The young William and Mary college student stood in the doorway of the Virginia legislative chamber and watched the renown man speak. The year was 1765. With the cadences and imagery and power of his words the speaker seized the spirit of the young man. Reflecting on that moment many years later Thomas Jefferson wrote “He spoke as Homer wrote.” The speaker was Patrick Henry.
Homer was the great epic poet of ancient Greece and many of the lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey were memorized by many young colonial American boys. Jefferson and Henry could, no doubt, quote large sections of the texts from memory. Ancient Greek authors wrote their poems and histories specifically to be read aloud. The words and imagery were chosen carefully for the emotive purpose of getting the audience to “move with” the author. The success of the writer, or any artist really, is when the power of his or her words (or whatever art form they use) takes you along, imaginatively, to the place that he or she intends. We’re storytelling beings who find our purpose and meaning in the stories we tell ourselves. The world and our experience are the canvas; words are the paint.
The power of great words, especially the spoken, for good or for ill, can move people to do things they might not have done otherwise. That day Jefferson could feel the seductive force of Henry’s words. The men of that chamber, at the time, were debating the one of the most consequential things you can: treason. Henry added great persuasive force to the cause.
The younger Jefferson was a great admirer of Henry and his skill as a speaker, but the later, the older and more experienced Jefferson, found Henry’s power of oratory could also pose a tremendous problem. Breaking things up is much easier than building things up. And so while Henry was an asset in bringing about the revolution and a new nation, he was a serious liability when Virginia was trying to form a new state constitution. It worried Jefferson a lot. So much so that in a letter to James Madison we find some rather candid lines about the content of Jefferson’s prayers:
“While Mr. Henry lives another bad [state] constitution would be formed, and saddled for ever on us. What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.”