The Rise and Fall (?) of the Republic

A Stream writer has a chance encounter with a Founding Father

By Al Perrotta Published on June 8, 2024

Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the Trump verdict last week, despairing over the fate of our country and in desperate need of a drive, I heading south the following morning, down highway 301 out of Maryland and into the Virginia countryside.

I blasted The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at full volume, hoping the power chords I was playing in my mind would release some of my frustration.

I’ll tip my hat to the new ConstitutionTake a bow for the new revolutionSmile and grin at the change all aroundPick up my guitar and playJust like yesterdayThen I’ll get on my knees and prayWe don’t get fooled again.

I joined lead singer Roger Daltrey in that scream at the end, then glanced around to make sure no other drivers had seen my display. 

But classic rock can only propel one so far, and the news junkie in me could not resist tuning in to talk radio. On that morning, it seemed the consensus was clear: We had awakened in a different country. The country of the old Revolution, the nation of our Founders, was as good as gone. If Uncle Sam was not dead, he was close enough to it that a priest needed to be summoned.  

Historic Setting

An hour or so past the Virginia line, feeling thirsty and hoping for a bite, I stopped in the Revolution-era town of Hanover and popped into the historic Hanover Tavern. That pub had hosted some of the greats of our early history. Thomas Jefferson himself would stay there when heading north from Williamsburg.

The lunch rush was over, the patrons were few. The TV above the bar was tuned to cable news. The sound was off, but the usually dour, pinched-faced anchors and analysts couldn’t be more enthused if they were hosting the Rose Bowl Parade. The chyron made clear why they were so giddy: “Trump Guilty.”

I sat on a stool at the bar, but before I could order the “hard stuff” (by which I mean a Pepsi), the door opened and elderly man shuffled straight toward the seat next to me. His gray hair fell past his shoulders and he looked centuries past his prime, but above his pointy nose his sharp eyes lit like fire. Those eyes stared at the screen a moment, then gazed the length and breadth of the tavern.

“This round’s on me,” he told the bartender. He sat on the stool, removed his tattered wool hat, settled it on the bar, and swiveled toward me.

“Henry,” was all he said, offering me his hand.

“Al,” I responded. “Pleasure to me you.”

He returned his gaze to the television, his lips pursing. The fire in his eyes intensified, and though the lighting was dim I could see those eyes welling with tears.

The bartender handed Henry his shot of whiskey. He swiveled, lifted his glass, and bellowed, “Well, boys, it was fun while it lasted!”

He didn’t need to say what the “it” was. Former President Donald Trump had just become the first in our nation’s history to be convicted of trumped-up charges engineered by the regime in power. Our 250 years as a democratic republic, the rule of law, and history’s most free and prosperous nation seemed as good as done. America, you were fun while you lasted.

Orator Nonpareil

“I was a lawyer,” Henry said, breaking into my thoughts. “Argued cases for years right across the street at that old courthouse. And I have never seen such a despicable display of injustice in a courtroom in my life. Only once have I seen as great an abuse of power.”

“When?” I asked.

He offered a wry laugh. “Long ago, Al.”

Given his age and our location in Virginia, just miles from the capital of the Confederacy, I assumed he was referring to trials in the Jim Crow South. Segregation. Police water cannons. Public lynchings. 

“The abuses got so bad, I could not stay silent,” Henry said, before laughing and adding, “To be honest, I always had a problem staying silent. But this time, watching the lackadaisical attitude of so many leaders, the willingness of a majority to let abuse upon abuse be heaped onto good and decent people, laws disregarded by the despotic, waved away on a whim … Al, I burned with a holy fire.”

“What’d you do?” I asked, intrigued.

“What I could,” he said. “One day, we were gathered in a church up in Richmond. St. John’s. Ever been there?”

“No, but it does ring a bell.”

“We were working on a response to the latest bit of ugly business. Other local leaders spoke their piece while I bided my time. Good men. Among the best you could ever know. But mostly they spoke of patience and how things would work out. Crying ‘peace’ where there was no peace. Sound familiar?”

I immediately thought of my own former governor and current Maryland Senate candidate Larry Hogan’s kumbaya response to the Trump verdict as Henry continued, “When it was my turn to rise, I instead spoke to the awful moment … not unlike this one.”

A Good Reminder

I noticed Henry had risen from his seat, his voice rising as well as he spoke. Heads started to turn; people were becoming transfixed. Patrons began leaning toward the bar like plants towards the sun. What a captivating speaker! He must have held juries in the palm of his hand back in the day — a hand he now pointed toward the screen.

“We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves!  No more! I say, no more!”

He spread his arms wide. 

“Oh, what the walls of this tavern can tell you. George Washington stayed here. So did the British General Lord Cornwallis. When they met up in battle, Cornwallis led the most powerful army on the planet. Colonel — I mean, General Washington — led a bunch of farmers and businessmen, laborers and lawyers. And he licked ’em. How?

“As I told my colleagues that day in Richmond, ‘We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which God has placed in our power.’ I say the same to you, citizens and patriots. With those means, with Almighty God, you know now which course to take.”

A cheer rose from the tavern patrons, diners clicking spoons against their glasses. There were a couple of shouted “Amens!”

“Oooh. That’s good,” I said as he slumped back onto his stool. “Mind if I use that?”

“Sure. Where?”

“I’m a writer for a site called The Stream, writing about the day’s issues from a Christian and traditional American perspective,” I told him. “I know lots of people today are feeling helpless and furious, fearful for our nation. It’d be good to remind them – heck, remind myself — that we are not weak, as you say, if we make a proper use of those means which God has placed in our power.”

“Agreed. In our day, with God’s hand, we took on the fight, emerged victorious, united the people, and ignited the American spirit,” Henry said.

“Yeah, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Let freedom ring.’”

“I put it another way,” Henry said.

“Oh?” I asked, intrigued again. “How?”

He took a final gulp of his whiskey, put the glass on the bar with a resolute thud, slowly put his hat back on over his wild mess of gray hair, and stood up. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he glanced once more at the TV and took a deep breath.

Then Henry stared at me with that heat back in his eyes, a smile on his face and an unmistakable challenge in his voice as he said simply, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” 

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