Patrick Henry

THERE was a time when American schoolboys “ spoke pieces.” From a cursory examination of such speakers and books of selection as are now published, we should say that a change had come over the general custom ; that there was a good deal of tawdry rhetoric and cheap humor in place of the oldtime stirring patriotic passages. Possibly an explanation may be found in the disappearance of the old oratorical school, and the rise of more matter-of-fact and business-like appeals. Be this as it may, the declamations of American youth thirty or forty years ago were of a passionate order, and those orators were drawn from chiefly who had heated the iron words of opposition to tyranny to a white heat. The war for independence left a legacy of fervid speeches, and of them all none was so popular as that of Patrick Henry’s in which occurs the splendid burst beginning, “ Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope,” and closing with the words, “ We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us.”

This speech and others of Henry’s came down to young Americans, accompanied by traditions of the orator’s power of delivery which represented it as something transcending description. To those who read the book, Mr. Wirt’s biography seemed always struggling to set upright the colossal figure of Patrick Henry the orator, and the impression which the Virginian undoubtedly made upon his contemporaries was so magnified in the clouds of Mr. Wirt’s rhetoric, by which chiefly it was conveyed to the imaginations of later generations, that Henry was scarcely thought of except as a fiery man who spoke pieces.

Patrick Henry’s fame as an orator will not be lessened by the latest biography 1 which has appeared; it will rather be increased, because his power over men is reaffirmed and proved by many cogent instances, and his oratory is shown to be a less erratic and more stable element in his nature, — to be set in the midst of so much variety of mental gifts as to take hue from them, and not to be some exceptional, unaccountable manifestation. Mr. Tyler has set himself the task, not of demonstrating that Henry was a great orator, but that he was a statesman, and has succeeded amply in justifying his title to the one name without loss of his claim to the other.

We think it fortunate that Mr. Tyler should have come after Mr. Wirt. The earlier writer not only saved for the later some biographic details which might have been lost, he also preëmpted the rhetorical domain of the subject; and whereas Mr. Tyler, as evidenced by his History of American Literature, might easily have “ dropped into poetry ” in his work on Patrick Henry, though we do not believe he ever would have been such a spendthrift of emotions as Mr. Wirt, we suspect he has painted Henry’s portrait in a lower tone than he would have chosen if he had not had Wirt for a warning example.

Be this as it may, — and we prefer to think that, with added experience, Mr. Tyler looks a little askance at the somewhat undisciplined ardor of his own two volumes; else why is he so late in giving us the rest ? — it certainly can be said of Patrick Henry that the book is a studied attempt at accurate statement, and not a tour de force of brilliancy. Mr. Tyler has sought, with praiseworthy industry, for every scrap of printed matter or document which would throw light upon Henry’s career, and has built up from carefully sifted material a durable and reasonable historical figure. His familiarity with the period embraced by Patrick Henry’s life has enabled him to see the Virginian in his relations, but he has not overburdened the reader by too detailed a narrative of the surroundings of his subject. His main object has been to give solid form and sharp outline in place of vague, traditionary impressions ; and we think that no character in the series of American Statesmen owes more to its interpreter than Patrick Henry owes to Mr. Tyler, for he now for the first time really stands forth, distinct, unmistakable, and of life size, instead of being indefinitely heroic, — a great gain, we conceive.

The first service which Mr. Tyler performs is to define the limits of Henry’s alleged illiteracy. We may remark, by the way, that our restorer of Henry’s figure is constantly tracing the disfiguring brush to the hands of Thomas Jefferson. It was partly to Jefferson’s slur, but quite as much to the natural disposition for sharp antithesis, that the popular notion of Henry’s early illiteracy is due. To find a great natural orator is always more gratifying than to be obliged to refer splendid achievements to training and practice. Patrick Henry’s native genius for oratory was unquestionable, but he was no merely impassioned backwoodsman. His oratory was like the poetry of a man who has had no thorough academic training ; it discloses the power of a man who can appropriate whatever comes within reach, and turn the results of even desultory reading into a force which is mighty by the side of the expression of a man ten times more learned, but whose learning is a dry accumulation of unrelated facts. Many an Oxford or Cambridge scholar could have passed with ease a tough examination paper, when Keats might only have blundered through a question or two; but when it came to writing odes on Grecian urns, — that was another matter.

Mr. Tyler’s sympathy with his subject and his intelligent appreciation of the conditions of Virginian life enable him to read with clearness and reasonable understanding the facts of Henry’s early life. “What,” he asks, “is the intellectual record ” of the nine years which elapsed between the time of his leaving school, at the age of fifteen, and the beginning of his study of the law ? It is upon his habits during these years that most of the weight of the charge of illiteracy appears to fall. “ It is obvious,” he replies, “ that they were years unfavorable to systematic training of any sort, or to any regulated acquisition of knowledge. During all that time in his life, as we now look back upon it, he has for us the aspect of some lawless, unkempt genius, in untoward circumstances, groping in the dark, not without wild joy, towards his inconceivable, true vocation ; set to tasks for which he was grotesquely unfit; blundering on from misfortune to misfortune, with an overflow of unemployed energy and vivacity that swept him often into rough fun, into great gusts of innocent riot and horse-play; withal borne along, for many days together, by the mysterious undercurrents of his nature, into that realm of reverie where the soul feeds on immortal fruit and communes with unseen associates, the body, meanwhile, being left to the semblance of idleness: of all which the man himself might have given this valid justification : —

' I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.’

Nevertheless, these nine years of groping, blundering, and seeming idleness were not without their influence on his intellectual improvement, even through direct contact with books. While still a boy in his teens, and put prematurely to uncongenial attempts at shop-keeping and farm-keeping, he at any rate made the great discovery that in books and in the gathering of knowledge from books could be found solace and entertainment; in short, he then acquired a taste for reading. No one pretends that Patrick Henry ever became a bookish person. From the first and always the habit of his mind was that of direct action upon every subject that he had to deal with, through his own reflection and along the broad primary lines of common sense. There is never in his thought anything subtle or recondite, — no mental movement through the media of books; but there is good evidence for saying that this bewildered and undeveloped youth, drifting about in chaos, did in those days actually get a taste for reading, and that he never lost it.”

In similar spirit Mr. Tyler disposes of the fiction that Henry was a briefless barrister. He shows conclusively, by means of the young lawyer’s fee-books which have come to light since Wirt’s biography was written, that so far from having to struggle into business, and to wait for clients, Henry, in the earliest years of his profession, was exceedingly busy; far busier, indeed, than Jefferson, who had been more thoroughly equipped for practice. He received a great impulse from the famous Parsons Cause, as it is called, in which Henry took the popular side, and by his impassioned eloquence carried the jury with him, when, as Mr. Tyler clearly believes, both law and fairness were with the opposite party. Mr. Tyler, in his treatment of this part of his subject, shows a true biographic instinct; for while he recites the facts in the case coolly and without partisanship, he uses the opportunity for bringing out more clearly the relations which Henry held to his neighbors, and his character as seen under the strong light of this incident in his life. The law, we have said, was on the side of the parsons, but we think Mr. Tyler has not emphasized sufficiently the general spirit of antagonism to the church establishment which made the community deaf to the demands of justice.

In following Patrick Henry through the early years of his public life, Mr. Tyler shows great skill in justifying the popular impression of Patrick Henry’s stirring eloquence by bringing together all the scraps of contemporaneous narrative which bear upon his hero’s part in Congress and convention, and at the same time pricking the bubbles blown by Mr. Wirt regarding the same period. He easily convinces the reader that he is not constructing an imaginary Henry, but patiently arranging the bits of evidence. It is not so much, however, in the proper habilitation of Henry as an orator that Mr. Tyler shows his honesty and skill as in the disclosure of those more homely traits of executive faculty which explain why Patrick Henry should have been constantly called to posts where oratory would be very much in the way, and plain sense the most desirable attribute. By diligent search and comparison of records he shows conclusively that Patrick Henry was always a working member on committees which called for hard-headed business understanding, and that his associates, who ought to have known what he was good for, did not save him for great oratorical exhibitions. They made him first governor of the State of Virginia, and twice afterward elected him to the same office.

The most interesting passage in this interesting book is that in which Patrick Henry’s attitude toward the work of the constitutional convention is discussed at length. From being a champion of the Federal cause, Henry became suddenly its chief antagonist. He opposed the confirmation of the Constitution in the Virginia convention, and when he lost his case applied himself with renewed energy to securing the passage of the amendments. At the time, and in the passion of political strife, Henry was vehemently accused of inconsistency. The full history of his course shows him faithful to his convictions throughout, but in order to make this clear Mr. Tyler finds himself compelled to see the contest from Henry’s point of view ; and in doing this he has achieved a brilliant success, for he has accomplished the difficult feat of restating political problems as they appeared to those engaged in deciding them, while at the same time keeping the historic proportions as conceived by a later generation.

It sometimes happens that a very pressing political question, one which taxes the minds of men to whom it is immediate and vital, becomes by its solution so completely lost out of the number of political forces as to fade into comparative obscurity. Such is the case with the question of the rights to the navigation of the Mississippi. John Jay, as secretary for foreign affairs in 1786, proposed a treaty with Spain, one article of which surrendered the navigation of the Mississippi for twenty-five or thirty years. There was a distinct possibility that the Northern States, for the sake of securing certain advantages of foreign commerce, might force such action upon Congress. In the prevalent sectional jealousy which prevailed, all sorts of schemes were imagined, and correspondents were busy detailing plots and counterplots. It is very clear from the action of legislatures and the debates which took place in Congress that this project for bartering away the right to the Mississippi was no chimera, and hence it becomes necessary to take it into account when attempting to explain the political action of men at the time when it was a leading question. To us, to-day, the main issue of the constitutional debate was between a loose confederacy and a strong union; that was the main issue then, but it was complicated by such considerations as this of the navigation of the Mississippi, which we are obliged to reach by historical study and imagination, since they have left no trace in our current political thought.

It is for this reason that we think Mr. Tyler shows himself at his best when he comes to set forth Patrick Henry’s part in the great struggle over the Constitution. He does not inform the reader whether or not he thinks Henry took a somewhat blind and unphilosophical view of the situation; he does not sum up the succeeding events for the purpose of weighing the arguments for and against Henry’s position ; but he takes a dramatic delight in following his character as it shows itself in successive emergencies, and in watching the splendid fight which his hero makes for the cause into which he had flung himself. He describes with special ardor Patrick Henry’s immense labors in the Virginia convention. After reciting the names of Madison, Pendleton, Marshall, Wythe, Lee, and others who defended the Constitution, he proceeds: —

£i Against all this array of genius, learning, character, logical acumen, and eloquence, Patrick Henry held the field as protagonist for twenty-three days, — his chief lieutenants in the fight being Mason, Grayson, and John Dawson, with occasional help from Harrison, Monroe, and Tyler. Upon him alone fell the brunt of the battle. Out of the twenty-three days of that splendid tourney, there were but five days in which he did not take the floor. On each of several days he made three speeches ; on one day he made five speeches ; on another day, eight. In one speech alone he was on his legs for seven hours. The words of all who had any share in that debate were taken down, according to the imperfect art of the time, by the stenographer, David Robertson, whose reports, however, are said to be little more than a pretty full outline of the speeches actually made ; but in the volume which contains these abstracts, one of Patrick Henry’s speeches fills eight pages, another ten pages, another sixteen, another twenty-one, another forty ; while, in the aggregate, his speeches constitute nearly one quarter of the entire book of six hundred and sixty-three pages.

“ Any one who has fallen under the impression, so industriously propagated by the ingenious enmity of Jefferson’s old age, that Patrick Henry was a man of but meagre information and of extremely slender intellectual resources, ignorant especially of law, of political science, and of history, totally lacking in logical power and in precision of statement, with nothing to offset these deficiencies excepting a strange gift of overpowering, dithyrambic eloquence, will find it hard, as he turns over the leaves on which are recorded the debates of the Virginia convention, to understand just how such a person could have made the speeches which are there attributed to Patrick Henry, or how a mere rhapsodist could have thus held his ground, in close hand-to-hand combat, for twenty-three days, against such antagonists, on all the difficult subjects of law, political science, and history involved in the Constitution of the United States, while showing, at the same time, every quality of good generalship as a tactician and as a party leader.”

The whole story of this struggle, and then of the retirement into private life which followed, with its affecting close, is told with a fine sense of its dramatic properties and the contrasting repose. We think Mr. Tyler might have gone further, and drawn a fair inference that the neglect of Patrick Henry, the disposition to exaggerate his oratorical powers and to think of them almost exclusively in connection with the early days of the struggle for independence, are due largely to the position which he took in the question of the Constitution. History has made him even more in the minority than he was then, for the victory of the constitutional party has relegated its opponents very considerably into semi-obscurity. Henry, moreover, was not one of the Virginian noblesse, and the depreciation which he met with at the hands of Jefferson was a part of a general disposition to regard him as an unpleasant and very troublesome man of the people. The Virginian aristocracy holds so brilliant a position in the early years of the republic that the virtues of so uncompromising a democrat as Henry have been allowed to suffer some eclipse. Mr. Tyler’s book will do a great deal toward giving Patrick Henry his rightful place among American statesmen.

  1. Patrick Henry. By MOSES COIT TYLER. [American Statesmen Series.] Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.