Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and The Man Who Was Left Standing


There we were, listening to Thomas Jefferson (seen here in a download from the Colonial Williamsburg website) and Patrick Henry debate the merits of funding religion and religious leaders from a special tax levied by the state of Virginia.  No, we aren’t time travelers.  We were watching the fabulous re-enactors of Colonial Williamsburg here at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. 

After a riveting hour–and yes, history can be riveting when imagination is used in the presentation–Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson asked the audience of hundreds of people to vote.  But before they could, of course, since the year was 1782 and this was a Virginia matter, just a few rules had to be followed. 

All Virginia citizens were asked to stand.  Then, since only men were citizens at the time, all of us of the female persuasion were told to take our seat, as were Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who was not a Protestant.  So far so good for my husband, who at that point was one of a handful still on his feet.

Next we were told that, of course, since only whites could vote and certainly not slaves, anyone not of European origin and not free, should sit down.

By now, very few were upright, of course.  Next we were told that only landowners whose property was in excess of fifty acres, or anyone owning a home in Williamsburg or Norfolk were still eligible, and everyone else should find their chair.

Michael, as partial owner of land near Mr. Jefferson’s own Monticello, was able to continue standing, but only just. 

By then, he was alone.  Asked to vote, of course, he voted with his neighbor, even though Michael himself is one of “those clergymen” who would benefit from Patrick Henry’s special fund.  The afternoon’s lecture was over.

Truly, what a fascinating, even poignant reminder of our hard won right to vote, a right many of us who were not left standing yesterday often take for granted.  The afternoon was also, of course, a reminder of the blessing of religious freedom not funded and regulated by the state but allowed to take shape and form by the people who are served by it.

Yes, a riveting hour.  History can be riveting, particularly when once again we are made aware of the multitude of ways we are affected by the men and women who came before us.  I, for one, was glad to be reminded. 


  1. Patricia Barraclough on September 6, 2009 at 10:44 am

    What a wonderful way to bring the point into sharp focus. Few people realize just how far our country has come. I’m going to copy this entry and keep it in my good ideas to use file. Never know when I can use it for a library program.

  2. Emilie Richards on September 6, 2009 at 10:56 am

    You can’t beat the good folks from Williamsburg.

Leave a Comment