Jan 16 2012

For Religious Freedom Day: What Jefferson Really Thought of Theocrat Patrick Henry

So, today is Religious Freedom Day, the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. No, I’m not going to post Jefferson’s statute; I’m going to post something cooler than that — one of my favorite lines ever written by Jefferson.

The background: Jefferson drafted his religious freedom statute in 1777 and introduced it in 1779, but it didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t until 1786 that Jefferson’s statute was passed. Jefferson was in France at the time, so it was Madison who reintroduced the religious freedom statute. This was right after James Madison defeated Patrick Henry’s bill to tax everybody in Virginia to support teachers of the Christian religion.

Jefferson couldn’t stand Patrick Henry and his theocratic agenda, and made this quite clear in one his letters to Madison while Madison was battling Henry’s bill for a Christian religious tax. When Madison wrote to Jefferson asking what they should do about Henry, Jefferson replied:

“While Mr. Henry Lives another bad constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death …”

Of course, the Christian nationalist history revisionists either ignore this line from Jefferson, or claim it is made up by evil secularists to impugn the character of our very Christian founding fathers.

Throughout her book The Rewriting of America’s History, for example, Catherine Millard, whose books are popular homeschooling fare, criticizes several biographies and other writings about various founding fathers, claiming they are full of lies and misportrayals which have no basis in historical fact.

According to Millard, in a section of her book about James Madison:

“…recent biographers impute negative character traits to this great founding father, weaving a narrative web that portrays the brilliant, restrained and self-contained Madison as ‘furious, scolding, abusing and ridiculizing!’ These unchristian traits were never evidenced in Madison’s comportment and writings.”

Millard then cites several passages from The Great Little Madison, a Madison biography for children written by Jean Fritz. One of the passages she cites is this:

“…Patrick Henry might be able to send his voice to the rafters, but he disliked descending to a desk and dealing with pen and paper. So he gave James the job of writing up state papers. … They both (James Madison and Thomas Jefferson) liked the same things: reading and collecting books, planting trees, experimenting with science, talking about history. And they agreed on what they didn’t like: Great Britain, slavery, the lopsided Virginia constitution, and Patrick Henry. Neither man could stand Patrick Henry. ‘What shall we do with him?’ James once asked when Patrick was being obstructive in his usual eloquent way. ‘What we have to do, I think,’ Jefferson replied, ‘is devoutly pray for his death…”

Millard then claims:

“The above narrative on Patrick Henry has no bibliographic source material attached to it whatever. In light of the lack of supportive evidence, it should be discarded as false.”

Well, Ms. Millard, the quote is quite real. It’s from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison on December 8, 1784, and can be found on pages 353-354 of The Republic Of Letters, The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776-1826, Volume I.


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  1. 1
    Jeremy Shaffer

    Throughout her book The Rewriting of America’s History, for example, Catherine Millard, whose books are popular homeschooling fare, criticizes several biographies and other writings about various founding fathers, claiming they are full of lies and misportrayals which have no basis in historical fact.

    Funny how people like Millard are sometimes oddly accurate in their assessments. It’s almost like they know on some level what they’re doing.

  2. 2

    There you go again, clouding the issue with facts. Fundies hate that.

  3. 3

    As a direct descendant of Patrick Henry, I can only say, “thank goodness some of us came to our senses eventually.”

    Seriously, though, I was not aware that there was such enmity between Henry and Jefferson/Madison. I know I can’t help who preceded me in my tree, I can only hope to do what’s best for the future and be truthful about the past.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I’ll just leave this here.
    Check out the clip.

  5. 5

    I thought only Catholics (and lately Evangelicals on the Christian right) were taught to pray for the “happy death” of a bad person.

    That is funny.

  6. 6

    A little bit off topic . . . maybe.

    Got slammed twice today by a story about Patrick Henry, that I think just doesn’t ring true.

    The story is that Henry was riding through Culpepper, and came on the flogging of a preacher who refused to get a license. Utlimately, the story claims this preacher was flogged to death, with another dozen or so waiting in the local jail.

    So, the story concludes, Henry delivered his famous ‘give me liberty or give me death speech’ as a protest to Obamacare.

    No, I’ve not really left out a lot of details the way it comes to me.

    Now, I think that just doesn’t square with history.

    First, Henry was Church of England. The ministers being flogged were not. I’m unaware of any Patrick Henry love for religious freedom, for non-Church of England ministers.

    Second, it was Madison who turned Mason around on putting the freedom of religion clause into the Virginia Bill of Rights. It was Jefferson who drafted the law, the Statute for Religious Freedom, and it was Henry’s proposal to put the ministers back on the public payroll that prompted Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, which led to the legislature’s passing Jefferson’s law instead. Henry wasn’t exactly thundering for religious freedom for Methodists and Baptists that I’ve found, anywhere.

    Is this story of Henry in Culpepper apocrphal? Is it one of David Barton’s that I don’t know? (It’s got that smell of just-so-ness; Henry sees something, demands separation from England . . .).

    Here’s one site I found it: http://christianpersecutioninamerica.com/patrick-henry-black-robed-regiment/

    Chris, can you shed any light for me here?

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