Lion of Liberty

“Lion of Liberty” is a book on the life of one of America’s chief Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry, written by Harlow Giles Unger. Henry was a very successful self-taught back-country lawyer and one of the first and chief instigators of the American Revolution and the resulting secession of the colonies from Britain. He was one of the most eloquent speakers of his time and had an exceptional ability to sway people to his opinion. At a revolutionary convention he made the famous statement “give me liberty, or give me death!” which was used as a rallying cry for many of the American revolutionaries.

Henry began his revolutionary advocacy by opposing the Stamp Act, the first direct tax imposed by Parliament on the colonies, but which would have had only a trivial impact on the average American. Heavily in debt after the French and Indian War, Britain thought that Americans should pay for the costs of its protection and administration. The stamp tax had been in effect in England for decades and because the ability to vote was so restricted, most taxpayers there—despite Henry’s claim to the contrary—had no more representation in Parliament than the Americans did. Even so, Parliament’s extension of the tax was ill-timed as “Increased duties were already strangling the American economy.”

Henry was a member of the First Continental Congress and was selected as the head of all Virginia troops. However, after the colonies combined their forces into the Continental Army he was given a lesser rank and position due to his lack of military experience and resigned his command. He went on to serve several terms as the first Governor of Virginia both during and after the war during which time he worked effectively at supporting the war effort with troops and supplies and good counsel.

A foe of a strong national government and a champion of states’ rights, he fought against ratification of the Federal Constitution. He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, although nominated to attend. He felt like there was a conspiracy underway to effectively eliminate the current government, which was based on the Articles of Confederation and with the States in control, and institute a stronger Federal led government. And indeed there was. Despite the fact that the convention was called to simply modify the current Articles of Confederation, a cabal let by George Washington and James Madison among others put forth a completely revised government with a strong Federal government (the “Virginia Plan”) that called for Congress to be apportioned by population rather than one vote for each state which would have let two or three large states control. It also provided for a chief executive and judiciary and was broadly similar to what was finally adopted after many changes. Along the way there was many arguments and hard feelings by the delegates with Northerns making fun of the way Southerns talked and Southerns retaliating by calling on Northerns to repeat themselves because they could not understand them. Finally, through many compromises, a Constitution was finally agreed on and narrowly passed by the States.

The 10th amendment was subsequently passed to make clear that the States were still sovereign with only limited powers given to the Federal government. Despite this, Henry was strongly opposed to the Constitution due to its overly strong Federal government, even with the protections that were put in place through the Bill of Rights. He was a strong advocate against the Constitution at the Virginia Ratification Convention but it passed in a close vote nonetheless. However, Henry’s support of states’ rights sowed the seeds for the later Civil War to come over the same issue. George Washington offered him the office of both Secretary of State and Chief Justice in the new Federal Government but he turned it down due to his need to provide for his large family which he could better do at home and increasingly poor health. He later won a seat in the Virginia Legislature but died prior to taking his seat.

Henry was married twice. His first wife, with whom he had 6 children, was almost constantly pregnant, and with Henry often away and she being left at their residence out in the wilderness for long periods of time, fell into a deep depression and eventually died at an early age. Henry’s second wife was an 18 year old when he married her at 41 even after his own son, without his Father’s knowledge, had courted and asked to marry her. With two proposals in hand, the bride’s Father choose the more accomplished Father over the son. Henry had 12 children with her, 18 in all.

This book was well written and an easy read and I highly recommend it to someone with interest in Patrick Henry or the American Revolution. It had the added benefit of providing an excellent overview of the important events of the Revolution, both before, during and the struggle after to form a new government. In particular, the Constitution ratification debate in Virginia, the colonies most important state and with some of the most important persons on each side making the arguments, gives a particularly excellent view of the debate and the conflicting principles on which our country was formed.