We lose a lot in our understanding of the Founding Fathers, says John Ragosta, a historian at the Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, when we see them only as marble statues. They were real people who made mistakes and who got mad at one another. Patrick Henry so angered fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson in 1781, Ragosta maintains, that his reputation never recovered from the impact of Jefferson’s wrath. Ragosta sheds new light on Henry’s life and contributions in an upcoming book, and he recently discussed his research with Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Governing: You’ve developed a thesis that Patrick Henry has gotten a bad rap among the Founding Fathers. How did that come about?
John Ragosta: I came across a remarkable letter from George Washington to Patrick Henry. It was so startling that it launched me into an entirely new area of investigation. It’s dated Jan. 15, 1799, when both Washington and Henry were living in retirement. Washington says, “I need you to come out of retirement to save the nation. These people have put party over country, and they’re going to destroy the Union. Virginia’s leading the charge. The revolution that you and I led is going to be ruined.” By “These people,” Washington meant Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, along with their radical ideas on states’ rights in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. I read that letter and thought, “Wow, this is George Washington and Patrick Henry versus Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.” That really launched my research.
“If there’s any human being who you could say Jefferson hated, it was Patrick Henry.”
— John Ragosta, Early American Historian
Governing: What made Washington think that Henry, one of the principal Anti-Federalists, was going to welcome this letter?
John Ragosta: Henry and Washington had been close going back to the revolution. Henry was Washington’s go-between with the Continental Congress when Washington was first appointed commander of the Continental Army. Henry was one of the first governors to aggressively respond to get supplies to Valley Forge. He was the one that warned Washington about the Conway Cabal.
They had a close relationship, and though they had had a falling out when Henry opposed ratification of the Constitution, Washington realized that Henry was, with the exception of Washington himself, the most popular politician in Virginia at the time, even more so than Jefferson. He’d been elected governor six times. He was the natural person for Washington to turn to.
When Washington had offered him the position of secretary of state after Jefferson resigned, Henry wrote back to say, “I’m retired. I did not support this constitution. You all run it. I’m not opposed to it.” But he made the point that he was not fighting Washington, but that it just wasn’t his government. And he added, “I will only come out of retirement if the union that we helped to create is in danger.” That’s what Washington was pulling on.
Governing: Jefferson and Henry were adversaries by this time. How did that come about? How much agency did Henry have in the investigation of Jefferson’s wartime governorship of Virginia?
John Ragosta: If there’s any human being who you could say Jefferson hated, it was Patrick Henry. He disliked Alexander Hamilton, but I don’t think he really hated him. And the investigation was what broke Jefferson and Henry apart. Jefferson was younger. He idolized Henry. He said of Henry that “He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.”
When Jefferson became a member of the House of Burgesses, they were the young bucks, the progressives who moved things along. Henry was the first governor, Jefferson the second. The British invaded. Jefferson fled from Richmond to Charlottesville, but then the Legislature fled from Charlottesville to Staunton. Jefferson’s term was up, and he wrote the speaker of the House to say, “Look, you need a military man. Don’t reappoint me as governor. Appoint somebody with military experience.” Which they did.
The mistake Jefferson made was that he didn’t go to Staunton to serve until a new governor could be appointed. He headed to Poplar Forest, and when Henry and the Legislature got to Staunton, they felt Jefferson had abandoned them. Many historians don’t think that Henry was behind that investigation. George Nicholas moved the investigation, but he was a new member. He wasn’t the person pulling the strings. Jefferson very clearly thought it was Henry, and I think he was correct.
“Henry is ‘all tongue without either head or heart.'”
Governing: Why did Henry do it?
John Ragosta: They were angry, they were scared, and Jefferson was not there. There was very little Jefferson could have done, but he should have gone to Staunton with the government until there was a new governor. There’s no governor for a period of time. The reason I think that Henry was behind the investigation is that not only would he have been upset by Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson had good informants in the Legislature.
Shortly after this he wrote to Madison about Henry that we need “devoutly to pray for his death.” He wrote to George Rogers Clark that Henry was “all tongue without either head or heart,” which is a great insult. Jefferson clearly blamed Henry. He wrote to James Monroe of “a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.” For Jefferson, an 18th century gentleman, this investigation suggested that he was incompetent, that he was a coward, that he was dishonorable. Jefferson could never let it go, and they had a falling out.
Henry did not reciprocate, at least not at the same level. When he came back into office as governor in 1785 for his fourth and fifth terms, he wrote a business letter to Jefferson in Paris. But he enclosed a personal letter as well. He was clearly holding out an olive branch, but Jefferson didn’t even respond. The attack on his personal character had so affected him that he was opposed to Henry for the rest of his life.
Jefferson had crafted an extended defense of his governorship, but after Yorktown, the Legislature voted to dismiss the investigation and to thank Jefferson for his service. That angered Jefferson, too, because he didn’t get a chance to present his defense. The investigation of his governorship had a deep and lasting effect on Jefferson.
Governing: Jefferson and Henry had very similar ultimate visions of Virginia and the country. They could have been a very powerful force. Wouldn’t the smartest thing for Jefferson have been to let bygones be bygones?
John Ragosta: Yes, which he did with Aaron Burr. Imagine a Henry and Jefferson alliance. Of course, it almost went the other way. Alexander Hamilton tried to gin up a John Adams and Patrick Henry alliance in 1796, which would’ve been an unbeatable ticket. They would’ve killed the Jefferson ticket. Hamilton didn’t really care what Henry’s political beliefs were. He just saw it as a political opportunity. It would completely cut the rug out from under Jefferson in Virginia if Henry was on the ticket with the Federalists. But of course, it didn’t happen.
But if you want to talk about alternative histories, had Henry and Jefferson been working together on James Madison, you would’ve seen a much more radical Bill of Rights. Henry probably wanted to go further than Jefferson, but Jefferson wanted to go further than Madison. You might have seen a Bill of Rights that not only protected individual rights, but effectively protected the states. When the 10th Amendment came out, Henry saw that it was useless. The language that had been proposed was that powers not granted to the federal government would be reserved to the states. Madison drafted it to say, “will be reserved to the States and the people respectively.” Henry threw the paper down on the desk and said, “We’ve been had.”
Despite what Jefferson said, Henry was a good attorney. He knew the 10th amendment was unenforceable, which is exactly the way the Supreme Court treats it. It’s basically a syllogism that says the power belongs to somebody, but it doesn’t tell us who.
A dramatic reading and animation of Henry’s speech on the rights of the colonies before the Second Virginia Assembly. His words “give me liberty or give me death” became the war cry of the revolution.
Governing: Your research and writing could alter our understanding of Patrick Henry’s life and contributions, and of Jefferson’s impact on his reputation. But there’s also the possibility that it won’t even be considered, simply because we’re bombarded with so much from so many directions. What’s your sense of what will happen?
John Ragosta: It is very hard to break through that noise. There’s the added problem that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Henry are old, dead, white, slave-owning individuals. We need to recognize and grapple with that. But academic history develops slowly over time, so I hope that this will cause people to at least rethink the conventional wisdom about Patrick Henry. He had 17 children, so he has thousands of descendants alive today. I’ve talked to a number of them, and they’re very happy with the idea of rehabilitating his reputation.
The story absolutely has modern implications. As I point out in the epilogue, Henry has become a darling of the radical Tea Party movement, mostly due to his “give me liberty or give me death” speech. But to think that this was his political philosophy is really to misunderstand Henry. He said that in an environment where there was no electoral option and no representation in parliament. As he said in his final speech, when there is no electoral option and you’re faced with tyranny, you get revolution. But many people want to cut out the phrase, “when there is no electoral option.”
Governing: You mentioned the problem of dead white slave-owners. Jefferson has become the poster for all the unresolved race issues in the early national period. Where is Henry in all of this?
John Ragosta: There are strong parallels. Henry owned a number of enslaved people. Like Jefferson, he did not free them. He is worse in the sense that he could have afforded to free them. He was wealthy. Jefferson and Henry were very similar on amelioration. Both of them were talking actively to their families, saying “We must treat these people better. They must be better fed. They must be better clothed. They must be treated with decency.” In the most famous Henry letter on slavery, to Robert Pleasants, a Quaker and an abolitionist, Henry essentially says, “Slavery is a terrible institution. It’s a vicious institution. I claim to be a Christian, and no legitimate Christian can support the institution of slavery. If you read the Bible, you have to understand that this is attacking God’s children. We must eliminate it. And it will be eliminated.” Much like Jefferson, Henry understood that slavery could not continue indefinitely, but he then says in his letter that he cannot deal with the inconvenience of eliminating slavery. It’s a remarkably honest and brutal and terrible statement.
My fundamental point is that these were deeply flawed individuals. They did terrible things. They also did unbelievably important and great things for our nation. There’s a reason why Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was quoted by the women at Seneca Falls, and by the Black Panthers in the 1960s. I have no problem if a community decides to take down the Robert E. Lee and the Stonewall Jackson monuments. We remember those people for one reason. They fought a traitorous Civil War to preserve slavery. That’s not why we’re remembering Jefferson and Henry. We used to try to forget that they supported slavery. We used to try to whitewash that and paper it over, and that was wrong. We can’t do that. We need to grapple with the fact that they supported what they knew was an awful, vicious, inhuman, soul-crushing institution. But they also did remarkably important things.