Legacies of Two Founding Fathers: Jefferson and Henry
The founding of the United States was accomplished by a motley group of men who varied in many aspects. They had different backgrounds, beliefs, strengths, and blind spots. These men joined together in a time of crisis to secure liberty, justice and peace. They debated and even quarreled their way to the founding of America’s government. Within the state assemblies themselves there were differing opinions that caused discord, and when the states interacted with each other, their individual interests constantly clashed. The opposing beliefs of those who formed this government are able to be detected in the documents they left us – often lying side by side. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both were devoted to gain independence for America and establish a republic; however, they were rivals throughout their lives. These two men represent the main schools of thought in 18th century America. Jefferson was an ‘enlightenment thinker’ – he did not believe in the inherent sin of mankind. Henry was an Episcopalian and was raised as a Calvinist by his mother. He looked up to the Great Awakening Preacher Samuel Davies as having had a significant influence in his life. Calvinism and the thoughts of the enlightenment merged together, each one compromised in some ways, and together became the foundation of the United States of America.
Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by the writings of French philosophers and the works of the ancients (Aristotle, Horace, Cicero etc.). He did not believe in the depraved nature of man, but instead thought that all men could reach the same level of wisdom and morality through knowledge. To Jefferson, knowledge was light, it was salvation. In his own words, “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the source to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.” It was therefore very important to Jefferson that education be made available to everyone. “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” He introduced a bill for ‘The More General Diffusion of Learning’ advocating district elementary schools payed for by the public, but the bill was rejected. He believed that as long as the people were educated, the country would prosper.
Patrick Henry saw that what the people truly needed was righteousness. “Whether this (in speaking of America’s independence) will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed upon us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation.” Henry saw that it was not the knowledge of the people, but their character, that would determine the fate of the nation.
Patrick Henry was anti-federalist, just like Thomas Jefferson, but he held to his position much more strongly. Although offered numerous federal positions, Henry rejected all of them, and only served his state. During the Constitutional Convention, he tirelessly spoke out against the federalists, and even prepared twenty amendments to the Constitution. However, once his state ratified the Constitution, he knew that his duty was to obey it. While Jefferson still thought that the states had retained their sovereignty and were not under a national government, Henry realized that the people of the States had established a national government and given it powers that were basically irrevocable.
It is interesting to look at the differing views of Jefferson and Henry on the Separation of Church and State. Jefferson thought that in no way should the state advocate one religion over another. It should allow equal and free exercise of all religions as each man sees fit. He spoke against mandatory support of any church, and against fines for not attending church. He claimed that it was the natural right of mankind to be free to profess and maintain their personal opinions about religion. However, Patrick Henry understood that it was the influence of Christianity, and not free thinking, that would bless the nation. In his Assessment Bill, Henry said that Christianity would “correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.” He also, understanding that mankind is fallen, proposed a tax upon each person that would go to the religious establishment of their choosing, or to the county schools if they did not wish to support any religious establishment. He was concerned about the influence of the French free thinkers and anarchists, and his views were supported by several other prominent founding fathers, including George Washington. Without a tax, he believed that the impiety of man would not voluntarily support the churches. While he proposed this tax, he firmly held to his belief that religion should not be forced on the people by the government. Patrick Henry supported the Baptists and Presbyterians and helped them gain equal standing with the Episcopalians. Jefferson’s view was accepted over Henry’s, and this brought about a stringent application of the separation of Church and State in Virginia. It was many years before a seminary could obtain an act of incorporation, and it took almost a hundred years for Virginia to begin to enforce religious charities along with the other states.
Both Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry believed that slavery was an evil and that it should be eventually abolished. Both of them owned slaves of their own purchasing. While Jefferson denounced slavery, he did not believe that the two races should live together and desired to remove them. In a letter to James Monroe he wrote, “Could we procure lands beyond the limits of the U S to form a receptacle for these people? Canada is perhaps too cold; as for Spanish territory, it poses similar question to that of Ohio: “Should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us?” While Patrick Henry did not state whether he desired exportation of slaves or not, it seems likely that he would not advocate it, as when the Virginians were trying to find a way to allay hostilities between the settlers and Indians, it was Patrick Henry who proposed a bill encouraging intermarriage as a sure way to unite the two peoples. The other legislators knew that this would be beneficial, but as Marshall said, “Our prejudices, however, oppose themselves to our interests, and operate too powerfully for them.” If Patrick Henry among the other Virginians was the only one who laid aside his prejudices against the race of Indians, I think it is unlikely that he would desire the exportation of Africans.
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry fought hard for liberty for the state and country. They played an enormous part in founding this nation. It was Jefferson who drafted our Declaration of Independence, and Henry who first raised the outcry against the taxation of Parliament. However, I believe that Jefferson’s views of enlightenment have led to a libertarian attitude, and therefore a controlling government. He was willing to die for liberty, and yet he understood that liberty and free thinking were two different issues. He was not looking to throw off government, but to establish a lawful one. Henry truly understood the depraved nature of man, and the need for Christianity in a nation. To conclude, I will finish the quote of Patrick Henry, in which he stated that righteousness alone could prosper America, “Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.”