Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.

Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.

Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers.  Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:

“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as 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 those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”

—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.

“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 as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil 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 as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.

“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions 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 may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”

—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.

“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 of 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 those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has 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 of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of 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 to which kings resort.”

—Here, when speaking of “our petition”,  Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.

“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 forging. And what have we to oppose to 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.”

—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.

“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. 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 remonstrances 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 been 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 is left us!”

—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.

“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?”

—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.

“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 a 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 that 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; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against 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 in 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.”

—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.

“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 it 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 not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)

Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.

We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.

Americans who want stuff, or, election 2012

Part 2 of our short posts on the 2012 election and the changing demographics and mixing and merging voter identifications coming into play sees us taking a quick and close look at Bill O’Reilly’s election night complaint about how “traditional America” is changing, not just to talk about 2012, but to put “tradition” in perspective.

What O’Reilly said on air was:

“It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more.”

—It’s hard to think of a time in American/U.S. history when you could not say this. This is the story of America from 1607 on. “Traditional” America is always the America of about 50 years previous to whatever year it currently is—just long enough ago that people who were young then are still around to miss and mourn it, but people in their prime were small children who can’t really remember it or who missed it completely, being born a decade later. This magical formula allows older people to claim that the time they grew up in was normative and permanent and how things were 100 years before them, but is now being destroyed. Americans made this claim in 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000… and will continue to do so for as long as we live in this country, it seems.

“And there are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it.”

—Doesn’t every presidential candidate run on giving the people what they want? Whether it’s lower taxes, social programs, avoiding war, or raising incomes, people running for president generally tell Americans they are going to give them what they want. By using the word “things”, O’Reilly is deprecating Americans for wanting material goods—one assumes he means cars and iPads and other consumer items, and is therefore shaming us for no longer wanting ideals, like people did 50 years ago, like freedom and power and equality.

“And, whereby twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney, the white establishment is now the minority.”

—There’s the key: 20 years ago, whites wouldn’t have voted for a man who was offering “things.” They would have voted lofty ideals. But now, whites are in the minority, and the non-white vote is dominant, and that’s why the vote has turned crass and materialistic. “Establishment” here means white, “traditional”, moral, and, of course, imaginary. 100 years ago the votes being disparaged were those that today are considered white: Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Russians, Hungarians, Catholics (from anywhere), Greeks. 100 years ago the Establishment did not consider these people to be white, and warned the nation continually that they were sullying the vote and democracy and the nation itself. So again, this is not a new tactic in 2012, to blame immigrants who are considered non-white for ruining the nation by voting.

“And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff.”

—This seems to make sense. But the implication here is that the economic system is not really stacked against these voters, and they are whining, lazy, “47-percenters” (even though they are now the majority) who want more than they deserve. Note that when white people want something it is valid to give it to them, but when non-white voters want something it is not valid to give it to them.

“You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama.”

—Natch. A black man could only ever want to help non-white people. The implication is that he is a sham president, someone who broke the windows of the Establishment store and is now handing out its contents to fellow looters.

“And women will probably break President Obama’s way.”

—Here the race line is crossed to damn women of all colors. This too is fairly standard, as the only prejudice stronger than racism is sexism. Women will “break” for the president; this language subtly damns women as unintelligent beings who will follow the stampede of other sub-par voters to the non-Establishment president.

“People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

—Of course it is the black president. The white candidate for president would never give non-Establishment people things because… well, it’s hard to say. Because they don’t deserve them, they shouldn’t want them, Establishment candidates focus on ideals not things, the list goes on, and is manipulated according to audience.

So we see that O’Reilly’s rant is not really about 2012, but the constant complaint of those who see the time they grew up in receding fast, and don’t like what they see replacing it. This has gone on for as long as non-native people have lived in this country, and likely went on long before that time as well. Our job as Americans is to accept change, resist racism and sexism, and most importantly to refuse to draw a line between “things” and “ideals” when it comes to politics, since the Establishment ideal is often to give things only to certain people and not to others.

Election 2012 and the white minority (and Bill O’Reilly)

In many ways, elections are in the same vein as census results for the historian: they are snapshots of the U.S. population taken at regular intervals whose results lend themselves to nearly infinite analysis and extrapolation. The 2012 election is particularly rich, as it seems to show—

—women voting for Democrats and men voting for Republicans

—such sex-based voting trumping other demographic factors (race, income, immigration status, rural/urban, religion, education level, etc.)

—the older vote (45 and over) going Republican (as it has trended for about three decades) and,

—white votes becoming a smaller bloc

That is the way it’s being presented, at least: whites are becoming the minority population, and so the “white vote” is no longer critical to those running for office. But it’s more complicated than that; race is actually not the primary characteristic to count votes by. The best case to be made from the 2012 results, it seems, is that your sex matters most, as the majority of women of all races, incomes, etc., voted Democratic and the majority of men voted Republican. Age might come second, as people 18-45 vote Democratic and those 45-over vote Republican. Your job is up there, too, as union members voted pretty solidly Democratic.

It is true that White Americans will be in the Minority by 2019, and that our youngest populations in the U.S. are already minority white. But more important is that as our national population becomes more racially mixed, race is less of a card to play either way for a candidate—appealing to a certain race does not yield big rewards. Those who felt sure whites would vote for Romney were wrong when it came to women and the young, and right when it came to men and the elderly. Those who felt sure that blacks would vote for Obama were more right, but he is our first black president, and that’s a factor (he won 70% of the Latino vote as well). In 50 years, after (one hopes) a few more black and a couple of female presidents, a non-white presidential candidate will not be so new, and will have to fight for non-white votes.

The interesting point here is that race is just one factor, and “the white vote” does not mean “white people” but “white, older men”, the small group for whom race may be the primary factor in an election. But race is just one in a string of adjectives candidates need to pay attention to now, along with age, income, education, location, religion, sexuality, and others.

And so Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News analyst, is wrong when he pins the election on race. In his instantly infamous stream of consciousness monologue on election night, he stated:

“It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more. And there are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And, whereby twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

In our next post we’ll do a close reading of this text, as historians do, to get at the heart of its inaccuracies. For now, we leave feeling some relief, perhaps, that race is no longer the be-all and end-all of election politics, and our diverse society is reflected more completely in its diversity of makeup than in previous elections.

Next time:  here’s your stuff

Debating the causes of the Civil War

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.