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Among the men who did the most for the American Revolution, Patrick Henry is probably the least appreciated.
Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New
By Harlow Giles Unger
(Da Capo Press, 322 pages, $26)
Among the men who did the most for the American Revolution, Patrick Henry is probably the least appreciated. The admirable new biography of Henry, Lion of Liberty by historian Harlow Giles Unger, goes far to restore that able, eloquent, and courageous man to a proper place in our national memory.
Henry was cut from a different cloth than most of the Founders. Although his family was prosperous, he did not spring from the Virginia aristocracy of wealthy Tidewater planters. He grew up in Hanover County, then a rustic area of the Virginia Piedmont not far north of what would one day become the city of Richmond.
At 18, Henry married 16-year-old Sarah Shelton, the daughter of a publisher who also owned a popular inn and tavern. They quickly produced three children. After failing dismally as a farmer (abetted by exhausted soil), and as a storekeeper (abetted by economic downturn), Henry, Sarah, and their young family were reduced to living in the attic of her father’s inn. In return, Henry tended bar and played fiddle to entertain the tavern’s patrons, many of whom were lawyers from the Hanover courthouse just across the street.
Listening to the lawyers tell courtroom tales and debate legal points, he eventually joined their disputations. Henry soon became proficient enough at amateur lawyering that he began dispensing over-the-counter legal advice to men who could not afford a lawyer, in exchange for their purchase of drinks. Informed that he could be liable for practicing law without a license, he betook himself to Williamsburg and presented himself for examination for admission to the bar. His legal knowledge was scant, but his powers of argument were sufficiently impressive that he was admitted (with an admonition to study up a bit).
After three years of undistinguished practice, in 1763 he fell into a case that instantly earned him a brilliant reputation. The “Parson’s Cause” arose from a tax levied by the Anglican Church on each Virginia parish. The details of the dispute are in the book; suffice it to say that, after a tobacco crop failure in 1758, enforcement of the tax law as originally written would have driven many of the Hanover parishioners into bankruptcy or ruin.
The Anglican priest sued the parish, and the validity of the tax was upheld. All that remained was the bleak task of determining the money damages, likely to be crushing. The lawyer for the parishioners resigned from the case. Henry took his place.
At the damages trial, Henry cannily turned from defense to offense. “We have heard a great deal about the benevolence and holy zeal of our reverend clergy,” he intoned. But how do they act?
Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus? Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Oh, no, gentlemen! Instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, these rapacious harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphaned children their last milch cow! the last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!
Unger describes him in action: “Six feet tall, lean, cheekbones protruding from his gaunt face, he marched back and forth, using every element of the stage.” A spectator remembered that everyone present looked on “in death-like silence, their features fixed in amazement and awe, all their senses listening and riveted upon the speaker.…” According to a 19th-century biographer, “Those who heard him said he made their blood run cold and their hair to rise on end.” The jury awarded damages of one penny, the courtroom erupted in whoops and cheers, and Henry was carried away on the crowd’s shoulders. Soon he was making a handsome living as an advocate.
Just before his 29th birthday, Henry took his seat as a freshman member of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. On the day before the session was to adjourn, Henry performed a deed that changed the course of history. The Stamp Act tax was about to be quietly approved by the Burgesses as it had been in other colonies. Henry saw, as he later recalled, that no man was likely to step forward in opposition. So he “alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law book, wrote… the first opposition to the Stamp Act and the scheme of taxing America by the British Parliament.”
One of Henry’s resolutions asserted the radical proposition that “the General Assembly of this colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes… upon the inhabitants of this colony.” The House elders, dependent on British trade, spluttered with rage. But with support from the backcountry members, George Washington, and Richard Henry Lee, the resolutions barely passed.
Reports of Henry’s resolutions spread through the colonies like wildfire. Riots erupted, tax collectors were hung in effigy, the Stamp Act Congress was convened, and boycotts of British goods were imposed. Only the speedy repeal of the Stamp Act quelled the mass uprising. The first resistance in the colonies to British rule was ignited by Patrick Henry, “alone, unadvised, and unassisted.”
HENRY WENT BACK to practicing law and building his estate. In 1767, he acquired the fine Scotchtown plantation in the western part of the county, where he rejoiced to see his young sons run wild and free. According to his brother-in-law, Henry thought that “the most important thing…is to give them good constitutions,” and his boys “were six or seven years old before they were permitted to wear shoes.…”
His rural joys were not unalloyed. After his oldest daughter Martha was married, Henry’s wife Sarah sank into a deep depression. She had “lost her reason,” according to the family physician, “and could only be restrained from self-destruction by a strait-dress.” She spent her remaining years confined to a sunny room at Scotchtown, where she was given every attention. Martha’s new husband managed the plantation, freeing Henry to practice law and engage in public service.
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