Patrick Henry—Elizabeth Aylett (August 20, 1796)

American Correspondence

In August 1796, Patrick Henry writes to his daughter about a number of things—among them his views on partisan politics, the abuse of George Washington, and on the distortions of his views on Christianity.


I have long learned the little value which is to be placed on popularity, acquired by any other way than virtue; and I have also learned, that it is often obtained by other means.

To Elizabeth Aylett.


RED HILL, August 20th, 1796.


patrick henry

MR. William Aylett’s arrival here, with your letter, gave me the pleasure of hearing of your welfare, and to hear of that is highly gratifying to me, as I so seldom see you. (the rest of this paragraph relates to family affairs.)

As to the reports you have heard of my changing sides in politics, I can only say they are not true. I am too old to exchange my former opinions, which have grown up into fixed habits of thinking. True it is, I have condemned the conduct of our members in congress, because, in refusing to raise money for the purposes of the British treaty, they, in effect, would have surrendered our country bound, hand and foot, to the power of the British nation. This must have been the consequence, I think; but the reasons for thinking so are too tedious to trouble you with. The treaty is, in my opinion, a very bad one indeed. But what must I think of those men, whom I myself warned of the danger of giving the power of making laws by means of treaty, to the president and senate, when I see these same men denying the existence of that power, which they insisted, in our convention, ought properly to be exercised by the president and senate, and by none other! The policy of these men, both then and now, appears to me quite void of wisdom and foresight. These sentiments I did mention in conversation in Richmond, and perhaps others which I don’t remember; but sure I am, my first principle is, that from the British we have every thing to dread, when opportunities of oppressing us shall offer.

It seems that every word was watched which I casually dropped, and wrested to answer party views. Who can have been so meanly employed, I know not—nor do I care; for I no longer consider myself as an actor on the stage of public life. It is time for me to retire; and I shall never more appear in a public character, unless some unlooked-for circumstance shall demand from me a transient effort, not inconsistent with private life—in which I have determined to continue. I see with concern our old commander in chief most abusively treated—nor are his long and great services remembered, as any apology for his mistakes in an office to which he was totally unaccustomed. If he, whose character as our leader during the whole war was above all praise, is so roughly handled in his old age, what may be expected by men of the common standard of character? I ever wished he might keep himself clear of the office he bears, and its attendant difficulties—but I am sorry to see the gross abuse which is published of him. Thus, my dear daughter, have I pestered you with a long letter on politics, which is a subject little interesting to you, except as it may involve my reputation. I have long learned the little value which is to be placed on popularity, acquired by any other way than virtue; and I have also learned, that it is often obtained by other means.

The view which the rising greatness of our country presents to my eyes, is greatly tarnished by the general prevalence of deism; which, with me, is but another name for vice and depravity. I am, however, much consoled by reflecting, that the religion of Christ has, from its first appearance in the world, been attacked in vain, by all the wits, philosophers, and wise ones, aided by every power of man, and its triumph has been complete. What is there in the wit, or wisdom of the present deistical writers or professors, that can compare them with Hume, Shaftsbury, Bolingbroke, and others? and yet these have been confuted, and their fame decaying; in so much, that the puny efforts of Paine are thrown in to prop their tottering fabrick, whose foundations cannot stand the test of time. Amongst other strange things said of me, I hear it is said by the deists that I am one of the number; and, indeed, that some good people think I am no christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics; and I find much cause to reproach myself, that I have lived so long, and have given no decided and public proofs of my being a christian. But, indeed, my dear child, this is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast. And amongst all the handsome things I hear said of you, what gives me the greatest pleasure is, to be told of your piety and steady virtue. Be assured there is not one tittle, as to disposition or character, in which my parental affection for you would suffer a wish for your changing; and it flatters my pride to have you spoken of as you are.

Perhaps Mr. Roane and Anne may have heard the reports you mention. If it will be any object with them to see what I write you, show them this. But my wish is to pass the rest of my days, as much as may be, unobserved by the critics of the world, who would show but little sympathy for the deficiencies to which old age is so liable. May God bless you, my dear Betsy, and your children. Give my love to Mr. Aylett,

And believe me, ever,
Your affectionate father,


Courtesy of Democratic Thinker