On Patrick Henry: An Interview with Thomas Kidd
Every American who finished elementary school knows that Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But there was more to the man than one great speech. In Patrick Henry: First among Patriots (Basic, 2011), Thomas S. Kidd reintroduces us to one of the most important leaders among the Founding Fathers. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Prof. Kidd about his helpful new biography. I’m thankful for his willingness to share his expertise on Henry and the founding generation with readers of this blog.
Kidd serves as an associate professor of history at Baylor University, where he is also a senior fellow for the Institute for the Studies of Religion. He is a prolific author with expertise in American religious history and the colonial and revolutionary eras. His other books include God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic, 2010), American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press, 2008), The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2007), and The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (Yale University Press, 2004).
Nathan Finn: Most of what you’ve written before now has been in the field of American religious history. What led you to branch out and write a biography of Patrick Henry?
Thomas Kidd: Henry appears in my Great Awakening book as well as God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, so it was not too much of a stretch to write a biography of him. Henry was the most outspoken Christian among the major Founders, and I was fascinated by the idea of writing a focused study of a well-known Founder about whom there is no question about the seriousness of his faith. Of course, since I work in the history department at Baylor, I routinely get to teach on American political and military history topics, so perhaps that eased the transition as well.
NAF: When we think about the Founding Fathers from Virginia who most influenced early American history, we tend to think of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Why do you think Henry frequently ranks behind these men in our historical memory?
TSK: Although many people know Henry for his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech of 1775, he is less well-known than these other Virginia Founders. That undoubtedly has to do with positions that Henry took after the American Revolution in opposition to Madison and Jefferson, and in the case of the Constitution, to Washington as well. First, Henry believed in continuing public support for Virginia’s churches, while Jefferson and Madison pushed for Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), under which the state would stop giving direct financial assistance to any denomination. Henry believed that faith was indispensible to the life of the republic, so he thought the churches deserved tax support. This was, of course, the traditional approach of most of the colonies, including Virginia, as well as mother England, which still has the established Church of England today. But Jefferson and Madison, with the support of many Baptist evangelicals, argued instead for putting religion on a voluntary basis, which in the long run helped to strengthen American Christianity by requiring churches to compete for adherents.
Then, in 1787–88, Henry became Virginia’s leading opponent of the Constitution. Americans today have a hard time understanding why Patriots such as Henry and Samuel Adams opposed the Constitution, butit is not difficult to see Henry’s logic. To him, the American Revolution was an uprising against strong centralized government power in Britain. Ten years later, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were trying to centralize the American government, too, giving it major new powers, including the dreaded authority to tax. Henry thought this was a betrayal of the principles that animated the Revolution.
So on these two issues, religion and the Constitution, Henry took positions that may seem peculiar today, but I think Henry’s views give us a better understanding of the contest between Founders to implement American independence. His positions illuminate paths not taken.
NAF: Many contemporary conservatives resonate with Jefferson’s views about states rights, limited government, etc. Do you think Henry is also a role model for contemporary political conservatives?
TSK: In a way, Henry is a better role model than Jefferson for political conservatives because he was so thoroughly committed to limited government. Jefferson was in Paris in 1787–88 and never took a clear position on ratifying the Constitution. And Jefferson certainly did things as President that belie his reputation for favoring limited government. Where modern-day conservatives would balk at Henry, however, is his fundamental opposition to the Constitution. Conservatives today often say that our failure to abide by the Constitution has caused our political problems and the out-of-control size of government. Henry predicted that the Constitution itself, especially by granting Congress the power to tax, would allow the national government to become a monster.
NAF: So if Henry opposed Jefferson and Madison on disestablishment, did he not believe in religious liberty? Did Virginia Baptists appreciate Henry like they did those other political leaders?
TSK: Henry was a beloved figure for Virginia Baptists through the 1760s and 1770s, because Henry reportedly defended Virginia Baptists imprisoned for illegal preaching, and may have even bailed out a preacher or two at his own expense. Henry also helped Madison write the sixteenth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), which guaranteed Virginians freedom from persecution on the basis of religious beliefs. So Henry certainly believed in religious liberty, in the sense that no one should suffer penalties or disadvantages because they do not comply with the established state denomination’s doctrines. But he did not believe that religious liberty required the government to stop giving tax support to churches.
In 1784 Henry proposed a “general assessment for religion” as an alternative to Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom. Henry’s general assessment would have allowed taxpayers to designate a church of their choice to receive their religious tax. Therefore, Henry would have moved to a system of Christian pluralism (as opposed to exclusive support for the Church of England, or Episcopal Church, as it was called after the war) but he would have maintained public support for religion. This was not only to bolster their purely religious functions, but the churches in the Revolutionary period were the chief agencies of education and social welfare in Virginia — Henry thought that dropping support for the churches was a strike against virtue and learning in the state. The Baptists disagreed, having fresh memories of the official religious persecution that lasted into the early 1770s. They thought that government involvement necessarily corrupted religion. So on this issue they fell out with their old friend Henry.
NAF: Was Patrick Henry an evangelical in the sense we think of that term today?
TSK: Henry had a deep family background in the Great Awakening of the 1740s in Virginia, as his mother would take him to the revival meetings of Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies, and reportedly required him to repeat the biblical text and essence of the sermon to her on the wagon ride home. I do not know for sure whether Henry ever had a conversion experience, in which he consciously asked Christ to forgive his sins and to be his Savior and Lord. This may have happened, but no documentation of it survives (and we should remember that the documentary record of Henry’s life is relatively paltry—he just didn’t save much of his personal papers). One relative also recalled that Philip Doddridge’s evangelical classic The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul was Henry’s favorite religious book. If that is true, then we could probably classify Henry as an evangelical.
NAF: Besides your biography, what other books would recommend to those who might be interested in learning more about Patrick Henry?
TSK: One would be the first biography of Henry, William Wirt’s Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817), which helped to secure Henry’s reputation as the greatest orator of the American Revolution, and which re-created the “Liberty or Death” speech from recollections of people who were present on the occasion (the original text of the speech, amazingly, did not survive). A modern book would be Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010), which paints in vivid colors the efforts of Henry and other Anti-Federalists to derail the Constitution, and James Madison and the Federalists’ work to save it.