Of Heretics, Traitors and True Believers


Dr. Samuel Johnson would not have called Nicholas a clubbable man. He was dull. Even the Treasurer's best friends thought he was dull. It did not help that he was balding, short (this in an age when the average man was five-feet-six), deeply and pious and at forty-six no longer young. Lord Dunmore would later compare Nicholas' "abilities as [a] lawyer . . . and [man] of integrity" to those of Peyton and John Randolph, describing them as "equal . . . to any . . . in the colony." Evidently the Assembly was of the same mind, as it had conferred the title of Treasurer on Nicholas. But that was in itself a reward for dullness and for taking on the Randolph interest when Peyton, in imitation of his predecessor, sought to combine the titles of Treasurer and Speaker of the House. The one thing about Nicholas that could not be called dull were his friends, including Arthur Lee, whose call to "hail his country free with his latest breath" (published in Rind's April 28, 1768 Virginia Gazette) was clearly still ringing in the Treasurer's ears when he sat down a year later to give Lee an update on his current state of mind regarding American rights and liberties:

You were fully acquainted with my Sentiments upon the grand and affair [the ongoing dispute between England and America]: I still retain them in their utmost Vigour: I have always professed myself a friend to Decency and Moderation but at the same Time am as firmly attached and and riveted to the Main Principle as any Man alive; my and political Creed was published to the World in the different Applications to Government from our former Assembly, & I am as little inclined to depart one Jot or Tittle of it, that I would avow it with my latest Breath . . .[W]e honour and esteem our Governour, as the Representative of our gracious Sovereign & hope we shall continue to do so for his own good Qualities; he does what he thinks his Duty, & we what is ours.

An avowed moderate, Nicholas could be ferocious if he felt his principles were endangered. Meanwhile, the current object of his esteem, Lord Botetourt, was becoming a personal role model, so dear to the Treasurer that he would name his second son after Botetourt's given name, Norborne. Could a firm Anglican and a patriot with good qualities achieve true happiness in 1770 Virginia? Under Gov. Botetourt it seemed that he could, as just six months after his letter to Lee, Nicholas again described Botetourt to Lee as a fine "Gentleman of the most enlarged and liberal sentiments," adding that, "We think ourselves extremely happy here in our Governour." But what if this paragon should die? Would he find as many good qualities in his successor? And what if Nicholas' beloved church were to fall into the hands of a heretic? Nicholas – and Virginia – were about to find out.

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It is possible that Samuel Henley was looking forward to his heresy hearing. A hearing would allow him to portray himself as a latter-day Christ scourged by colonial Romans; a victory,besides gaining him a plum job, would put him in the way of prominence and wealth. For Nicholas, the hearing represented an opportunity to vindicate his tolerance as well as his piety.His feud with Henley had put his character at issue and made his prose style an object of ridicule. He had bored the entire colony with his letters to Henley, gaining for himself the title "Verbositas." His relations with the powerful Speaker, which had been less than amicable since he helped deprive Randolphof the Treasurer's office in 1766, were now threatening to become irreparable. In short, if Henley was nervously optimistic, Nicholas was probably beyond anxious. A trial lawyer himself, he knew better than anyone what can happen to the memories of witnesses under cross-examination. Here, he not only had himself and Col. Bland to think about but his wife, Ann Cary Nicholas, and her sister Molly Ambler, both of whom had agreed to testify about Henley's unorthodox opinions. It would be terrible to lose; worse, it would be the making of Henley at the expense of everything – and everyone – he loved.

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Had he been asked why he voted for independence, Nicholas might have said, "I had little choice. Men like Rev. Henley and John Randolph profaned everything I believed in." Nicholas' attack on Randolph was driven by inside knowledge of the man's moral character, found expression in sarcasm and reached its natural limit in a devastating parody of his adversary's prose style. Nicholas' objection to Rev. Henley, on the other hand, forced him to confront the issue of revolution personally. He did not wish to desert the English Church and Constitution; he wished to defend and affirm them. It is a view of the American Revolution that gets relatively little airing in standard histories of the period, one that might be called conservative, except that it had very little to do with preserving what was being lost and almost everything to do with protecting cherished English traditions from being defiled by the corrupt stewards of those traditions.

Excerpt from "A Scandalous Sequel" in "Of Heretics, Traitors and True Believers"

To apply the term "evil" to Rev. Henley seems unfair. It is unlikely that he went to Fonthill expecting to participate in an orgy. He went there in the guise of a tutor and a chaperone. A better description of him might be "greedy social climber and clergyman-naif in the grip of libertines," one who may well have told his host that he disapproved, as he evidently did onother occasions. But who would make the better chaperone? A maker of didactic syllabubs or a carper at words? And that was Nicholas' point: revisionist impulses were destroying everything that was good and right in the English Church and Constitution.