Did Patrick Henry ever do anything he's credited with?
June 12, 2005 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Did Patrick Henry ever do anything he's credited with? Especially all those stirring phrases that he is supposed to have said. I read in Made in America by Bill Bryson that Patrick Henry had been rather uninteresting buffoon but that a later biographer had claimed that he said all these great things.

Wikipedia has the standard story, and everywhere else my google-fu has taken me. Is Bill Bryson full of it or is the myth so entrenched that no amount of truth can dislodge it?
posted by Kattullus to Society & Culture (17 answers total)
Is Bill Bryson full of it? Well, I haven't read anything he's said to have written or heard anything someone wrote down that he said, so I am not competent to report responsibility on the fullness of his bovine excreta, viz the historiographum.

The unwieldiness of the previous sentence is just a beginning of the treat you have in store for you if you want an overly scientific answer to a historical question.

My personal answer is that myth and reality are identical given enough distance and time. You can't even remember what happend to you yesterday with any kind of accuracy or precision (unless you are quite an exceptional being).

We do know, that Patrick Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and that the Public Records of the Dominion of Virignia exist and are available. Two places you might want to do your own research are:

the latter of which are the private papers of one Thos. Jefferson of Monticello.

Did Patrick Henry ever do anything he's credite with? Yes. He died, He served in the House of Burgesses, and was credited by his contemporaries as a fine example of Virginia Oratory (but not in the same breath as Madison and Jefferson or even Monroe). Sounds to me (being completely unread in it) that Bryson is going to need a much better biographer to even approach the buffonistic state that Mr. Henry acheived in his lifetime.
posted by Dr. Grue at 12:28 PM on June 12, 2005

I suppose I should clarify. Bryson says that none of the widely attributed Patrick Henry quotes, such as the whole "give me liberty or give me death" speech, were in fact made up after the fact by a 19th century biographer.

Oh, and I loved the first paragraph, Dr. Grue :)
posted by Kattullus at 12:55 PM on June 12, 2005

Especially all those stirring phrases that he is supposed to have said.

"Give me liberty or give me death" is part of what one site calls Patrick Henry's "The War Inevitable" speech of March 23, 1775. The entire text can be found on this Yale University page.

So if that is one of the stirring phrases you had in mind, then it is indeed real. (Which isn't to say that other phrases attributed to him are also real, but you might want to actually list examples in question, here, for further feedback.)
posted by WestCoaster at 4:39 PM on June 12, 2005

WestCoaster: I know. I've read the speech. The point is, in Made in America Bryson said that this whole speech had been made up from whole cloth by a later biographer. That there are no records of it until this biographer published it, years later.
posted by Kattullus at 5:56 PM on June 12, 2005

Is Bill Bryson full of it or is the myth so entrenched that no amount of truth can dislodge it?

can you quote what bryson says? Is he definitely not being funny or something? via google, I also get the standard story, and the idea of a myth being 'so entrenched that no amount of truth can dislodge it' doesn't even really make sense to me. Then how would we, or bryson, know it was truth? If bryson has a source that makes this case, then we should all be able to access it and determine for ourselves whether henry was the speech writer, or whether some later anonymous biographer randomly decided to write fictional stirring speeches and attribute them to uninteresting buffoons.

I would be skeptical of the claim given that it doesn't even seem to be mentioned by the dozens of online sources that refer to patrick henry. However, there are a lot of things that don't make it onto the internet, so you could try seeking it in a library, or perhaps calling/writing to an american history dept at a local university. But first I would check whether bryson cites a source...
posted by mdn at 6:14 PM on June 12, 2005

mdn: The problem is that I don't have the book. I remember that chapter pretty well though. He's definitely not being funny. He debunks a number of widely believed stories about the American Revolution.

Alright, a hunch and some Amazon-fu has netted me this book: Founding Myths by a guy called Ray Raphael, that also says the same thing (that Patrick never said "give me liberty" etc., but it's published later (2004) than Bryson's (1995).
posted by Kattullus at 6:39 PM on June 12, 2005

From an article by Ray Raphael:

More than we would like, our texts are based on warmed-over tales of the nineteenth century such as Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech (written by William Wirt in 1817, forty-two years after the fact)

I've been looking but I've yet to find anyone attacking this book as unfactual. Howard Zinn has warm praise for it:

Ray Raphael is at his iconoclastic best in this book, demolishing historical nonsense, suggesting a new patriotism based on truth rather than myth.
posted by Kattullus at 6:55 PM on June 12, 2005

Howard Zinn has warm praise for it

Yes, but Zinn is a professional debunker and deflator of myths. Whether that makes his version of things more accurate is arguable.

William Wirt's book is indeed the primary source for, apparently, most of Henry's speeches. In those days biography was, to be curt, not always indistinguishable from hagiography or propaganda; q.v. the myths about George Washington promulgated by Parson Weems in order to shape American thought about the man and, indeed, American character itself.

So it's entirely possible that Wirt, who had some of the same impulse, himself made up or embellished some or all of those speeches.

Probably the best overview of the problem is Mayo's 1959 Myths and Men: Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, though I'm unsure what has been obsoleted. Mayo seems to believe that Wirt was, for his day, at least proceeding according to what we now understand to be problematic but then considered indisputable oral history. Wirt's biography superseded Botta's wildly inventive history of the Revolution that had been the standard.

But. Wirt's reconstructions must have been, at least in part, rooted in reality -- some few of Henry's contemporaries would still have been around 42 years later. If not primary witnesses, then those who knew of his words by hearsay. Who was one of those contemporaries?

Thomas Jefferson, in his own autobiography, wrote:

When the famous Resolutions of 1765, against the Stamp-act, were proposed, I was yet a student of law in Wmsbg. I attended the debate however at the door of the lobby of the H. of Burgesses, & heard the splendid display of Mr. Henry's talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote. Mr. Johnson, a lawyer & member from the Northern Neck, seconded the resolns, & by him the learning & the logic of the case were chiefly maintained. My recollections of these transactions may be seen pa. 60, Wirt's life of P. H., to whom I furnished them. [Note: Later T.J. writes that Henry "was the laziest man in reading I ever knew"! But also praises his "poetical fancy" and "fervid declamation".]

So to some extent challenging Wirt means also challenging Jefferson. I don't know that we can consider Wirt's texts wholly authoritative, but I strongly suspect that phrases such as If this be treason, then make the most of it and Give me liberty or give me death, which are electrifying, are more likely the invention of a widely praised orator rather than a forgotten biographer. (They may also have been improved upon by the FOAF effect.) Are they specifically attested prior to 1817? That seems to be a problem. At least some contemporaries gave the general outline of Henry's major speeches, if not the precise wording. I think the evidence favors caution in either direction, and I think the historical record does support the idea that Henry was a natural-born stemwinder man, and no buffoon, as he was a trusted, central member of the revolutionary movement.

I can see that the Wikipedia entry really needs fleshing out. This is criminally brushed over.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 PM on June 12, 2005

(I wrote this last night but then couldn't get back online - so you've already gotten a satisfactory answer... figured I'd post it anyway since it's written)

hm, okay, this page says "some historians have speculated" that wirt created the speeches rather than, as he claimed, just writing them down for us... If we had no documented evidence of the speech until 40 years after it was given, that's a decent sign that the way it's written isn't word for word the way it was spoken. But on the other hand, 40 years is not so long that people wouldn't remember the original. Especially in a culture without speechwriters and television, where politicians actually came up with their own words, the big flourishes of the speech could easily have been remembered by many people, and only first published by Wirt, but still based on history.

What it sounds like to me is an alternative theory of history, like the way some ancient historians suggest that Socrates never really existed, but was a creation of Plato (and/or aristophanes/ xenophon.) Most historians are inclined to think there was someone named Socrates, whose life story may have been inexactly rendered in the writings about him, but who nonetheless got a fair description overall. But some historians have a more radical view.

This, too, seems to be a case where the majority think william wirt's biography is based on his having done research and collected the available information, though perhaps he had to recreate some speeches from various people's memories and so they're not exact. But then some historians (and Zinn is surely an example of a radical historian) think he went much further than that.

I'd suggest reading wiliam wirt, to get a sense of whether he comes across as a reasonable, careful writer trying to document what was said, or a romantic idealist with a flair for passionate phrases...
posted by mdn at 4:20 AM on June 13, 2005

Thanks dhartung! That's very informative. Especially the book Myths and Men. I see that Bernard Mayo, the author, wrote a biography of Jefferson. That would seem to make him somewhat of an authority.

One niggle:

I strongly suspect that phrases such as If this be treason, then make the most of it and Give me liberty or give me death, which are electrifying, are more likely the invention of a widely praised orator rather than a forgotten biographer

Wirt was a widely praised orator himself. Which makes all this a little bit harder. One thing I remember from Bill Bryson's book was that at the time Henry was supposed to have given the speech, nobody so much as thought to mention what he had said.

This quote, from Myths and Men, is pretty telling:

When he began it in 1805 he assured Jefferson that Henry's "faults as well as his virtues will be instructive, and I propose to myself to be his biographer, not his panegyrist." But this high resolve by good-hearted, sentimental William Wirt steadily weakened as he became more upset by "some ugly traits in Henry's character," as well as by lack of information on his career which left "some pretty nearly as ugly blanks." Finally he made his decision. He would fill in the blanks with "all the plaster of Paris" at his command. And as to Henry himself he would hold up to young men "the brighter side of his character, only, to imitation." He would make his Patrick Henry a "good text for a discourse on rhetoric, patriotism and morals."

I'm not an expert on rhetoric, but the phrase "give me liberty or give me death" has a 19th century Romantic ring to it rather than that of the 18th century Enlightenment. It's a brilliant piece of rhetoric though, no matter who wrote it.
posted by Kattullus at 5:04 AM on June 13, 2005

IndigoJones: These are all much later sources than Wirt. If we could find that independent source then I'd be becalmed ("becalmed"? God, I've been reading to much oratory). And what's with the umlaut over the 'a' in Patrick in that link, do you know?

mdn: Good point on the alternative theory of history. However, the Socrates theory is obvious claptrap. There are plenty of historical records of Socrates. As you mention Aristophanes and Xenophon talk about him extensively and he's mentioned elsewhere too. IIRC Aristoteles mentions him. However the only records of Socrates' arguments are in Plato, so much of what he says there is questionable. However, it's so long ago that there's no way of knowing. With Wirt and Henry there's a greater chance of getting closer to the truth. While two and a half centuries is a long time, it's not two and a half millenia.
posted by Kattullus at 5:32 AM on June 13, 2005

I think the safest thing to do with any such quotes not recorded at the time in indisputable fashion (eg, Gettysburg Address) is to assume the speaker said something similar but the exact words may have been improved. This is taken for granted with ancient history (the speeches in Thucydides) but should be applied much more generally. Still, it's a long (and indefensible) step from "we can never know the exact words" to "we can never know anything, history is bunk."

Also, bear in mind that Bryson is primarily a humorist, so his instinct is to take something like "the quotes may have been improved or fabricated by a biographer" and turn it into "Patrick Henry was an uninteresting buffoon!" Which is fun if you don't treat it as anything more than a comedian's shtick.
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on June 13, 2005

Languagehat: You're selling Bryson short. Yes he's funny but he's not just a comedian. Mother Tongue and Made in America especially are what one could call the works of a gentleman scholar. Sure they're often laugh out loud funny but he's primarily writing a layman's guide to linguistic history. And there's a difference between reconstituting from memory and making up from whole cloth. As I said about Socrates, we can't know exactly what he said and meant, but we know he existed. We also know that Patrick Henry existed but we can't be sure of what he said or thought. The difference is that there's been such a long time since Socrates existed that we're lucky to have any records at all (if it hadn't been for the stability of the Byzantine Empire we wouldn't). But the lack of records for something as recent as the American Revolution seems to indicate that there were no records at all. As far as I've been able to tell there were no records of any kind between Henry's speech and Wirt publishing the biography. One would think that a phrase as ringing as "give me liberty or give me death" would have been reported somewhere by someone but that doesn't appear to have been the case.

Also, and I'm not actually saying that this is any evidence one way or the other, but the phrase "give me liberty or give me death" sounds distincly Romantic, more in keeping with what an eighteenth century intellectual like Wirt would say/think rather than that of an Enligthenment orator like Henry. But that's just a hunch.
posted by Kattullus at 10:11 AM on June 13, 2005

Kattullus, I want to make sure I honor your interesting point about the 18th-century Romantic gloss to those words. By comparison, the "Revolutionary" motto of New Hampshire, "Live Free or Die", was penned in 1809. On the other hand, right there in Virginia in 1775, the Culpeper militia used a flag with the phrase LIBERTY OR DEATH. That militia was the one formed under the act for which Patrick Henry was arguing when he allegedly said the phrase, and was among troops that Henry personally commanded. The phrase's existence on the flag is attested to by a commander's battle diary. I think that's strong evidence that the sentiment was widespread and openly connected with Henry (it doesn't appear on other flags, although the coiled snake -- an invention of Franklin's -- does).

Also, you essentially made another point I omitted, which is that Patrick Henry is by no means alone in having his words written down after the fact. Indeed, up until perhaps the middle of the 19th century, when we begin to get word-for-word proceedings of Congressional debates, this was pretty much the case for any public speech.
posted by dhartung at 2:19 PM on June 13, 2005

dhartung: Thanks for taking me seriously :) I'm betraying my comparative literature academic background. I'm trained to sniff out tone and gloss, as you put it, though I'm also trained to distrust my instincts.

Alright then, you seemed to have established that "LIBERTY OR DEATH" was a phrase linked to Henry (your google-fu must be way strong) He probably said that then. Or something like that. Possibly even "give me liberty or give me death". Though the picture I've pieced together seems to indicate that Wirt figured out the gist of what Henry had been on about, and set out to reproduce it to the best of his powers. The whole speech still smacks of romanticism to me. But I guess that in the end there's no real way to know.

I guess the final answer is that Patrick Henry once said something about "Liberty or Death" at one time or another, but it probably wasn't "give me liberty or give me death". Or that's the sense I get out of it. I suppose that once I'm in the US I should track down Founding Myths and read it and see whether he has something to add.
posted by Kattullus at 7:47 PM on June 13, 2005

These are all much later sources than Wirt. If we could find that independent source then I'd be becalmed

Noted, but can't do better than that. I was only pointing out that the quote was allegedly taken from this unnamed cleric. It's not much, but if we're talking independent source....

But as said variously above, any speech before Edison's talking machine is likely to be suspect (consider Thucydides). That given, the romantic in me likes to think that the heart stopping phrases are as likely to be legit as not, even if enveloped later on in the historian's invention.

Remember, Clio is a muse, that is to say, friend to artists, not scientists.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:07 AM on June 14, 2005

« Older Ink Me Baby!   |   Mark of the Beast? (Numbers in the backs of cars) Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.