Patrick Henry's Dilemma

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Patrick Henry energy

The Patrick Henry Home

Patrick Henry (1736 – 1799), one of America’s founding fathers, is best known for his declaration, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" He actively opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution, partly because he feared a powerful central government, but also because there was not as yet a Bill of Rights. He was serious about liberty.

Henry was a reasonably prosperous man but was not what we would now call an oligarch. For a few years he owned the house shown in the picture. (It is just a short drive from where I live. Our local high school is called Patrick Henry High.) He inherited and owned slaves as part of his part of his wife’s dowry. Indeed, the slaves were worth more — in dollars — than the house. So here we have a man who was devoted to liberty, yet who treated other human beings as property.

He was aware of this dilemma. In the year 1773 he wrote,

Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by 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.

In other words, he was a hypocrite — he preached liberty, but treated many other people as property. But maybe we are also behaving hypocritically, maybe there are lessons to be learned from his dilemma.

Indentured labor in his days provided the energy that Henry and other prosperous people needed to maintain their standard of living. They knew that what they were doing was wrong, but they could see no way out of their dilemma. The analogy with what is taking place now is stark — we know that burning fossil fuels is creating a climate catastrophe, but we need those fuels to maintain our way of life. “We are drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without fossil fuels”. And we know that our conduct is culpable. We talk about reducing emissions, but do very little about it. Patrick Henry’s hypocrisy shows up in the modern word “greenwashing”.

There was actually a solution to the dilemma that the people of the 18th century faced. The way out of the dilemma was what we now call “alternative energy”. In their case, the new source of energy was coal. The energy supplied by coal was so abundant and practical that there was less need for the human energy. Later on, we found an even better source of energy: oil.

Is it coincidence that two things happened at about the same time? In the year 1859 Colonel Drake (who wasn’t a colonel) drilled his first successful oil well. The technology that he used — a drill string inside casing — is still in use today. Just a few years later slavery in the United States was abolished. (In the picture, Drake is the person on the right in the stovepipe hat.)


Drake first oil well source of energy

In our times, we are urged to reduce our use of fossil fuels because it is the right thing to do. Fair enough. But for most people, doing the right thing would be much easier were we to provide them with a new source of alternative energy. Whether we can do so is exceedingly dubious. The hour is late; the hour is very late. But, just as Patrick Henry did not have the imagination to visualize a new way of living, so may be we are not imaginative enough to see a way forward.

Patrick Henry morality of slavery
A failure of imagination?