Patrick Henry was a successful lawyer and politician from Virginia. He went on the become governor of the state as well as being a Founding Father. As an extensive landowner, and as most Founding Fathers, Henry owned a number of slaves throughout is life. The number of slaves that Henry owned is recorded at about 80. However, he would go on to become aware of the wrongdoings within slavery and push for its abolishment.
Henry’s dissent towards slavery can be seen in numerous documents throughout his life including letters to colleagues. One of the most relevant of these documents includes Henry’s January 18, 1773 letter to Robert Pleasants. Within this letter, Henry first thanks Pleasants upon receiving a slave, and then continues to discuss a number of disagreements towards the idea of slavery. He speaks on Christianity and the fact that it “consists in softening the human heart” however it allows “a practice so totally repugnant.” Henry goes on to say that it is hard to believe that during a time of enlightenment and emphasis on human rights, that the practice of slavery could continue.
As an extremely outspoken and opinionated politician, it is hard to determine his influences in terms of disagreements within slavery. He was one that was against the United States Constitution and a firm believer in the rights of the individual. However, he often referenced religion when discussing the subject. Henry stated that the abolishment of slavery is “the furthest advance we can make toward justice….The purity of our religion…is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.”
In terms of specific actions, Patrick Henry consistently held speeches, wrote letters and was a prominent leader in the process of abolishing slavery. He became a prominent figure in opposition to slavery, something that his fellow Founding Fathers both acknowledged and embraced. Henry is quoted in stating that slavery was “inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive to morality.”
Henry is often referred to as the voice of revolution for his stern and outspoken demeanor. As Thomas Jefferson outlines, the push for the abolishment of slavery in Virginia almost lied solely on the approaches of Henry. Jefferson can be quoted speaking of Patrick Henry stating that he was “even more determined in his opposition to slavery then the rest of us.” Jefferson also credits Henry with allowing Virginians to find “the moral courage to take a bold and decided stand.”
Patrick Henry was a religious man, which often showed throughout his role as one that was opposed to slavery. Although he is famously quoted stating that he was “drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it,” his slaves were treated slightly different than the average. Henry’s slaves were often taught to read the Bible. They were also taught other specific trades such as carpentry, distilling whiskey, tanning leather or blacksmithing.
He also held numerous relationships with Quakers and Baptists. He revered them and their willingness to free their slaves. Although radical Quakers had been continuously pushing for the abolishment of slavery, Henry’s role was significant enough. He was labeled by these radical Quakers as “a real half Quaker… in religious matters a saint but the very devil in politics.”
Along with religious beliefs, Henry believed in “ideals of liberty” that were becoming popular and America and contradicted the practice of slavery. James Madison shared a common view of slavery with Henry, calling the practice “unrepublican” due to the fact that it “encouraged vicious behavior by the planters against their weaker, victimized laborers.”
There is no doubt that Patrick Henry was revolutionary in the area of the abolishment of slavery. He was outspoken, knowledgeable and progressive within the practice that he resented. Although he often advocated for abolishment, treated his slaves differently and rallied support for his ideas, he was under scrutiny by some. This was due to the fact that he himself had never released his slaves, even upon his death. Henry was a man of revolution and his views on slavery were those of dissent. He was one of the leading participants in ending the slave trade between Africa and Virginia as well as an advocate for abolishment as a whole.
Kidd, Thomas S. Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Basic Books, 2011.
Kukla, Amy, and Jon Kukla. Patrick Henry: Voice of the Revolution. New York, New York: Rosen
Publishing Group, 2002.