HENRY, Patrick (1736-1799), Patriot. Autograph letter signed ("P. Henry") to John Bradley, [Red Hill, VA], 30 July 1796. 1 page, oblong 8vo, browning, slight mat burn, in a red cloth slipcase.
CORN AND SLAVES - THE AGRARIAN LIFESTYLE OF AN EX-PATRIOT AND FORMER GOVERNOR.
A fascinating letter which gives a glimpse into Virginia plantation concerns in the early Republic. The Virginia political leaders who initiated resistance to British rule during the revolutionary crisis frequently emerged from the planter class. Patrick Henry was no exception and, despite his return to a private legal practise after stepping down as Governor in Virginia in 1794, he continued to maintain his plantation at Red Hill. In this letter to John Bradley, Henry writes of the recent harvest of corn: "As I find I shall not want any corn from you, I desire you to sell all you can. To be sure you must have a good Deal to spare, as I have made out, with less than two thirds of what you made, & have sold 15 Barrels, & have so much larger Family. & still have Corn to spare. Your Crop was 396 - & mine 264 only." Despite the agricultural contents of the letter, Henry notes the demands of his law practise, "I expect to be up at Court." Henry owned 2920 acres at Red Hill making him one of the 100 wealthiest landwoners in Virginia. Corn, tobacco and wheat were the three staple crops grown on the plantation, which also included large herds of livestock.
Henry was also a slaveowner, owning 66 slaves. Several slaves are mentioned in his letter to Bradley, "Caesar carrys up a Shirt for Ross, John, & Lot, & a shift for little Lucy. Carlos, Lee, Ned, Nancy, Guy, Becky, Lucy, Isaiah, & Dick, must go to Mr. Payne for 3½ yards of osnas for each." Henry was probably renting these slaves to Mr. Payne or using them as trade for the cloth.
The contradiction of fighting for liberty during the Revolution yet denying liberty to others through enslavement was not lost on the man who so boldly spoke "Give me liberty or give me death." Henry was a slaveholder who disliked slavery, yet, like so many of his generation, saw it as a necessary evil. He articulated the dilemma before the Virginia House in 1788; "Slavery is detested: we feel its fatal effects, - we deplore it with all the pity of humanity ... But is it practicable, by any human means, to liberate them without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences?" (Tyler, Patrick Henry, p. 389).