by Senator H.L. “Bill” Richardson [ret.]
On a recent, hot August day, a workman came to my home to repair my refrigerator. It had shamefully forgotten how to make ice cubes. The young man seemed to be a bright young fellow in his early thirty's. In no time at all, he finished the job and with a smile, handed me the bill, which I gladly paid.
As he was leaving, we talked about politics. Somehow, the subject of our constitutional forefathers came up and I mentioned that I was thinking of writing about Patrick Henry --- he then asked, “Who's he?”
That set me back a bit. To me, that's like asking a fellow Californian where the Pacific Ocean was and he replied “he’d never heard if it.”
Unfortunately, it was just another sad example on how poorly our young are educated on American history.
Are we adult Americans so foolish as to think there's no corollary, no relationship, no bridge of ideas between what our Founding Fathers thought -- and the great Constitution they created for us?
I hope not, since America’s future depends upon our understanding and remembering what Christian thoughts guided these men. We became the most powerful nation because of the moral ideas of our forefathers cherished, not in spite of them.
One of the giants was Patrick Henry, whose inspiring and incendiary words fanned the fire of freedom in the hearts of his fellow Americans. It all started in church on March 20, 1775.
The threat of revolution was in the winter air. The British-appointed governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had angrily dissolved the Virginia legislature. But the duly elected Virginia legislators chose to meet anyway. They chose to gather in St. John’s Church in Richmond, safely away from the state capitol in Williamsburg, and the British troops under the command of Lord Dunmore. The subject to be discussed was the looming threat of war with the world’s most powerful army and navy. Legislators in attendance were fearful and desirous of continued discussions with King George; others were not.
All listened intently to the words spoken, as did George Washington, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson. Finally, Patrick Henry rose and spoke “the words heard around the world.”
“Mr. President, no man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as the abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the house. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to these gentlemen, if entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.
“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery. And in proportion to the magnitude of the subject, ought to be the freedom of debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country.
“Should I keep back my opinions at such a time through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself guilty of treason toward my country, and an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings."
“Mr. President, it is natural for a man to indulge in the allusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth -- and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?
“For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it might cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and to provide for it. I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify these hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the house? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition have been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet."
“Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception to our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work and love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love?"
“Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation -- the last arguments which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long foraging."
“And what have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned -- we have remonstrated -- we have supplicated -- we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrance's have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne."
“In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation? There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free -- if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending -- if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained -- we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that's left us!"
“They tell us, sir, that we are weak -- unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?
“Sir, we are not weak, if we make the proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave."
“Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat, but submission and slavery! Our chains are forged, their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable -- and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!!!"
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace -- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is there that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God! I know what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
To the reader, it’s worthwhile reading again. I have done so many, many times. I marvel at the power of Henry’s words and his call on God's assistance. This famous speech stirs this American's heart to the core. I hope it does yours as well.
Patrick Henry was a follower of Christ and a firm believer in the “Providential Hand” in the affairs of men.
He also said the following: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been offered asylum, prosperity, and freedom to worship here.”
The thoughts, actions and the morals of our forefathers must be taught once more in our public schools. As Patrick Henry said, “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.”