Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII

Jefferson and Independence‐
The Domestic Problem

Great leaders become great and they become leaders precisely because they themselves have experienced the identity struggle of their people in both a most personal and a most representative way.

Erik Erikson

Jefferson was in the audience at St. John's Church, Richmond, March 23, 1775, when Patrick Henry made his celebrated speech in favor of arming the Virginia militia, concluding with the phrase that echoed around the world as certainly as the first shot fired at Lexington less than four weeks later, "Give me liberty or give me death!" The son of Henry's physician later wrote of what was apparently whispered about at the time but was afterward forgotten, "Whilst his towering and master-spirit was arousing a nation to arms, his soul was bowed down and bleeding under the heaviest sorrows and personal distress. His beloved companion had lost her reason, and could only be restrained from self-destruction by a strait-dress." The poor mad wife was "confined in a basement room ... a trapdoor in the hall, near the entrance, where Henry went downstairs to feed her." 1

Though it seems likely that any man with a psychotic wife would be thinking in terms of liberty or death, no biographer has suggested that something of Henry's misfortune might have influenced at least the intensity and flavor of his rhetoric. Defining the degree to which personal trauma subtly influences political action is one of the most

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