Patrick Henry and Right-Wing (Anti-) Constitutionalism

Patrick Henry and Right-Wing (Anti-) Constitutionalism August 22, 2010

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.

Browse Our Archives