RALEIGH — Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were more good-natured debaters than avowed combatants in a discussion of new and old issues at a March 12 event in Raleigh.
The John Locke Foundation, named for the English philosopher who influenced many of Jefferson’s writings, hosted the dinner event featuring the two distinguished Virginians, who had journeyed south from Colonial Williamsburg. About 240 guests observed patriotic oratory at the downtown Tir na nOg Pub.
Amazingly, the wisdom of Jefferson and Henry on the nation’s founding was equaled by their insight into current events. “No nation placing its interests at the hands of other nations will long exist,” Henry said in response to a question about George Washington’s admonition to avoid “foreign entanglements.”
“Our first duty is to look to our own interests as a rising nation,” Henry said.
In Raleigh, Henry validated his reputation as a firebrand, contrasting his radical personality and actions to those of the more refined Jefferson.
Henry’s Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions, which argued persuasively for resistance against unjust taxation by Mother England, won approval from his fellow lawmakers in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765.
In 1775 Henry, once described as “a Quaker in religion but the very Devil in politics,” led the Virginia Militia to force the royal governor Lord Dunsmore to pay fairly for gunpowder he had taken from a Williamsburg store. His leadership in that conflict is recognized by many as one of the chief incitations of the Revolutionary War in Virginia.
In one of the few uncomfortable moments at the Tir na nOg event, Henry questioned Jefferson’s actions in the midst of his leadership as governor of Virginia in 1780-81. Echoing the sentiments of Jefferson’s political foes of the time, Henry recalled that Jefferson fled Richmond at the time when British invasion was near. Jefferson had a meager rebuttal to Henry’s allegations, but history shows that the Virginia General Assembly exonerated Jefferson for his conduct.
Henry’s passion and bravery marked his career in military and political leadership, enabling him to become the first governor of Virginia (he served four terms total, three of them consecutively). However, his successor Jefferson superceded him in intellectual heft, with his education from the College of William and Mary and law studies under fellow Declaration of Independence signer George Wythe.
But Jefferson’s study of philosophical writings, especially those of Locke, inspired his claims in the Declaration of Independence to colonial independence from Great Britain based on the natural rights of man. Yet in his presentation in Raleigh, Jefferson emphasized that those rights of liberty for the individual, given by God, were not to be abused.
Asked how virtue could be promoted in society without the establishment of a state religion, Jefferson replied, “It must be in the citizen body first.” Jefferson said that individuals are the first ones responsible for their behavior. He said government receives its powers from the people, which is a reflection of its citizenry.
“If you tolerate [immorality] there,” Jefferson said, “you will therefore elect it to government.”
Henry also espoused the need for public accountability, which should be promoted in the church. “I regard religion to be of greater importance than earthly politics,” Henry said.
The two founders expressed agreement on many other issues raised by moderator Ken Ripley, editor of Nash County’s Spring Hope Enterprise. And both gentlemen challenged each other on the degree of their ownership of slaves. While admitting to the possession of dozens of slaves, each passionately voiced their opposition to the practice.
“I have continued to argue against this monstrosity in our economy,” said Jefferson, whose attempt to include language criticizing slavery in the Declaration of Independence was thwarted.
Although Henry said he had purchased many slaves, he described the ownership of blacks as “barbarous commerce.”
Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal.