“I Smelt a Rat” – How Patrick Henry’s Discernment Secured American Freedoms

I have recently finished a book about spiritual gifts and am “pitching” the book to several Christian publishers. Six years of research on the gifts mentioned in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 yielded a lot of material—not all of which made the final cut in the book. However, I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I’ve decided to share it in a series of blogs on this website.

I hope you enjoy these examples of historical figures who exercised various gifts. Lord willing, they will not only help you understand the usefulness of each gift, but they’ll also whet your appetite so you’ll get a copy of the book when it comes out.

The gift “discerning of spirits” is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It’s the Holy Spirit endowed ability to differentiate between truth and error, to detect the source of a person’s speech or behavior, whether it has its origin in God, demons or human imagination.

One example of this gift at work in the marketplace comes from the early American political realm. You may remember Patrick Henry as the man who declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”[i] However, did you know that he refused to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, declaring publically, “I smelt a rat”?[ii]

Patrick Henry was something of a late-bloomer, showing little professional promise until he decided to become a lawyer. Not long after his approval for the bar, Henry became a sensation in the state of Virginia. Historian Thomas Jewett, author of “Patrick Henry: America’s Radical Dissenter,” attributes Henry’s success, in part, to the fact that he adopted a passionate and persuasive oratory style akin to that of evangelical preachers of the Great Awakening, to whom he had been exposed attending church with his mother.[iii]

Elected to the Virginia Legislature in 1765, he immediately opposed the Stamp Act and gave his rousing “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. He was elected to the First Continental Congress in August, 1774, where he declared, “I am not a Virginian, but an American.”

On March 23, 1775, in the Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Patrick Henry declared to those who feared the odds against the Americans’ success in resisting England, “There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle…is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Two days later, he asserted:

It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. …Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those, who having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it might cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.[iv]

Foreseeing the inevitability and necessity of war to obtain liberty from the oppression of King George, Patrick Henry organized a militia in Hanover County in 1774. In April of 1776, he was elected to represent that county at the Virginia Revolutionary Convention. There he sponsored resolutions that directed Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence.

He was also instrumental in writing Virginia’s Constitution,

…which served as a model for other colonies. He probably drafted the fifteenth and sixteenth articles to the Virginia Declaration of Rights that guarantees religious liberty and which became an important forerunner of the Federal Bill of Rights.

Patrick Henry was elected the state’s first post-colonial governor and served until 1779. After the Revolution, he was elected as its sixth Governor in 1784 and 1785.[v]

When Henry was among those the Virginia Assembly selected to attend the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, he declined. He told fellow Virginian George Washington, “I cannot bring my mind to accord with the proposed constitution…The concern I feel on this account is really greater than I am able to express.”[vi]

Why would so great a patriot and statesman oppose the Constitutional Convention? Because it was illegal and unauthorized by the states, and the Holy Spirit made him aware of the duplicity of its organizers.

In 1787, the American government under the Articles of Confederation was in a shambles. With the thirteen states acting as autonomous entities unconcerned with the economic, diplomatic and political interests of the others, the nation was weak and divided amongst itself and in need of a major overhaul.

According to the Articles of Confederation, the central government was “perpetual, and can only be altered by approval of Congress with ratification by all (13) state legislatures.” However, Rhode Island refused to vote for such a change and later refused to take part in the Constitutional Convention. Therefore, the Continental Congress called for a convention to be held in May of that year “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” in order to strengthen the Union. However, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had an entirely different agenda in mind when they proposed this measure.

In an article entitled, “The Illegal Constitutional Convention,” posted February 22, 2017, on his blog, History Lessons, historian Bruce Kauffmann explains:

Thus, before the Constitutional Convention had even begun there was both a violation of the clear language in the Articles that such a convention was illegal, and a violation of the clear instructions of Congress that the convention was merely to modify the existing government, not replace it. Prior to the convention, Madison created a blueprint for an entirely new national government with powers far beyond those most Americans could possibly imagine in 1787, including many powers that formally had belonged to the state governments.[vii]

That’s why the delegates were compelled to meet in secret. It was also sparsely and sporadically attended, and some of the delegates refused to validate it with their signatures.

Once the Constitution was signed and sent to the states for ratification, Hamilton and Madison began their campaign to urge its passage through The Federalist Papers. However, Patrick Henry was a leader of the anti-federalists in Virginia and a staunch opponent of what he considered a dangerous document that might very well cost the American Republic and its citizens the freedoms he and his fellow patriots had fought so hard to establish.

During his speech on the Federal Constitution at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1788, Henry reminded the members that delegates had been sent to Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation, not to create an entirely new constitution. Recalling his opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765, wherein he had been labelled a traitor to his country, he justified his misgivings, now. “Suspicion is a virtue as long as its object is the public good, and as long as it stays within proper bounds. …Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.”[ix]

Suspecting an ulterior motive of empire-building among the Freemasons who framed the Constitution, Patrick Henry worried that there would be “no checks, no real balances, in this government.” He said James Madison “tells you of important blessings which he imagines will result to us and mankind in general, from the adoption of this system.” Nevertheless Henry warned, “I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant.” Looking with a Holy Spirit-illuminated mind that saw “beyond the horizon that binds human eyes,” Henry said that the decision of his fellow delegates might well result in “the consequent happiness or misery of mankind.”[x]

Although not able to prevent the ratification of the offending document, Patrick Henry did persuade fellow Virginians to recommend forty amendments to the Constitution to address his concerns. Eventually even Jefferson and Madison were convinced of the need for limitations on the Federal government, so that the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Patrick Henry thereafter supported the new system of government, but his comments regarding its founding document were particularly insightful: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”[xi]

Patrick Henry’s discernment regarding the abuse of power by King George of England and the potential for similar abuses in the fledgling government of the United States made him instrumental in securing the fundamental freedoms we now enjoy. Had he not possessed the perception to see beyond the words and deeds of his contemporaries to the spirits that motivated them, and then convincingly communicated his misgivings, we might not now be free to live according to our consciences, to bear arms to defend our lives or property, and so on!

[i] From a speech given at Saint John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia on March 23, 1775 to the Virginia House of Burgesses; as first published in print in 1817 in William Wirt’s Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

[ii] https://www.americanheritage.com/content/patrick-henry-smells-rat

[iii] Jewett, Thomas. “Patrick Henry: America’s Radical Dissenter,” Varsity Tutors website. https://www.varsitytutors.com/earlyamerica/early-america-review/volume-8/patrick-henry.

[iv] “Patrick Henry Quotes,” Revolutionary War and Beyond website. http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/patrick-henry-quotes.html.

[v] Ibid. Also, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Patrick_Henry

[vi] Arun, Paul. “Patrick Henry Smells a Rat,” American Heritage website. https://www.americanheritage.com/content/patrick-henry-smells-rat

[vii] Kauffmann, Bruce. “The Illegal Constitutional Convention” blog on February 22, 2017. https://historylessons.net/the-illegal-constitutional-convention.

[viii] Arun [Punctuation added to quote for clarification.]

[ix] Ibid. Also, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Patrick_Henry

[x] Arun

[xi] “Patrick Henry Quotes,” Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/361839.Patrick_Henry



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