Richmond Times-Dispatch Mar 25, 2007
How much did Capt. John Smith know? Did he suspect the experiment begun at Jamestown would lead to Philadelphia -- and to Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, to places and incidents further beyond? The perspective of 400 years suggests inevitabilities not always clear to those whose words and deeds provide the material for the writers of history. The journey launched at Jamestown had many waystations before arriving at 1776, before reaching our own day.
TODAY The Public Square features the text of Patrick Henry's speech as well as a column by Kay Peninger regarding the historic event. Page E5.
Richmond marks a crucial spot. Tomorrow night WCVE -- Central Virginia's public television station, Channel 23 -- will air a program about a church on a hill and a man who delivered a speech still echoing in the nation's consciousness. The place is St. John's; the man is Patrick Henry. The WCVE program offers historical context before re-enacting the circumstances in which an orator from Hanover said to his fellow delegates, to crown and parliament across the sea, and to posterity, "Give me liberty, or give me death." In winning liberty for themselves and generations to follow, Henry and his fellow patriots won life everlasting. A re-enactment takes place at the church today. The speech is as fresh now as in 1775. We have seen a preview of the show and found the production as gripping as any movie playing at a multiplex. Drama of this depth does not need special effects. It is impossible to view the proceedings without feeling gratitude for the consequences this event wrought; it is impossible not to feel lament, too. Viewers see a vitality absent from the current scene. This is debate -- a real discussion with give and take. The participants not only speechify and even extemporize but listen. They pay attention. "Liberty or death" is an affirmation of political virtue, not a clever sound bite. The content of this conversation circulated throughout the Colonies before the discovery of radio, television, and blogs. Substance has a way of making itself known. Tomorrow's program depicts people. Founders deified are Founders misunderstood. If they had been angels they would not have created a republic of laws to restrain mankind's appetites. Henry and his peers were great men flawed by Adam's inheritance and by the imperfect spirit of their universe. Women neither publicly debated the resolutions proposed on that historic day nor joined in the yeas or nays. Many of those singing lyrically of liberty and the rights of man kept human beings in bondage. Slavery relied not on reason or on revelation but on the lash. Children of God were bought and sold only steps away from an eloquent disquisition on ideals. Yet in a mundane process somehow as miraculous as the raising of Lazarus, Henry and the rest created the impetus for the breaking of chains. After many years of victories and defeats, another tribune of liberty rose in Memphis, Tennessee, to say he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the promised land. Within hours an assassination cut him down. Liberty is ever watered by heroes' blood. Capt. John Smith sowed the seeds. Patrick Henry nurtured them. Martin Luther King reaped a bounty earned at a price heavy yet honorable. As with the crops in the fields, liberty must be replenished -- which explains why shows such as tomorrow's are essential, and why memory is each generation's obligation to its forebears. Think also of this: St. John's is not an artifact but an active congregation. Its parishioners pray where Henry spoke. Many are the ways in which words are made flesh.