alf a century has passed since Mrs. Allen force-fed us American history in our fifth grade Social Studies class at John Rogers School in Vancouver Washington. John Rogers School is now gone, and so no doubt is Mrs. Allen, but American history is still with us.
Not that I was unacquainted with American history before that—if nothing else, I’d heard (many times) the Stan Freberg album The Early Years released the previous May, with his caricatures of Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, and especially George Washington. I knew some of the highlights, anyway, enough to get most of it. I also knew that Columbus wasn’t the first guy to think the world was round, and that Thomas Jefferson didn’t go door-to-door trying to get people to sign the Declaration of Independence, and that Norman Rockwell didn’t win the Revolutionary War by painting a giant mural.
Actually, one of the first things I did when I hit fifth grade was to check out the copy of the Declaration of Independence Mrs. Allen had hanging on the wall to see whether it did in fact say “purfuit of happineff” as Freberg’s Benjamin Franklin had claimed (it doesn’t) or whether George Washington had ever signed it (he didn’t). And seeing a reproduction of the “Spirit of ’76” painting hanging toward the front of the classroom cheered me a bit in the dark days ahead (“I’ve got the bandage around my ears, but it doesn’t help much”).
One of the figures who did not turn up on the Freberg album, however, was Patrick Henry. I don’t know whether I’d run into him in some connection or other before—I think I’d read some children’s book about him in third or fourth grade, actually—but I remember him from fifth grade history. Our book had his “give me liberty of give me death” speech in it (actually a lengthy excerpt, and it didn’t bother to inform us that the speech was a reconstruction made long after the fiery orator’s death) and I liked the rhetoric of it. Indeed, I admired it so much that when the end of the school year came around, and we had to return our books to the school, rather than lose the speech forever (as I imagined, because what other book could possibly have it except our fifth grade history book?), I memorized it.
But the electrifying moment for me came during the Stamp Act debates, when Henry was newly elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Defying the oppressive British authorities, Henry concluded a speech by saying “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third—” The speaker interrupted. “Treason,” he cried. Imperturbably Patrick Henry continued, “—may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Damn, that was cool. That was sharp. Make the most of it indeed. Of course a couple of years later when I learned that Patrick Henry was a slave-owner (a fact Mrs. Allen never bothered to mention) that liberty-or-death thing seemed to ring a bit hollow, but in fifth grade that particular moment stood out in relief. If this be treason, make the most of it. A kind of devil-may-care defiance of an oppressive tyrant—the sort of thing I would have liked to have said anent Mrs. Allen, if only I’d had the guts—or the presence of mind.
It’s now been a quarter of a millennium (and doesn’t that sound grand?) since Patrick Henry’s moment of defiance, and time has perhaps fogged the picture a bit. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a time-machine and could go back and see the moment for ourselves? To stand there while Patrick Henry delivered that line and hear it for ourselves?
Well, we can’t. But there is in history something like a time-machine, sometimes. There are contemporary accounts of an incident, moments as seen by an actual observer and recorded while the memory is fresh. And, in fact, we are lucky enough to have such an account, written by a French traveler, who happened to be passing through at this significant moment.
Yes, believe it or not this anonymous visitor just happened to drop in on this very day, two hundred and fifty years ago. “I went immediately to the assembly which was sitting,” he wrote (spelling modernized), “where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning duties that the Parliament wants to lay on the American colonies, which they call or style stamp duties.” No sooner did he get there than a certain member (“his name is Hennery” he informs us parenthetically) got up and “said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell” (yes, yes, here it comes!) “and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favor of his country.”
What? Patrick Henry actually called for an assassination? That’s not the way I heard it in fifth grade!
“But—” Patrick Henry was going to continue in a more moderate tone, when the speaker interrupted him. Okay, now we’re back on track. The speaker said that Henry “had spoke treason [yes!], and was sorry to see that not one of the members of the house was loyal enough to stop him, before he had gone so far.”
Okay, that’s a little different, but now surely Patrick Henry stands his ground? Now he turns it around with a sharp retort?
Well, according to our narrative Henry again addressed the house and “said that if he had affronted the speaker, or the house, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would show his loyalty to his majesty King George the third, at the expense of the last drop of his blood.” Just wait a goddamn minute, no—that can’t be right. “But what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country’s dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended, but, again, if he said anything wrong, he begged the speaker and the house’s pardon.” After that it’s really an anticlimax to read that several other members spoke in his favor “and the affair was dropped.”
What happened? I’m almost as disappointed as the narrator of Bring the Jubilee who goes back to watch Lee win the battle of Gettysburg and instead witnesses his crushing defeat.
Well, it seems that time has indeed somewhat distorted the incident. The French traveler wasn’t apparently the only one to note it. A presumably independent account (dated 21 June 1765) described it:
Mr. [Henry] has lately blazed out in the Assembly, where he compared [George III] to a Tarquin, a Caesar, a Charles the First, threatening him with a Brutus, or an Oliver Cromwell; yet Mr. [Henry] was not sent to the Tower: but having prevailed to get some ridiculous violent Resolves passed, rode off in triumph, some of which Resolves were passed one day, and erased the next; and the G[overnor], advised by the Council, thought proper to dissolve the Assembly.
No mention of an aftermath—either the if-this-be-treason line or the apology. Later in the summer (on 12 August) William Robinson noted the incident (almost certainly from this account) in a description of Patrick Henry’s character and activities:
He blazed out in a violent speech against the Authority of parliament and the King, comparing his Majesty to a Tarquin, a Cesar, and a Charles the First and not sparing insinuations that he wished another Cromwell would arise. He made a motion for several outrageous resolves, some of which passed and were again erased as soon as his back was turned.
Again, no sequel.
The first historical account (at least that I’m aware of) appeared in Charles Stedman’s 1794 The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, volume 1, p. 32. He described it like this:
Some idea may be formed of the manner in which this debate was conducted, by the following passage, extracted from a speech of one of the members [identified as “Mr. Patrick Henry” in a footnote], who afterwards made a conspicuous figure in the beginning of the rebellion. After declaiming with bitterness against the supposed arbitrary measures of the present reign, he added, “Cæsar had his Brutus, Charles the First an Oliver Cromwell, and George the Third—” But before he could proceed farther, a cry of, Treason! was heard from one quarter of the house, and the speaker soon afterwards rising up, called him to order, and declared that he would quit the chair, unless he was supported by the house in restraining such intemperate speeches.
For the first time we have Henry interrupted just after naming George III—and it will be noted, without any actual suggestion that “some good American” might play the part of Brutus or Cromwell. Did he have an independent source, or was he reimagining the event?
It isn’t until 1805 that John Burk (The History of Virginia: From Its First Settlement to the Present Day, Volume 3) mentions Henry’s classic rejoinder. After giving some lengthy excerpts from the speech (which are generally considered inauthentic) he comes to the point (well, our point anyway):
Here he entered into an historical enumeration of those examples of successful resistance to oppression which rendered glorious the annals of Rome and England, and concluded with this dreadful warning, which connected with its subsequent fulfilment, seemed like the inspiration of prophecy. “Caesar,” said he, “had his Brutus, Charles his Cromwell and (pausing) George the third. (here a cry of treason, treason was heard, supposed to issue from the chair, but with admirable presence of mind he proceeded) may profit by their examples. Sir, if this be treason, continued he, make the most of it.”
As Burk was not even born when Patrick Henry made his speech he had to have a source, and as his version ends the series of rulers by naming George III, it seems likely that his source was Stedman’s volume, or perhaps somebody who had read Stedman. The snappy conclusion? Well, Burk was a dramatist, and this line would play perfectly on the stage. I’m not saying he created it, but it would be nice to know where he got it.
The notion that Henry had delivered a dexterous comeback on that occasion was not unique to Burk. Jefferson remembered something of the sort, and Edmond Randolph gave an alternate version in his manuscript history of Virginia:
In his harangue, he certainly indulged a strain never before heard in the royal Capitol. This circumstance passed while he was speaking: “Caesar,” cried he, “had his Brutus; Charles the first his Cromwell; and George the third—” “Treason, sir,” exclaimed the Speaker, to which Henry instantly replied, “and George the third, may he never have either.” This dexterous escape or retreat, if it did not savor of lively eloquence, was of itself a victory.
I personally like the “if this be treason” version better, but this one is likely to be just as accurate.
So there it is. You can, I suppose, believe that the anonymous but contemporary Frenchman got it wrong somehow, and that the true version made its way via oral transmission to Burk. It’s unlikely as hell, but unlikely things sometimes happen, and this could be one of them. But I’ve got to say, honestly, that the Frenchman’s version seems so much more likely. I mean, it would be nice if Patrick Henry had had the presence of mind to deliver that snappy comeback, on cue and everything. But it savors of legend and things that should have happened, rather than history and things that did.