Before I even get started, I should probably admit that I have a bias. I have a sincere and profound admiration for Patrick Henry, a sometimes contradictory, often times fiery man who, for his place in history, could be called the first among Patriots. Even the other day, when I found myself in a Barnes and Noble, I contemplated taking copies of the latest biography of the man and placing them on top of the ones about Alexander Hamilton. Alas, I found that better judgment, at least for a moment, took over and I did not. Still, I found myself thinking I wish that he was given the same treatment as John Adams or Alexander Hamilton in being introduced to a new generation of Americans. After all, it seems, for all his contributions, for the power he once held in Virginia and the Revolution he helped spur on he is largely remembered for little else than a line or two from a speech here or there that he gave
Needless to say that Harlow Giles Unger had his work cut out for him if he wanted to impress me (which we know he did when he set out) as I picked up a copy of Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation. Yet, having read a few of the other biographies he wrote about the Founding Fathers and early American Leaders (John Hancock, John Marshall, Henry Clay, etc, some of which I will probably offer a review of later) I knew if there was a man up to the task he would be it. Once again, he does not disappoint.
A well-researched, well-written biography, Unger avoids the common pitfalls of heaping too much praise or too much scorn on Henry. Leaning heavily on papers, speeches, private letters and the relationships that he had, both good and bad, he strives to paint a complete picture of this man who, in many instances, could easily be branded as an extremist in his day. He was, after all, the first to call for independence, and a revolution, he fought tirelessly against the Constitution as a vast overreach and for a Bill of Rights as necessary to protect the liberties of the people. With this in mind Unger is careful to point out how it wasn’t just British encroachments Henry worried about, but ones by the government of his new nation as well, an idea that wasn’t necessary adopted by other fellow revolutionaries. After all, it was Samuel Adams who argued during Shays’ Rebellion that one had no right to rebel against a representative republican government. As Unger would point out of Henry though, “A bitter foe of the Constitution, he predicted that its failure to limit federal government powers would restore the very tyranny that had provoked the revolution against Britain.” But then he was
A prototype of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American frontiersman, Henry claimed that free men had a “natural right” to live free of “the tyranny of rulers” — American, as well as British. A student of the French political philosopher Montesquieu, Henry believed that individual rights were more secure in small republics, where governors live among the governed, than in large republics where “the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views.
Yet it is not all a rosy picture, and that isn’t shied away from. Even as I began writing this I made note of the contradictory nature that the Henry himself could take on. Unger works this into his book, perhaps most notably, on the question of slavery. A product of his era, and error, he shows the complexity of a man who is, at times, at war with himself on this question. Opposing it as an unjustifiable evil, he would battle to end the slave trade. Yet, in the end, his professed abhorrence to slavery was not enough to compel him to free the slaves that he himself owned
Regardless, what makes this book stand apart, aside from the level of work that Unger puts into it, adding to our general knowledge and understanding of the man, and that the story begins in 1763 as a young Patrick Henry gave his first appearance arguing in Court as a lawyer, is the fact that it reads not like a biography, but a political drama better written than most that you will see on television today. It covers the story of a man who had, in many instances early in life, found that things didn’t come easy or simple to him, yet who found his bearings, and, quite literally, his voice, to become one of the greatest voices for liberty and freedom, against tyranny and oppression in those early days of our history. Though the famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech is covered, and covered beautifully in this book as Unger delves deeper into it, the truth is that there is much more to Henry’s life than that single moment that has defined him to subsequent generations
Taking the time to explain to readers, without letting it get dry or boring, he goes into the development and the methodology of Henry’s legendary oratory style, the pain and struggle that defined such a large chapter of his story with his first wife, and the chasm that laid between the political divide of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. It offers not only a compelling look at the time in which he lived in, or the present struggles of that age, but also lessons that can still be drawn upon today. Covering the triumphs and the successes, as well as the deeper tragedies, and the failures, it will grip you, much like it did with me, and you will not want to put it down
Well worth the read I would recommend Lion of Liberty to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. It will open your eyes to one of the most important Founding Father, a man who, sheer force of will, brought changed the course of the world, and yet who is so often forgotten, or mentioned only in the light of a single speech given.