A veteran biographer specializing in the Founding Fathers offers a short, sharp life of the Virginia patriot.
Most Americans know Patrick Henry only for his 1775 “liberty or death” speech. Like his northern counterpart, Samuel Adams, he was a driving force for independence who never received the first-tier historical treatment reserved for only a handful of the Founders. Unger (The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, 2009, etc.) offers a few reasons why. First, notwithstanding his service in the House of Burgesses, his distinction as Virginia’s first governor and his election three more times to that office, Henry was always something of an outsider, a kind of Andrew Jackson Democrat before there was such a thing. He made his name as a defender of the common people, an eloquent, unusually effective attorney in the state’s Piedmont area. Though he always retained the healthy regard of Washington and John Marshall, Henry stood apart from the rest of the Tidewater aristocracy that ruled Virginia and later the nation. Second, though he frequently inserted himself in the raging political battles of his era, Henry was not as consumed by politics as, say, Jefferson or Madison. He preferred his thriving legal practice, large family and wide circle of friends. He bought and sold numerous properties and frequently relocated his home plantation, despite debilitating illnesses that plagued him most of his adult life. Finally, with the Revolution won and the new nation organizing itself years later under the proposed Constitution, Henry opposed ratification, thundering against the surrender of liberty to a federal authority, a stance that prevented his joining Washington’s administration. Though he later softened his criticisms of the federal government, his health had so deteriorated that he declined Washington’s numerous offers of high office, posts which might well have further burnished his name.
A fine appreciation—and explanation—of freedom’s champion.