Patrick Henry and Right-Wing (Anti-) Constitutionalism

The Patrick Henry Caucus is the pro-state’s right group within the Utah State Legislature. This is the right-wing of a very right-wing legislative body. They are in many ways the voice of the tea party movement and the 9/12 groups.

The choice of Patrick Henry as their symbol is an appropriate one. Henry is most famous for his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. While this speech is a rousing oration, it points in many ways to who Henry is. He is not the great revolutionary, but America’s first great demagogue.

In his great speech, Henry draws upon the image of the chains of slavery. The relationship between the American colonies and England was one of slave and master. It would be better to be dead than to be a slave.

Yet, Henry seems to be completely uninterested in the plight of actual slaves. He in fact owns some. How can one be so passionate about figurative slavery, but seem unaware of the morality of actual slavery? How can one use the imagery of the chains of slavery, while at the same time binding people as slaves with his own chains?

The paradox of slavery touches far beyond Patrick Henry. Great founders including George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slaves. However, these Virginians acknowledged the paradox and contradiction. Mason appears to have been tormented by it.

Henry does not have this conflict. Oh well, as long as slavery makes for good rhetoric.

The ability to separate the principles of freedom from the actual human condition is a hallmark of the type of right-wing libertarianism which seems to drive the tea party movement.

It is particularly ironic that groups like the Patrick Henry Caucus claim to be defending Constitutional principles…the very principles which Patrick Henry opposed.

Henry refused to attend the Constitutional Convention because he sensed that it was an attempt to do away with the Articles of Confederation. He was right. He also vocally opposed the Constitution that came out of Philadelphia in Virginia’s ratification convention.

His opposition was not over the lack of a bill of rights, as was the opposition of Mason, but because of his opposition to a strong national government. While the principles of Henry and his contemporary fans may be rooted in a certain form of liberty, they are not the principles of the Constitution. They are principles opposed to the Constitution.

One should be able to oppose or disagree with our Constitution. I do in many ways. However, do not pretend that these anti-Madisonian principles are the basis of the Constitution, when they were, and still are, used in an attempt to undermine it.

Now, I do not want to end the post, without pointing out that Patrick Henry would later join the Federalist Party, serve in the Washington administration, and become a supporter of John Adams. Like many of the early revolutionaries, his anti-government fervor evolved into a support for the Constitutional regime.

All of this leads me to wonder in the Tea Party and other far right movements of today are really even about the “Spirit of 1976.” The are not about the Constitution, but I also do not think they are about the American Revolution. I think that they may actually be part of another strain of American political ideology…but that is for another post.

About JJ Rousseau

JJ Rousseau is dead. This is his ghost.

  • http://Www.mormonconferences.org Kent (MC)

    Chris, I think your conclusion is unsupported by the evidence you have presented thus far. Keep at it, I’d like to disagree with you but there is too little here to argue about productively.

  • Chris H.

    Really? The argument is so bad that it warrants a comment saying it is crap and undeserving of comment. Sheesh. I am not done with the argument, but I am sure the rest will be likewise unworthy.

  • Mark B.

    There’s no reason to suspect that the Tea Partiers know any more about Patrick Henry than “Give me liberty or give me death.”

    They’re only hearing a soundbite. And they remind me of the story Hugh B. Brown told, about the time when he first met some officers who wore monocles. “Don’t worry about them,” he was told. “Most of those fellows can see with one eye than they can comprehend.”

  • http://thegooddemocrat.wordpress.com Dan

    Chris,

    The ability to separate the principles of freedom from the actual human condition is a hallmark of the type of right-wing libertarianism which seems to drive the tea party movement.

    That’s about one of the best descriptions of the positions tea partiers take.

  • http://latterdaymainstreet.com/ Chino Blanco

    How do you write a post about these guys without linking to their awesome video? I don’t get it.

    Anyways, I like the post enough so much that I shamelessly copied-and-pasted it into comments at that video. Somehow, I don’t expect they’ll get past moderation.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been saying for some time now that the “Tea Party” is embracing the arguments of the Anti-Federalists rather than the Federalists, putting them (Tea Partiers) therefore actually in opposition to the Constitution and its justifications and aligning them with the later Confederacy instead. I was happy to see that someone else is also pursuing this line of thought.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Dan,

    The disconnect between supposed ideals and human suffering is a problem that comes with any extreme ideology. Everyone needs a little Utilitarianism.

    Chino,

    It does not appear that they are very friendly towards comments over there. Feel free to quote me anywhere you would like.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    john f,

    My next post on this will look at how these movements connect to the neo-Confederate movements of George Wallace and others. A third post will look at how all of this is related to Mormonism. The third part is most concerning for me. The Constitution provides protect against these political factions. Mormon culture is a bit more complicated.

  • http://aliberalmormon.wordpress.com Derek

    I hadn’t thought about the irony of using Henry as a defense of a Constitutional interpretation which Henry opposed by virtue of his opposition to the Constitution itself. Nice catch, Chris.

  • Brandon

    Um, you’d better check your facts. Henry never served in the Washington administration. Perhaps you’re thinking of Alexander Hamilton? Henry ended his days as a country lawyer in what’s now Campbell County, Virginia.

  • http://abev.wordpress.com john f.

    Alexander Hamilton was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, the purpose of which was to persuade Americans of the need for a Federal government as laid out in the Constitution.

  • Mark D.

    I’ve been saying for some time now that the “Tea Party” is embracing the arguments of the Anti-Federalists rather than the Federalists, putting them (Tea Partiers) therefore actually in opposition to the Constitution and its justifications and aligning them with the later Confederacy instead.

    That is quite a generalization. Most of the “Anti-Federalists” were hardly against the idea of a Constitution, rather they were opposed to the Constitution in its then present form. Some of them objected due to the absence of a Bill of Rights, a problem that was soon corrected.

    The “Anti-Federalists” deserve the credit for getting a Bill of Rights enacted because many of them made their support conditional on the addition of such amendments. Must we then conclude then that contemporary advocates of the Bill of Rights are necessarily in league with advocates of slavery and secession?

    Finally, it is worth noting that the “Anti-Federalists” were hardly “anti-federalism”, instead they were generally federalism’s greatest champions, to a fault even.

  • Brandon

    John F.-

    I’m quite aware that Alexander Hamilton was one of the authors of the Federalist. I was pointing out to the original poster that he may have been conflating Henry and Hamilton, when he said that Henry served in the Washington administration. Just wanted the record to be accurate.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    “That is quite a generalization. Most of the “Anti-Federalists” were hardly against the idea of a Constitution, rather they were opposed to the Constitution in its then present form. Some of them objected due to the absence of a Bill of Rights, a problem that was soon corrected.”

    That is true, though it does not apply to Henry who opposed the Constitution even after the addition of the Bill of Rights.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Brandon is right. I did mix up my Henry facts. He did turn down the offer to join the initial Washington cabinet for anti-federalist reason. He was later, after becoming a Federalist supporter (somewhat because of his reaction against the French Revolution) appointed to a more minor diplomatic position, but declined it because of poor health.

    I was surely not conflating him with Hamilton who essentially ran the Washington administration. Hamilton was with Madison on the Constitution long before 1787 and remain one of the strongest and most ardent Federalists. Henry never went to that extent.

  • Richard

    The ability to separate the principles of freedom from the actual human condition is a hallmark of the type of right-wing libertarianism which seems to drive the tea party movement.

    Please cite an example of this.

    The primary objective of the tea party is to get control of the federal debt. How does this make anyone’s “human condition” worse? The tea party protests were triggered by the bank bailouts. Does spending huge amounts of borrowed money improve the human condition? Could it be that the tea party is merely concerned about the long term consequences of piling up enormous amounts of debt?

    I really like your “real-time” comments preview – it’s a very nice feature. Did you write it yourself?

  • Richard

    The [tea partiers] are not about the Constitution.

    Can you please cite a tea party document that supports this statement?

    The tea partiers I have met are concerned with Congress and judges overstepping the bounds set be the Constitution. This is a line of thought I hear frequently on “right wing” radio, and I have seen in tea party protest signs. What position does the tea party take that is in opposition to the Constitution? Has any mainline tea party group advocated changing the Constitution in any way other than amendment? If so, could you please provide a reference for this?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    Richard, these elements have long existed. Even if it is about deficits, it is rooted in an irrational fear of deficits. The government could have allowed the banking industry collapse. Such lunacy would have cause devastating economic turmoil.

    They love the Constitution. They are just woefully ignorant of what it means.

    Arguments forr nullification or states rights are anti-constitution even when wrapped in it.

  • Richard

    How do you know the average tea partier is “woefully ignorant” of what the Constitution means? What is that assertion based on.

    I would agree with you that nullification is anti-constitutional, but there is a valid fear that the federal government is overstepping its bounds with regard to the 10th amendment. Also, I have not heard any examples of tea partiers advocating nullification. Where have you seen this?

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    My problem isn’t “woefully ignorant” of the words of the constitution but rather “woefully ignorant” of the range of readings and justifications for those readings. That is they are naive interpreters.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    While linking to this guy makes me want to vomit, here ya go:

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/lewrockwell-show/2010/05/03/148-nullification/

    Clark, I think your approach is better than mine.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    To add, I might be sympathetic to some tea party readings (although I don’t understand the anger towards direct election of Senators) the fact is that the constitution simply unambiguously univocal in terms of readings. When people (and hardly just tea party folks, this happens frequently on the left as well) say something is unconstitutional I find that they don’t like to engage the other ways of reading things. Thus left leaning folks who think the 2cd amendment is a collective and not individual right, dismiss interstate commerce concerns, dismiss Presidential powers. But of course the right is in the spotlight at the moment so everyone notices their readings.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    Sorry, that should read, “the fact is that the constitution simply isn’t unambiguously univocal in terms of readings.”