For the People, For the Country: Patrick Henry’s Final Political Battle


December 18, 2023
by Al Dickenson Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: For the People, For the Country: Patrick Henry’s Final Political Battle by John A. Ragosta (University of Virginia Press, 2023)

Of all the stories of the Revolutionary era in common memory today, few come to mind as readily as Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. It may be the most famous speech of the age. Henry spoke these words near the beginning of his thirty year long political career and is remembered fondly for it. What many do not know is that Henry gave another speech at the end of his career, in March 1799, at the Charlotte County Courthouse. The speech was one clamoring for union in a time of turmoil, a far cry from the fire and brimstone the orator had promoted some twenty years earlier. This speech serves as a sort of catalyst for John Ragosta’s new book, For the People, For the Country: Patrick Henry’s Final Political Battle, wherein one of today’s preeminent historians of the era offers readers a glimpse into not only Henry’s political life, but also the 1790s and what was perhaps the first time the United States faced a great push towards disunion.

Seeing the need for a strong unifying figure, George Washington, now retired at Mount Vernon, wrote a letter to Patrick Henry, asking him to stand for a seat in the House of Representatives. Though the two leaders had their disagreements in the past, Washington realized that the path forward for the nation was not extremism or partisanship, but instead unity and embrace of differing political opinions. Ragosta makes the point that the Antifederalist “party,” at this point more often referred to as the Democratic-Republican “party,” was different than what Henry had seen in the 1770s and 1780s. It was different than what Washington had seen, too, as the party of his own political leaning, the Federalists, had increased their own partisanship. While some of this is the natural evolution of ideologies, there was concern that the partisanship could lead to threats to democracy (page 111). As such, Washington, in yet another attempt to hold the nation together, called on an old rival, Henry, to rise and take the reins from his own party, refocusing them on the so called “kitchen table” issues of the day (i.e., westward expansion, war-era debts, taxes), and do so in a “Constitutional way.” Though Henry never took his seat in the House, his presence, Ragosta argues, is one of the reasons this potential crisis was averted.

The 1790s, like many decades in the last 230 years, saw an increase in partisanship, Ragosta argues, almost reaching a point of disunion and succession. These arguments are not unfounded, given the language of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and soon-to-be-president Thomas Jefferson’s comments regarding “nullification” (p. 120-122). Ragosta makes strides to connect the threads of history to the ever forward-moving needle of the present, pointing to recent political happenings to show how history has a way of becoming the present (p. x). In this way, Ragosta’s already lively writing style takes on a new urgency, making the work a fast read, easily broken up into smaller sections (there are only six chapters, plus a preface and epilogue), or devourable in a single sitting. As always, Henry is an interesting character to witness, which makes the subject matter engaging in an additional way.

The primary downfall of For the People, For the Country, however, is that for several middle chapters, Henry, whose name is enshrined in the book’s title, is strangely absent. Henry is not totally excluded from the narrative, but he takes a back seat to other characters, namely Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, though other individuals (both elder and younger Adamses, Hamilton, and so forth) pop up now and again. These sections without Henry remain interesting, as they deal with the ramifications of the Articles of Confederation, the new Constitution, the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, and the ongoing “crisis,” in the words of Ragosta, that was brewing in the young nation. In particular, Ragosta discusses the partisanship of the national politics while also profiling the efforts to keep the union intact. In this regard, Ragosta spends quite a bit of time on the efforts of Jeffersonians to fight for antifederalism regarding budgets, slavery, tariffs, and more. At the same time, he works to show how dangerous some of these philosophies were.

Ragosta could easily have focused the book on a particular ideological perspective or more closely followed a singular character, but his efforts show that even the most ideologically divided politicians can come together to defend a republic of the people, for the people, and by the people. This ideal is what sets For the People, For the Country apart from other works. For all the flaws the Constitution may or may not have, it is the most supreme law of the land. Patrick Henry, while not necessarily agreeing with the text, acknowledged the importance of the document, fighting against it within the confines of the law instead of outside of it, and without calling for secession, nullification, or partisanship. Though this book is not exclusively focused on Henry, it highlights the significance of a warrior for “liberty,” not “license,” or the freedom to do whatever you want (p. 212). In the end, as in the beginning, Ragosta illustrates, Patrick Henry fought for the United States of America, not an ideology.

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