Of Deathless Remarks…

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One day in 1921 a researcher rummaging through the archives of the Service Hydrographique de la Marine in Paris chanced upon a surprising document. What it was doing there and who wrote it have never been explained, but the paper turned out to be the only eyewitness account known to history of one of the high moments of the American Revolution. And it shockingly alters the picture America has always cherished ofthat great moment.

The document was a diary written in English by a Frenchman who had been visiting the American colonies. He may have been an agent of his government, but neither his name nor his mission is now known. The validity of the document itself, however, is not in doubt. It is full of detailed and intelligent comment on the geography, accommodations, customs, and people of the country its author passed through, and it is written objectively and without bias. The writer had no idea that he was damaging an American tradition at its birth.

On May 30, 1765, the diarist happened to be in Williamsburg, Virginia, when the House of Burgesses was in session. “I went immediately to the assembly,” he wrote, “where I was entertained with very strong Debates Concerning Dutys that the parlement wants to lay on the American Colonys, which they Call or Stile stamp Dutys.”

This, of course, was the day and the occasion when Patrick Henry, as tradition tells us, spoke the flaming words that every schoolboy knows, or should. “In a voice of thunder, and with the look of a god,” his first and most famous biographer tells us, Patrick Henry rose in his seat and said: “Caesar had his Brutus—Charles the First, his Cromwell, and George the Third——”

Here came cries of “Treason! Treason!” from the assemblage. But, we are told, Henry “faltered not for an instant … [and] finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis—‘ may profit by their example . If this be treason, make the most of it.’”

It was a grand and unforgettable moment, a milestone on the glory road to rebellion, war, and independence. Unfortunately, nobody took notes on the speech at the time—except our French traveller. And as the only eye-(or ear) witness on record, he gives us an ending different, and distinctly less thrilling, than the traditional one.

After the cries of “Treason!” according to our diarist, “…the Same member stood up again (his name is henery) and said that if he had afronted the speaker, or the house, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to his majesty King G. the third, at the Expence of the last Drop of his blood, but what he had said must be atributed to the Interest of his Countrys 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 beged the speaker and the houses pardon…”

An apologetic Patrick Henry professing undying loyalty to the Crown and offering to bleed for his king is not quite what we’re used to, but that is what the record—the only on-the-spot record—says. The speech as we know it and as it is given in the schoolbooks first appeared a half century after the event and is a work of historical paleontology by William Wirt, a Virginia lawyer and man of letters. Admitting that “not one of his [Henry’s] speeches lives in print, writing, or memory,” Wirt reconstructed the oration from the uncertain and fading recollections of a handful of aging men who were there, using a phrase from one and a sentence from another and fleshing out the body of the speech from his own imagination. What we have as one of the great American orations is actually a literary dinosaur pieced together out of a handful of memory bones and fossils.

Still, Patrick Henry did indeed say something inflammatory on that memorable day in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Though no account gives us his words verbatim, whatever he said caused something of a commotion. We know that the royal governor, Francis Fauquier, reported on the stamp debates to the Board of Trade in London and called attention to “very indecent language” used by “a Mr Henry a young lawyer.” Weeks after the event, a London newspaper mentioned the speech with some indignation and reported that an unnamed member of the House had “blazed out” with references to Tarquin, Caesar, and Charles the First. (Tarquin disappears from the classic version of the speech, though the Frenchman’s report includes him.) And Thomas Jefferson was present at the debate, standing in the lobby entrance of the hall, where he heard everything. When Wirt consulted him fifty years later, he “well remembered” Henry’s fiery oratory and the defiant remarks about George the Third. If Henry backed down at the end, Jefferson didn’t mention it to Wirt.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to get around those awkward notes of the itinerant Frenchman or to ignore the fact that William Wirt never heard or even saw Patrick Henry. Something of the same cloudiness surrounds the “liberty or death” speech, the very pinnacle of Revolutionary oratory, for which, again, we have only Wirt’s undocumented version as a source.