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America’s Virginian

Among the men who did the most for the American Revolution, Patrick Henry is probably the least appreciated.

By From the April 2011 issue

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Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation
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.

One of those public pursuits was service in the First Continental Congress. Henry arrived home from Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 convinced there would be war.

Most colonial leaders still clung to the hope that the British would be willing to accommodate the petition for redress that had issued from the Continental Congress. King George had reportedly received it with a smile. When the Second Virginia Convention assembled in Richmond in March of 1775, word of King George's subsequent rejection of the petition, and of Parliament's trade embargo, had not yet reached America. Henry introduced a resolution that Virginia "be immediately put into a state of defense," and that a body of men be armed. Many delegates argued against it, insisting that peace was imminent.

Unger quotes a clergyman who was present: "Henry arose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye… with a majesty… and with all that self-possession by which he was so invariably distinguished...the tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords.…"

It is natural, Henry said, "to indulge in the illusions of hope" and to "shut our eyes against a painful truth." But what in the conduct of the British justified such hope?

Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir.… Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our lands. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?

He built his case relentlessly, recounting the colonists' spurned supplications, their struggle for freedom, the baseness and impossibility of retreat, and the inevitability of war. Then, in words that have echoed for centuries, he thundered defiantly:

Gentlemen may cry, "Peace! Peace!" -- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!… Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish?.… Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

The effect was electric. As Unger records, "[I]n every county across the state, men and boys sewed the words ‘Liberty or death' on their shirt fronts," and rode to their county courthouses to join the militia and fight.

Henry served briefly as commander in chief of Virginia's military forces, and then acted as a key architect in framing a constitution for the soon-to-be-independent state. When it was adopted in June 1776, Henry was elected the state's first governor.

Marshalling meager resources, the new governor acted vigorously to support the war effort, sending troops to George Washington's army in the north, fortifying shorelines, procuring military materiel, and building shipyards. At one point, Henry worked himself into a state of complete exhaustion, followed by malaria.

EVENTS STRANGER THAN FICTION then interceded. Sarah had passed away in early 1775. In 1777, Governor Patrick Henry, at 41 years of age, fell hopelessly in love with 18-year-old Dorothea Dandridge of Hanover. Known as "Dolly," she was a magnificent beauty not much older than Martha. What Henry did not know, in Unger's words, was that "his son John, who was serving with Virginia's regiments in the North, also loved Dolly and had asked her father for her hand."

When the elder Henry proposed, Dorothea's father decided that the governor would be the successful suitor. Henry sent the happy news to family members, including John. Not long before the Battle of Saratoga, John received word that his own father had married the woman he loved. After that bloody engagement, John wandered among the hundreds of bodies of his fallen comrades, crazed with grief. He broke his sword into pieces, went "raving mad," and then -- completely disappeared (see the book for what happened afterward).

In all, Henry served three terms as governor during the war, and two more terms thereafter. Following the war, he did not attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787, fearing that it would produce a "consolidated" government, in which the national power could overrule and overawe the states composing it. His fears were confirmed by the document the Convention produced. Henry believed that the Constitution signed in Philadelphia provided insufficient limitations on the national government. There were no term limits to prevent formation of permanent political elites. The federal judiciary was too powerful, and vesting unlimited executive powers in the presidency was dangerous. He took special offense at the government's power to "negative" state laws, to impose taxes without the states' consent, and to employ a national army to enforce federal laws.

Henry led the Anti-Federalist opposition in the Virginia ratifying convention. The Anti-Federalists were narrowly defeated, but Henry remained steadfast for freedom above all: "As this government stands, I despise and abhor it." He told his sons: "This Constitution cannot last. It will not last a century. We can only get rid of it by a most violent and bloody struggle." As Unger observes, "The South would long remember his words."

Although Henry had started with 300 acres of completely unproductive soil, at his death he left at least six plantations totaling more than 26,000 acres, as well as substantial cash bequests. He dressed plainly -- his garments were frequently described as "drab" or even "coarse." He did not smoke or drink. Conventionally religious for most of his life, he studied the Bible deeply in his later years. But there was nothing of the prig about him. He was a man's man, a fighter in the rough and tumble of the law and revolutionary politics, a man who enjoyed good company, bawdy songs, and music.

He was apparently happiest on his farms, in the company of his family. Henry ultimately fathered 18 children, 6 with Sarah and 12 with Dolly. He had at least 77 grandchildren. His descendants run to many thousands.

He also possessed a rare trait, what Unger describes as an "astonishing -- almost frightening -- gift to move men's minds." Fortunately for us, Henry was a man of principle, and used that gift to move men's minds on behalf of freedom. Unger's vivid, gracefully written narrative brings Patrick Henry back to life for us, both to emulate and to serve as an ideal of what a political leader can and should be.

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About the Author

Dan Peterson is an attorney who practices firearms law in Northern Virginia.