By Amber Galaviz
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Gov. Bob McDonnell faced an unusual opponent Tuesday as he debated the role of government with Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, at the historic St. John’s Church for the first “Governors’ Conversation.”
The St. John’s Church Foundation organized the debate between the two governors in honor of its mission to ensure the historic preservation of St. John’s, which is a National Historic Landmark and the setting for Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech.
The foundation hosted benefactors, historical groups, educators and others to highlight its work to preserve Virginia history. The event was sponsored by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
Dr. Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond president, acted as moderator as the governors discussed taxes, the role of government, education and other important issues.
McDonnell and Henry were joined by other prominent Virginians such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson while they discussed how the role of government has changed since Henry was elected governor in 1784.
McDonnell told Henry about rising taxes and the expanding power of government in the country – trends that worry him. Both governors agreed about the importance of education and democracy.
Michael Wells portrayed Patrick Henry the entire night and entertained guests with his passionate responses during the debate.
“When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different,” Henry said. “This was the language when I governed Virginia, but how different is the genius of your new constitution?”
McDonnell attributed the changes to a growing number of sources of authority and a more modern America.
The St. John’s Church Foundation hosts a number of reenactments throughout the year raising awareness and funds for St. John’s preservation and educational programs.
“This is not just a building; this is living history,” McDonnell said.
“But to be able to listen to the words of the founders, walk in their footsteps, and to stand in this spot where Mr. Henry gave that speech to the Continental Congress, I hope inspires you and reawakens your love for America and more importantly your love for the founding role that Virginia played in the design and the history of our country.”
Clay Hamner, who is on the board of trustees of the St. John’s Church Foundation, said he pulled every connection he could to make this program possible. Hamner is the fourth great-grandson of Patrick Henry. He was appointed to a state advisory board by McDonnell and is a graduate of the University of Richmond.
“Even though we know how things turned out from what Patrick Henry originally said was going to happen, it’s still nice to have another governor in here validate what Patrick Henry had warned about, which was a large, oppressive federal government,” Hamner said.
Sarah Whiting serves as executive director of the foundation.
“I think everybody is so overwhelmed at the depth of the knowledge on Gov. McDonnell on Virginia history,” Whiting said. “They had a great exchange, it was entertaining, and it was great.”
The event was filmed. An edited version will aired on WTVR (CBS 6) at 1:30 p.m. on May 18.