We know by his actions that Henry was at least complicit in the practice of slavery. His feelings and philosophy on the matter is more complicated. Below is reprinted a letter, written by Henry to Robert Pleasants in 1773. Pleasants was a prominent Quaker, and would eventually found the Abolition Society of Richmond, and had sent Henry a book about the slave trade.
During his political career, Henry did fight to end the importation of new slaves into Virginia beginning as early as 1772. He also supported legislation in 1782 that made it legal for the first time for Virginia slaveholders actually to free slaves. This granted slaveholders limited manumission. Henry had hoped that in allowing masters to free slaves, and in ending importation of new ones, that the institution would eventually wither and die on its own in the following generation—another hope he expresses in the letter to Robert Pleasants.
Henry did fall short of the aspirations he names in this letter regarding the end of the slave trade and his aversion to it. He was a man of his time, though indeed a great man. There are few contradictions in American history like the existence of slavery during the founding of a new nation based on the ideals of Liberty—and as the mouthpiece for those ideals, it is easy to judge that contradiction, specifically in Henry, harshly. What is interesting in this letter to modern eyes is Henry’s full acknowledgement of that contradiction. He makes no pretense of justifying the practice, by himself or the nation, nor does he try to dismiss how it is at odds with the other values he held so dear.
In that honest objectivity toward himself and the Founders, this letter remains as a testament to his conscience, his character, and his hope for the nation—hopes that, although unseen by himself or his contemporaries, would one day be realized by later generations.
DEAR SIR: I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade. I thank you for it. It is not a little surprising that the professors of Christianity, whose chief excellence consists in softening the human heart,and in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong. What adds to the wonder is that this practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages. Times, that seem to have pretensions to boast of improvements in the arts and sciences, and refined morality, have brought into general use, and guarded by many laws, a species of violence and tyranny, which our rude and more barbarous, but more honest ancestors detested.
Is it not amazing, that at a time, when the rights of humanity are stated and understood with precision, in a country, above all others, fond of liberty, that in such an age, and in such a country, we find men professing a religion the most humane, mild, gentle, and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the bible, and destructive to morality? Every thinking, honest man rejects it in speculation, how few in practice from conscientious motives!
Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, and cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them.
I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence of slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for reformation to practice, let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity. It is the furthest advance we can make toward justice. It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery.
I know not when to stop. I could say many things on the subject, a serious view of which gives a gloomy perspective to future times.
Patrick Henry, 1773