Yesterday in a post which may be read here, I stated that Patrick Henry was Liberty’s Voice, and so he was. It is therefore ironic that a man who could speak so eloquently of liberty was also an owner of slaves. However, like most of the Founding Fathers who held slaves, he did not deceive himself about the essential injustice of slavery, as we see in a letter he wrote in 1773 to a Quaker:
Patrick Henry to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773
I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softening the human heart, in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first Impression of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages, times that seem to have pretensions to boast of high Improvements in the arts, sciences, and refined morality, have brought into general use, and guarded by many laws, a species of violence and tyranny, which our more rude and barbarous, but more honest ancestors detested. Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty, that in such an age, and such a country we find men, professing a religion the most humane, mild, meek, gentle and generous; adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty.
Every thinking honest man rejects it in speculation, how few in practice from conscientious motives? The world in general has denied the people a share of its honors, but the wise will ascribe to the a just tribute of virtuous praise, for the practice of a train of virtues among which your disagreement to slavery will be principally ranked–I cannot but wish well to a people whose system imitates the example of Him whose life was perfect–And believe me, I shall honor the Quakers for their noble effort to abolish slavery. It is equally calculated to promote moral and political good.
Would any one believe that I am master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and to lament the want of conforming to them–I believe a time will come when an opposition will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil–Every thing we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence for slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity, it is the furthest advance we can make toward justice. We owe to the purity of our religion to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.
Here is an instance that silent meetings have done yet which learned and elaborate preaching could not effect, so much preferable are the genuine dictates of conscience and a steady attention to its feelings above the teachings of those men who pretend to have found a better guide. I exhort you to persevere in so worthy a resolution. Some of your people disagree, or at least are lukewarm in the abolition of slavery. Many treat the resolution of your meeting with ridicule, and among those who throw contempt on it, are clergymen, whose surest guard against both ridicule and contempt is a certain act of assembly.
I know not where to stop, I could say many things on this subject; a serious review of which gives a gloomy perspective to future times.
All of us are childern of the times in which we live and in many ways we are prisoners of those times. They shape the way in which we view the world and our perceptions of morality. Praise is due to a man who can make an effort to see beyond his time and place and to recognize the commonly accepted evils of his own day for what they are.