Even with the staggering collapse of American education, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Patrick Henry. Or at least you’ve undoubtedly heard one line of one of his speeches, “Give me liberty or give me death!” What you’ve probably not heard about is either how complicated or how important a person he was in the late 18th Century. Fortunately Harlow Giles Unger’s biography of Henry, Lion of Liberty, is both a great read and a needed corrective to our general ignorance of this important Founding Father.
I really can’t stress enough how worthwhile this book is. Henry is a compelling figure and his life’s story is very well told by Unger. To give just one example, during Henry’s very first court case as an attorney, his clients had already been found guilty and now the jury just had to decide on a fine. After Henry’s closing arguments, he got a standing ovation and was carried out of the courthouse on the shoulders of the crowd.
From there, Henry over and over stamped his views on his nation by means of his rhetoric. From his initial call for the defense of colonial legislatures against a tyrannical national government to his less-well-known assault on the US Constitution (did we really kick out the King of England just to put in place a Congress and a President with more powers than the King ever dreamed of?), Henry stood as the most famous American champion of freedom.
What Lion of Liberty doesn’t dig into is Henry’s religion. I’m not a Henry scholar, but it is my understanding that he is one of the few Founding Fathers who today would be considered an Evangelical (along with Sam Adams and Benjamin Rush). While I’ve not read it, given the author’s credentials I would guess that if you want to know more about Henry’s religion you should read Thomas Kidd’s bio Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.
Still, Lion of Liberty is a good place to start and should act as a springboard into reading Henry’s own writings. I strongly encourage you to pick this book up and enjoy reading about the man who said in defiance of the proposed Constitution:
“Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty… If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute!… What will then become of you and your rights?” (219)