Book Review: The Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry

Posted: January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, by Harlow Giles Unger, is another biography of an essential Founding Father.   While Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are likely to spring to mind when naming the nation’s Founders, Patrick Henry might not make the top of the list.  Yet, he played critical roles in both the Revolution and in the subsequent establishment of the Constitution — the latter as a stalwart opponent of ratification.

In the introduction of his book, Mr. Unger asserts:  “Without Patrick Henry, there might never have been a revolution, independence, or a United States of America.”  In the next 160 pages the author supports his assertion by taking the reader through the making of an orator, patriot, and politician.

In Henry’s first courtroom appearance, he previewed both the renowned orator he would become as well as the fiery patriot.  The case involved the revocation of the Twopenny Act,  enacted by the VA house of Burgesses to allow each parish to pay their Anglican ministers in cash, instead of in tobacco.  Henry was an early opponent of State-sponsored religion and in this, his first public foray as a lawyer, he began to establish the principle which would ultimately make its way into first Virginia’s constitution, and then the first Amendment to the US Constitution.  The Twopenny Act was passed to ameliorate market conditions arising out of an unusually bad tobacco harvest.  Under Virginia law, each parish was required to pay their Anglican minister 16,000 pounds of tobacco per year.   Over the years, the average price per pound of tobacco was 2 pence/lb.  The fact that farmers were allowed to pay in tobacco was a reflection of the scarcity of currency.  A catastrophic drought in 1758 resulted in very small harvests and high prices for tobacco.  Rather than bankrupt the farmers, the House of Burgesses allowed them to pay the average rate – 2 pence – in cash. When the Anglican ministers complained because they would be unable to cash in on prices nearly 3 times the average, the British government overturned the Act.  Patrick Henry represented the farmers in the second case to determine how much they owed.  His oratory surprised everyone.  In addressing the jury, he painted the clergy as hypocritical and greedy, and turned public opinion against them.

Henry shocked the establishment by referring to the king as a tyrant.  “… he has degenerated into a tyrant and forfeited all right to his subjects’ obedience to his order of annulment.”

He was equally vitriolic in his attack on the clergy.  Unger explains,

With each phrase, Henry stripped away the veneer of reverence for the clergy that had suppressed the anger of country folk toward the church for generations.

Henry won his case.  The amount awarded to the Anglican minister, Maury, was 1 penny.

And so, Henry’s fame spread  along with the flame of rebellion he helped ignite.  People would come from near and far to hear him address a jury.  According to the losing attorney in the case:

Whenever he rose to speak, although it might be on so trifling a subject as a summons and petition for twenty shillings, I was obliged to lay down my pen and could not write another word until the speech was finished.

Already having demonstrated  his powers of oratory, he began his political career in 1765.  When newly elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, his colleagues included George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, John Randolph and George Wythe.  Just as in his first court case against the Anglican parsons, Henry didn’t wait long to make an impression.  Just four days after assuming his seat, he startled the House’s good-ole-boy club by asking to be recognized (unheard of in itself), and proposing 5 resolutions which represented the first colonial opposition to British law.  The last of these revolved around colonial dissatisfaction with the Stamp Act. Henry railed against British tyranny:

Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third …

amid shouts of, “Treason!” he continued,

… and George the Third may profit by their example!  If this be treason, make the most of it!

Henry showed that he was not only a master orator, but also a master politician.  He used the press in what we would call today viral marketing.  When the House speaker tried to reconvene the next day to stuff the genie back into the bottle, it was already too late.  Henry had given all of his resolutions to the editor of the Virginia Gazette, who in turn, sent them out to newspapers across America.   The word was out, regardless of the final result of the Virginia House debate. Their publication in papers throughout the country “fired up colonist antipathy toward British Government intrusion in their affairs and Parliament’s effort to tax them, directly or indirectly.”

Henry’s most famous speech, which culminated in the bold proclamation: “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” took place at the Second Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, on March 20, 1775.  The convention was attended by such notables as George Washington, Richard Henry Lee and Edmund Randolph.

In this instance and others, one of the most interesting facets of this book (although not unique to The Lion of Liberty), was how the author tied the various actors in the Revolution together and placed them at various events.  Without dwelling too much on others’ personalities, Unger manages to shed light on a number of facts hitherto unknown by this reviewer, and perhaps to others as well.  One such interesting detail was the source of Jefferson’s enmity toward Henry.  At one point Jefferson referred to him as “all tongue, without either head or heart.”  As noted in a recent WWTFT review of Pauline Maiers book Ratification, Jefferson detested Henry and when Henry raised objections to a revision of the flawed Virginia Constitution in 1776, Jefferson told Madison that they should abandon their efforts to get the proposal passed.  “While Henry lives, another bad constitution would be formed and saddled forever on us.  What we have to do I think is devoutly pray for his death.”  The source of his hatred was a bruised ego.  Jefferson succeeded Henry as governor of Virginia and did a horrible job, a fact he freely admitted.  He irresponsibly disregarded Washington’s advice to guard against the British fleet on the James River. As a result, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold sailed up the river unopposed and burned Richmond. When Jefferson decided at the end of his second term to turn over the reigns to more capable hands, his successor “opened an inquiry into the conduct of the executive of this state for the last twelve months.”  Henry voted with the majority of the Assembly to hold  the inquiry and Jefferson was incensed.  He never forgave Henry, in spite of their similar political views later.

It is to Henry’s political views after the Revolution that Unger devotes the second half of the book.   Unger explains some of the events which shaped Henry’s opposition to ratification.  One of these was Congress’s attempt to pass the Jay-Gardoqui agreement.  (Another interesting incident in which the ubiquitous John Jay is a major player.)   This agreement would have ceded navigation rights on the Mississippi River to Spain, severely impacting trade in the Southern States.  It was partly through Henry’s opposition that the measure was narrowly defeated.  This and other factors shaped Henry’s antipathy towards a strong central government.

He predicted dire consequences for the country if the Constitution were ratified and by attacking it placed himself in the difficult position of opposing his friend George Washington.   The author (and others) contend that we would not have a Bill of Rights, but for Henry’s opposition to the Constitution, partly on the basis of their absence from the original document.

Henry’s arguments against ratification provide color and clarity for any reader of the Federalist Papers.  In reading about the events and situations described in the book, many of the issues discussed  in the Federalist Papers become clearer, in particular the real danger of the formation of separate confederacies and the threat of usurpation of power by the federal government.

It is Patrick Henry’s warnings and predictions about the abuse of power likely to result from ratification with which Unger concludes his book.

Almost every president, Congress, and Supreme Court has fulfilled Henry’s prophecies by usurping powers not delegated by the Constitution.  Presidents have routinely failed to enforce many laws that do exist and exercised powers that do not; Congress has just as routinely enacted laws in areas the Constitution originally reserved to the states; and the US Supreme Court has routinely issued decisions tantamount to legislation and exercised powers the Constitution reserves to the Executive.


Henry’s cry for “liberty or death!” continues to provoke profound emotions in the hearts of most patriotic Americans, but they — like their forefathers at the Constitutional Convention — seem unable to reach a consensus on the meaning of liberty.  Their passive acquiescence to ever-increasing government intrusions into their lives, however, indicates that few would define it as Patrick Henry did when he cried out to his countrymen, “We must Fight!”

Related posts:

  1. James Madison And The Struggle For The Bill of Rights
  2. Monty Pelerin’s World: Our Patrick Henry Moment Is Here
  3. Book Review: Ratification
  4. Book Review: The Forgotten Founding Father


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