Most Americans (I suppose, perhaps too optimistically) can identify, “Give me liberty or give me death!” as the words of Patrick Henry. Leaving aside the question of whether those were his precise words delivered during the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, how many Americans know what Mr. Henry did after the Revolution?
The answer is necessary background to this fanciful conversation between Henry and George Washington in King’s Arms Tavern, in which they discuss holding political office in the context of duty and patriotism.
Serving in the First Continental Congress, Patrick Henry certainly seemed like a nationalist when he stood and declared, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
The truth proved to be more complicated. Henry largely departed the national stage when he resigned from Congress in 1775 to take up his short-lived position heading Virginia’s military forces.
But Henry didn’t exactly descend into obscurity; far from it. He was Virginia’s first governor after independence, serving a total of five terms. He continued to serve in the House of Burgesses. In 1787 he declined an invitation to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, famously explaining, “I smelt a rat.”
He was a powerful dissenting voice during the ratification of the Constitution, arguing vehemently against the consolidation of power in a centralized government and for the protection of individual rights. That, of course, was a battle he lost. But he made his peace the new charter, and while he continued to harbor reservations, he was a constant public servant.
After retiring for good from government in 1791, he retreated to his home and family. One might say his return home bore some resemblance to a certain general’s retirement to Mount Vernon after the war.
George Washington gave in to the call to return as president. In 1795, Washington began urging Henry to heed the call to return to public service. In quick succession Henry declined appointments to the U.S. Senate, ambassador to Spain, and secretary of state.
Decades after he first rose to prominence, Patrick Henry was still valued—and the reasons were partly political. In the mid-1790s, America’s first substantial opposition party, the Democratic Republicans, was gaining adherents. Led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, they proposed an alternative direction to the course being charted by the Federalists.
Both parties had much to gain by having Patrick Henry in their fold. Thomas Jefferson, for one, expressed doubt about the sincerity of the job offers coming Henry’s way, opining to James Monroe that “He has been offered every thing which they knew he would not accept.”
Indeed, Henry turned down every single offer. He was even approached about an appointment to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. But Henry refused every offer. His own health, as well as that of his family, weighed on him. He chose to retire and, unlike Washington, the American Cincinnatus, he stuck to it.
So, in this age of disgust with career politicians, how do we weigh Patrick Henry’s choice. Is it admirable to turn down George Washington himself? Did he sacrifice another level of fame for his suspicion of the Constitution? These are interesting questions, because if “we the people” are truly in charge, then do we have room for demi-gods?
We rightly revere dedication to honor and duty. Patrick Henry’s stand at very least gives us another way to think about what those words mean in a republic.