality and virtue, where else will they get such education but through religion?

Jefferson: (Scoffs) Mr. Henry, again, I believe a people may be moral, they may be virtuous, not only through the support of their religious opinions but as well through a trust in their fellow man – having faith in their fellow man. Mr. Henry I believe the two of us are well agreed that faith is not faith without believing. And, I will tell you, as you already know, but that our friends might know as well, when I am pushed to the point of what my own particular religious opinion may be, which I consider to be no one else’s business, well, then, at time, I have been forced to reply, I, indeed, am a Christian. A Christian in the only way that Jesus ever wanted us to be – sincerely devoted to His precepts in preference to all others, and recognizing Christianity as a code of conduct amongst men, not as a theory of the universe. I do have faith, Mr. Henry, I have great faith in my fellow man, great trust that we might move forward together as a beacon light for the rest of the world, for would you not agree that already this American experiment, the victory of our Revolution has begun to shake the foundations of ancient monarchies across the globe? I hope that we might show the world a greater evidence that we may truly live in peace and in trust with one another here in this novus ordo seclorum.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past and Present for now. We hope you have enjoyed listening to the Independence podcasts these last three weeks as much as we have enjoyed presenting them. The separation between church and state was one of the earlier arguments of our independence. It is still not completely settled. Join us next week on where we’ll post more for you to download and hear.


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