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Book Review: Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry, by Harlow Giles Unger

One of the most famous Founding Fathers who never became President.


Lion of Liberty: The Life and Times of Patrick Henry

Da Capo Press, 2010, 322 pages



Known to generations of Americans for his stirring call to arms, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry is all but forgotten today as the first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, the first to call for revolution, and the first to call for a bill of rights. If Washington was the “Sword of the Revolution” and Jefferson, “the Pen”, Patrick Henry more than earned his epithet as “the Trumpet” of the Revolution for rousing Americans to arms in the Revolutionary War. Henry was one of the towering figures of the nation’s formative years and perhaps the greatest orator in American history.

To this day, many Americans misunderstand what Patrick Henry’s cry for “liberty or death” meant to him and to his tens of thousands of devoted followers in Virginia. A prototype of the 18th- and 19th-century American frontiersman, Henry claimed individual liberties as a “natural right” to live free of “the tyranny of rulers”—American, as well as British. Henry believed that individual rights were more secure in small republics than in large republics, which many of the other Founding Fathers hoped to create after the Revolution.

Henry was one of the most important and colorful of our Founding Fathers—a driving force behind three of the most important events in American history: the War of Independence, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and, tragically, as America’s first important proponent of states’ rights, the Civil War.




Patrick Henry is known as the firebrand who said "Give me liberty or give me death." He never became President, but he did serve as Governor of Virginia (three times before independence, and again afterwards), and was a powerful figure before and after the American Revolution.

Also, the dude had eighteen children (of whom all but two survived) and 77 grandchildren. He's estimated to have over 100,000 descendants. If anyone deserves to be known as the "Father of his country," it's Patrick Henry, not childless George Washington.

Patrick Henry

If this be treason, make the most of it!



Like so many of the Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry got his start as a lawyer, where his gift of oratory was evident early in his career, as was his willingness to rebel against the king. In a case in which his father was the presiding judge, Patrick Henry represented a group of tobacco farmers whose debts to the Anglican Church had been reduced by a bill passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, but which the clergy, not happy about having their payments reduced, petitioned London to overturn. The British authorities did so, the clergy sued for payment, and Patrick Henry railed in court against the king and the church, calling them tyrants and bad for society. Despite opposing counsel accusing him of treason, Henry's oratory worked: the jury came back and awarded the plaintiff damages of 1 farthing. This would not be the first time that he would convince a jury to effectively ignore the law and the facts of the case in favor of an emotional response.

It was the Stamp Act that really got Patrick Henry rolling. To cries of "Treason!" when he seemed to be calling for King George's head, he said, "If this be treason, make the most of it!"

And it was on. If Patrick Henry were alive today, he would probably be a Trump-like figure, shitposting on Twitter and calling his opponents enemies of the people.

Patrick Henry-speech

Another complicated Virginian



A lot of the most prominent Founding Fathers were Virginians, including four of the first five presidents. Patrick Henry was a peer of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe; mostly a friend of Washington, an opponent of Madison, and a sometimes ally, sometimes adversary of Jefferson and Monroe.

Like many of those men, Henry managed to simultaneously oppose slavery and own slaves. He frequently wrote about how his moral and religious beliefs convinced him that slavery was evil, and the cognitive dissonance tore at him. He never purchased slaves directly, but slaves often came attached to farms he purchased. He regarded abolition as even crueler than slavery, since the only alternative he could conceive of was throwing freed slaves out onto the streets to fend for themselves.

In his early lawyerly days, he defended Baptists (then a bunch of persecuted upstarts) against the Anglican Church, and was a strong advocate of a separation between Church and State. This would not prevent him later in his career from trying to make Christianity the state religion, only to be opposed by Jefferson and Madison.

During the revolution, when Virginia was vulnerable to British invasion, Virginians were quite unimpressed by Jefferson's leadership. When Patrick Henry took charge, he basically declared martial law, asking the Virginia legislature to give him powers he had previously claimed were assumed only by tyrants. Unger spends a lot of time defending Henry here against the obvious charge of hypocrisy, pointing out that almost every politician reversed course sometimes when the facts on the ground changed. And he's not wrong, but it was rather amusing, in a biography about one of the most firebreathing, pro-freedom Founding Fathers, to read about how democracy doesn't work in an emergency and Patrick Henry was totally justified in effectively declaring himself a military dictator, even if only temporarily.

You thought crazy wives in the attic were fictional



Patrick Henry's first wife, Sarah, had six children before she went mad. Sarah Henry apparently suffered from severe mental illness and depression which only got worse as she got older, until his friends were recommending she be sent to an insane asylum. Since insane asylums at that time were horrific hellholes, Henry, to his credit, hid her in his attic instead.

Well, okay, not quite. But Sarah Henry did spend the last few years of her life quietly tucked away in their mansion and probably cared for by slaves.

Henry would marry a second wife, Dolly, who gave him twelve more children. As Unger puts it, Dolly and the kids had to run and hide from the British early in the war, but once General Cornwallis was driven out of Virginia, they returned...


And from then on, whenever Henry returned home, he made certain that if his wife was not already pregnant from his last visit, she most certainly would be by the time he left.


Dolly apparently coped with spending her entire life pregnant better than his first wife did. By all accounts, they both really, really loved children, and had a happy marriage. He was known to be a passionate fiddler and played for and with his children often. He was also strict and scrupulous and there were never any stories of infidelity.

How not to get rid of a troublemaker



After the war, Thomas Jefferson was still pissed at Patrick Henry for opening an inquiry into his disgraceful retreat from the capital while he was governor (Jefferson was really a pretty shit wartime governor) even though Henry insisted it wasn't personal. Henry was also rabble-rousing, so Jefferson and Madison and the rest of the Virginia legislature decided to make him governor again, where he'd be powerless.

This seems to be a thing that happened quite a lot in American history: take a zealous, charismatic politician you want to sandbag and give him an office where you think he can't do any damage. Somehow this rarely works out as intended.

Henry was enormously popular, and started issuing executive orders right and left that flat out ignored legal restrictions on his power. Not all of his schemes worked (he tried to subsidize mixed marriages with Indians in an effort to integrate them with white society), but he did block land surveys and do his best to prevent more encroachments on Indian land. He also suspended capital punishment in Richmond.

He opposed ratification of the Constitution, and considered Washington's expansion of executive powers as everything he'd feared, as he was a vehement advocate of states' rights. Ironically, since he was one of Washington's most loyal friends and would later oppose the "anti-Federalists." While he lost the fight against the Constitution, many of his objections were eventually incorporated into the Bill of Rights. He convinced James Monroe to run for Congress against Monroe's friend (and Henry's foe) James Madison. Monroe agreed, resulting in a tepid campaign in which Madison won anyway. Henry almost challenged the governor who succeeded him, Edmund Randolph, to a duel over another political argument.

After retiring from public office, he resumed his career as a lawyer, where he continued to use emotionally manipulative rhetoric. At one trial, he convinced a jury to acquit a murderer by getting them to cry over how much it would grieve the defendants' aging parents to see him put to death. The judge made the jury reconsider their verdict after pointing out to them that they didn't have to put the defendant to death. Despite developing a somewhat disreputable reputation as a lawyer who'd get anyone off for a fee, Henry became very wealthy and one of the greatest landholders in Virginia.

I found this book, and Patrick Henry's life, quite interesting. He was, like many of the Founding Fathers, gifted and full of passion and convictions, and also flawed and capable of ignoring his principles when they were inconvenient. I'd rank him as a better man by far than Jefferson, and probably more sincere than anyone save perhaps Madison, who was less passionate but far more brilliant.

Harlow Giles Unger writes short and rather dry biographies, but they're informative and a good way to fill in some gaps about non-presidential figures.

Patrick Henry



Also by Harlow Giles Unger: My review of John Quincy Adams.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, harlow giles unger, history, non-fiction, reviews
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