If Patrick Henry were alive today, he would almost certainly be a front-runner for the Tea Party presidential nomination. The Revolutionary orator, who today is remembered primarily for a single passionate speech, was in his day an important spokesman for minimalist rule - for those who opposed the establishment of any strong central government. In the words of historian Harlow Unger, Henry “envisioned postrevolutionary America developing into a vast agrarian society, with farmers able to live as independent, self-sufficient property owners, free from the tyranny of big government.”
Henry was largely self-educated and did not immediately settle on a career in law. In 1760, however, under examination by two prominent jurists, Henry delivered a soaring address on behalf of the hardworking farmers of the Virginia hill country and the need for lawyers to defend their interests. Although largely ignorant of the law, Henry gained a license to practice it.
Virginia politics in Henry’s time had a strong regional element. Henry’s political base in the western part of the state consisted of hardscrabble farmers who felt little in common with the great landowners of the Tidewater. Henry was personally popular, and his law practice flourished.
In 1765, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, where he was just in time to denounce the Stamp Act imposed by Parliament on its American Colonies. Henry delivered a blistering speech that made him a leader among opponents of the Stamp Act and a spokesman for his state.
In May 1774, Virginia’s British-appointed governor dissolved the assembly for having declared a day of prayer in support of the long-suffering citizens of Boston. The burgesses promptly reconvened at a local tavern, where they called for the convening of representatives of all 13 Colonies. On March 20, 1775, at a meeting in Richmond, Henry offered a series of resolutions concerning the defense of Virginia. They included the famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
As political dissent evolved into a full revolution, Henry’s role diminished. Appointed a colonel of the militia, he was shortly superseded in command. In May 1776, however, he helped draft a new constitution for Virginia. Under it, he was elected to the first of five one-year terms as governor. In Richmond, he did all he could to raise supplies for Gen. George Washington’s army, and when he learned of the “Conway cabal” to oust the commanding general, he provided evidence that allowed Washington to defeat the scheme.
After the war, Henry established himself as a spokesman for “little” government. He opposed the creation of a standing army or the payment of debts owed to foreign nations. He declined to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and subsequently led the fight against ratification of the Constitution. Its language, Henry warned, might allow the federal government to assume dictatorial powers and strip citizens of their individual rights.
Mr. Unger notes that Henry had not been out of Virginia for more than 13 years “and was less aware than Madison of the national and international problems facing all 13 states.” His once-warm relations with Washington and Madison became strained.
An issue that continued to torment Henry was that of slavery. As governor, he supported legislation that banned the importation of slaves, but he continued to employ them on his various properties. He opposed slavery as an institution, but like many of his contemporaries, he could find no solution.
Henry, supported by George Mason and others, pressed for the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, and its passage partially reconciled the old Patriot to his country’s central government. But he declined invitations to federal office from Washington and John Adams.
In retirement, Henry became an important property owner in western Virginia. Truly a Founding Father, he sired 17 children with his two wives. A devoted parent, he urged his daughters to avoid novels and plays, which “tend to vitiate the taste.”
For all his distrust of central government, Henry was not a casual advocate of secession. When asked near the end of his life what a people should do when they felt intolerably oppressed, Henry said that they should overturn the government, but only as a last resort: “Wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights which cannot be otherwise redressed.” The leaders of the future Confederacy - so prone to quote Henry - would have done well to heed these words.
Mr. Unger has provided a highly readable account of the life of one of our most prominent revolutionaries.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).