Lion of Liberty

Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation


By Harlow Giles Unger

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In this action-packed history, award-winning author Harlow Giles Unger unfolds the epic story of Patrick Henry, who roused Americans to fight government tyranny — both British and American. Remembered largely for his cry for “liberty or death,” Henry was actually the first (and most colorful) of America’s Founding Fathers — first to call Americans to arms against Britain, first to demand a bill of rights, and first to fight the growth of big government after the Revolution.

As quick with a rifle as he was with his tongue, Henry was America’s greatest orator and courtroom lawyer, who mixed histrionics and hilarity to provoke tears or laughter from judges and jurors alike. Henry’s passion for liberty (as well as his very large family), suggested to many Americans that he, not Washington, was the real father of his country.

This biography is history at its best, telling a story both human and philosophical. As Unger points out, Henry’s words continue to echo across America and inspire millions to fight government intrusion in their daily lives.


Clay bust of Patrick Henry by
"itinerant Italian sculptor" in 1788.

To my friend and mentor
John P. Kaminski

May 29, 1736. Patrick Henry born in Hanover County, Virginia.
1752. Opens store with brother William; fails one year later.
1754. Marries Sarah Shelton; begins farming.
1757. House burns down; farm fails; he opens a new store.
1759. Economic depression closes store; he moves into tavern; tends bar, studies law.
1760. Passes law exams; begins practice.
1763. Gains fame in "Parsons' Cause" case.
1765. Elected to House of Burgesses; Stamp Act Speech, May 29.
1767. Moves to "Scotchtown" plantation; wife Sarah suffers depression.
1774. Delegate to Continental Congress.
1775. "Liberty or Death" speech, March 23; Virginia's commander in chief; wife Sarah dies.
1776. Resigns military command; returns to state assembly; Virginia declares independence; helps write state constitution; champions religious liberty and end to slave trade; elected Virginia's first governor; leads war effort.
1777. Elected to second term as governor; organizes Virginia Navy; sends troops against British in Illinois, Indiana, the Carolinas; marries Dorothea Dandridge.
1778. Elected to third term; exposes plot to oust Washington; uncovers corruption behind Valley Forge miseries.
1779-1784. Leader, Virginia Assembly; champions restoration of British trade, return of Tories; intermarriage of whites and Indians.
1784. Elected governor a fourth time.
1785. Threatens secession over Mississippi River navigation rights; reelected governor; rejects stronger confederation; supports farmer tax protests; nation faces anarchy.
1786. Daughters marry; his views on women, marriage, slavery; declines another term as governor.
1787. Refuses to attend Constitutional Convention; prophesies tyranny under national government.
1788. Leads fight against ratification; demands Bill of Rights and limits on federal powers; resumes law practice.
1791. Quits politics for full-time private law practice; landmark British Debts Case.
1792. Land speculations; Yazoo scandal.
1794-1796. Declines appointments as U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and other federal posts.
1799. Returns to politics; recaptures Assembly seat; Dorothea gives birth to her eleventh child—his seventeenth—lives four days.
June 6, 1799. Patrick Henry dies at sixty-three. Buried at Red Hill, Charlotte County, Virginia.

"As this government stands," Patrick Henry thundered, "I despise and abhor it. . . . I speak as one poor individual—but when I speak, I speak the language of thousands. If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is . . . 'overturn the government!'"
Henry's roar of exhortation was not aimed at Britain; it was aimed at the United States, as the thirteen former British colonies considered whether to adopt a new constitution. As he had done a decade earlier in his famed cry for "liberty or death," Henry once again roared for the rights of free men to govern themselves with as few restrictions from government as possible. His roar would reverberate through the ages of American history to this very day.
Known to generations of Americans for his stirring call to arms, "Give me liberty or give me death," Patrick Henry is all but forgotten as the first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, for revolution against Britain, for a bill of rights, and for as much freedom as possible from government—American as well as British. If Washington was the "Sword of the Revolution" and Jefferson "the Pen," Patrick Henry more than earned his epithet as "the Trumpet" of the Revolution for rousing Americans to arms in the Revolutionary War.1
As first governor of Virginia—then the most important colony in America—Henry became the most important civilian leader of the Revolutionary War, ensuring troops and supplies for Washington's Continental Army and engineering the American victory over British and Indian forces in the West that brought present-day Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky into the Union. Without Patrick Henry, there might never have been a revolution, independence, or United States of America.
A champion of religious freedom, Henry fought to end slave importation and was the true father of the Bill of Rights. Recognized in his day as America's greatest orator and lawyer, Henry bitterly opposed big national governments—American as well as British. He sought, instead, to unite American states in an "amicable" confederation that left each state free to govern itself as it saw fit, but ready to unite with its neighbors in defense against a common enemy. A bitter foe of the Constitution, he predicted that its failure to limit federal government powers would restore the very tyranny that had provoked the revolution against Britain. He warned that the Constitution as written failed to include a bill of rights to guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, trial by jury, redress of grievances, and other basic individual rights.
Although the First Congress passed some of Henry's amendments to protect individual liberties, it rejected his demands to impose strict limits on federal powers and safeguard state sovereignty. His struggle for the rights of states to govern themselves sowed the seeds of secession in the South and subsequent growth of the large intrusive federal government that Henry so despised. Within months of taking office, Congress enacted a national tax without the consent of state legislatures—as Parliament had with the Stamp Act in 1765. In 1794, President Washington fulfilled Henry's prophesy of presidential tyranny by sending troops into Pennsylvania to suppress protests against federal taxation—as Britain's Lord North had done in Boston in 1774.
To this day, many Americans misunderstand what Patrick Henry's cry for "liberty or death" meant to him and to his tens of thousands of devoted followers in Virginia's Piedmont hills—then and now. A prototype of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American frontiersman, Henry claimed that free men had a "natural right" to live free of "the tyranny of rulers"—American, as well as British. A student of the French political philosopher Montesquieu, Henry believed that individual rights were more secure in small republics, where governors live among the governed, than in large republics where "the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views." Rather than the big government created by the Constitution, Henry sought to create an alliance of independent, sovereign states in America—similar to Switzerland, whose confederation, he said, had "stood upwards of four hundred years . . . braved all the power of . . . ambitious monarchs . . . [and] retained their independence, republican simplicity, and valor."2
The son of a superbly educated Scotsman from Aberdeen, Henry grew up in Virginia's frontier hill country—free to hunt, fish, swim, and roam the fields and forests at will. Far from government constraints and urban crowding, everyday life in the Piedmont was an adventure with wild animals, Indian marauders, and fierce frontiersmen. Unable at times—or unwilling—to distinguish between license and liberty, they viewed government with suspicion and hostility—and tax collectors as fit for nothing better than a bath in hot tar and a coat of chicken feathers. The results were often conflict, gunfire, bloodshed, death, and quasi-civil war. For backcountry farmers and frontiersmen, the business end of a musket was the best way to preserve individual liberty from government intrusion. And Patrick Henry was one of them—their man, their hero. George Washington viewed frontier life as anarchy; Henry called it liberty!
Neither saint nor villain, Henry was one of the towering figures of the nation's formative years and perhaps the greatest orator in American history. Lord Byron, who could only read what Henry had said, called him "the forest-born Demosthenes," and John Adams, who did hear him, hailed him as America's "Demosthenes of the age."3 George Washington "respected and esteemed" him enough to ask him to serve as secretary of state, then Chief Justice of the United States. Virginia Patriot George Mason called Henry "the first man upon this continent in abilities as well as public virtues" and the Founding Father most responsible for "the preservation of our rights and liberties."4
Unlike Washington and Jefferson, who tied their fortunes to Virginia's landed aristocracy, Henry achieved greatness and wealth on his own, among ordinary, hard-working farmers in Virginia's wild Piedmont hills west of Richmond, where independence, self-reliance, and a quick, sharp tongue were as essential to survival as a musket.
A charming storyteller who regaled family and friends with bawdy songs and lively reels on his fiddle, Henry was as quick with a rifle as he was with his tongue—and he fathered so many children (eighteen) and grandchildren (seventy-seven at last count) that friends insisted he, not Washington, was the real father of his country. His direct descendants may well number more than 100,000 today—enough to populate the entire city of Gary, Indiana.
Remembered only for his cry for "liberty or death," Henry was one of the most important and most colorful of our Founding Fathers—a driving force behind three of the most important events in American history: the War of Independence, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and, tragically, the Civil War.

Chapter 1
Tongue-tied . . .
Eloquence had flowed from his family's lips for generations. The echoes of his kinsmen's voices resounded from the pulpits in Midlothian and Edinburgh to the halls of London's Houses of Parliament. Even in the far-off hills of central Virginia, the dazzling voice of his uncle and namesake, the Reverend Patrick Henry, drew worshipers from miles around for the rapture of his wondrous words each Sunday—words, it seemed, from God himself.
It was quite natural, then, that spectators flocked to Hanover County Courthouse on December 1, 1763, for the inaugural courtroom appearance of the Reverend Henry's nephew, Patrick Henry Jr., as defense lawyer in a major case. Although he had spent three years practicing mostly "paper law" (deeds, wills, and such) and defending petty thieves, this was his first appearance in the theatrical setting of a major courtroom case. Headlined in the press as the "Parsons' Cause," the case had far-reaching religious and political implications for both Virginia and Mother England, where the official Church of England supported itself by taxing landowners in each parish, regardless of whether they were Anglicans or not. In the Parsons' Cause, a Church of England priest sued the vestrymen and landowners of his parish—almost all of them small farmers—for failure to pay all their taxes in 1758. If Henry lost the case, many would lose their homes and lands.
The Hanover County Courthouse, where Patrick Henry began practicing law and won fame in the Parsons' Cause case. (FROM A NINETEENTH-CENTURY PHOTOGRAPH)
Henry had started well enough, shooting to his feet to object when appropriate, and successfully countering his opponents' objections during jury selection, and he'd done well enough during the main trial. But now it was time for his closing argument, and, as an eerie stillness settled over the courtroom, he moved to center stage, bowed his head, and stared at the floor. Seconds went by . . . a minute . . . then another. . . . He seemed at a loss for words. Inquietude spread across the room; spectators exchanged puzzled looks with one another, shifting in their seats uncomfortably. The plaintiff's attorney broke into a snide grin; defendants groaned, and Patrick Henry's father—the presiding judge—slumped in his chair in embarrassment—his expectations for his son all but crushed.
Judge John Henry finally shook his head in despair and prepared to pound his gavel and end his son's travail with a summary judgment for the plaintiff. It was a difficult moment. . . .
Neither he nor the rest of Henry's family could understand why twenty-seven-year-old Patrick was flirting with failure again—as he had in three previous careers—twice as a storekeeper and once as a farmer. He was intelligent, hard-working, cheerful, personable, learned, extremely talented in innumerable ways and, above all, he came from solid, well-educated, hard-working, and successful Scottish and Welsh stock.
The judge, his father, had been born in Aberdeen, Scotland, to a devoutly Anglican family "more respected for their good sense and superior education than for their riches."1 At fifteen, John Henry had won a Latin composition prize and a scholarship to Aberdeen University, where he spent four years before emigrating to the United States at the behest of John Syme, a boyhood friend and Aberdeen schoolmate. Young Syme had sailed to America three years earlier and grew rich growing tobacco and speculating in land. His education, erudition, and wealth propelled him into Virginia's highest social and political circles—and such sinecures as a militia colonelcy and membership in the House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature. At Syme's urging, John Henry followed his friend to America in 1727, learned surveying and, in partnership with Syme, began speculating in land. Surveying skills were essential in Virginia, where tobacco crops consumed soil nutrients after four to six years and forced planters to find virgin lands in which to plant new crops. Speculators joined the search, of course, and those who were first to claim virgin lands reaped the most profits reselling claims to planters.
Within four years, John Henry had accumulated more than 15,000 acres in three counties, including a 1,200-acre plantation in Hanover County, about sixty miles upriver from Virginia's capital at Williamsburg. In 1731, John Syme died, and after letting two years elapse in the interest of decency, Henry married Syme's "most attractive" widow, Sarah. Of Welsh descent, she was a devout Presbyterian, and brought a dowry of 6,000 acres to the marriage, along with a step-son, John Syme, Jr. Although John Henry scorned her religion, he tolerated his wife's heresy in silence, given all the other benefits she brought to their marriage.
"A person of a lively and cheerful conversation," with "remarkable intellectual gifts" and "an unusual command of language," Sarah traced her lineage to two of Virginia's oldest, most accomplished families—the Winstons and Dabneys—who welcomed John Henry into Hanover County's ruling circle by arranging his appointments as a vestryman of the Church of England, chief justice of the county court, and colonel of the militia. As a vestryman and chief justice, John Henry became one of Hanover County's most powerful figures—only nine years after his arrival in America. To reinforce his authority he maneuvered relatives into six of the twelve county judgeships and his older brother, Reverend Patrick Henry, into the pulpit of St. Paul's Anglican church. With his brother governing its spiritual life and John Henry its political life, Hanover County evolved into nothing less than a Henry family fiefdom.
British Colonies in 1763.
John and Sarah Henry had nine children—two sons and seven daughters—of whom the oldest was William, born in 1735 and named for Sarah Henry's father William Winston. Patrick Henry—named for his priestly uncle—followed a year later, on May 29, 1736. In 1750, with a third child on the way, the Henry family moved from what had been the Syme home into a larger house twenty-two miles from Richmond on an elevation—"Mount Brilliant"—by the South Anna River, where Patrick Henry, the future lawyer, would spend his formative years.
Prominence, power, and wealth in the Hanover County hills, however, did not mimic Virginia's eastern Tidewater region, where such legendary names as Lee, Fairfax, and Carter reigned over 20,000-, 30,000-, and 40,000-acre plantations from palatial mansions that mirrored their ancestral seats in Georgian England. As hundreds of slaves worked the fields, Virginia's Tidewater aristocracy rode to the hounds and sipped tea by marble-mantled fireplaces that filled each room with aromatic warmth. In contrast, Patrick Henry's childhood home was pure "country"—a two-story, forty-by-thirty-foot rectangular box covered with whitewashed clapboards and topped by a half-story dormered attic. Like most Virginia farmhouses, front and rear doors opened on opposite sides of a large central hall on the ground floor to let breezes flow through and cool the house in summer. Although they spent idle moments on the porch, the hall was the center of family life—a combined living room, dining room, and kitchen. A slow wood fire kept meats crackling on a spit in the open hearth, while stews bubbled in kettles dangling from wrought-iron cranes. Two bedrooms lay off the central room, and a staircase to the second floor led to sleeping areas for children.
Patrick Henry grew up "an indolent, dreamy, frolicsome creature," according to William Wirt, a family friend, who said the boy harbored
a mortal enmity to books, supplemented by a passionate regard for fishing rods and shotguns; disorderly in dress, slouching, unambitious; a roamer in woods, a loiterer on river-banks; having more tastes in common with trappers and frontiersmen than with the toilers of civilized life; giving no hint or token, by word or act, of the possession of any intellectual gift that could raise him above mediocrity, or even up to it.2
Although Wirt called Henry's "aversions to study . . . invincible, and his faculties benumbed by indolence,"3 one of Henry's boyhood friends portrays him as simply a normal country boy. "He was remarkably fond of fun . . . but his fun was innocent, and I never discovered in any one action of his childhood or youth the least spice of ill-nature or malevolence; he was remarkably fond of hunting, fishing, and playing on the violin."4
Henry's future brother-in-law, Samuel Meredith, who was four years older and lived nearby, remembered him as
mild, benevolent, humane . . . quiet, thoughtful, but fond of society. . . . He was fond of reading, but indulged in innocent amusements. He was remarkably fond of his gun. He interested himself much in the happiness of others, particularly his sisters . . . His father often said he was one of the most dutiful sons that ever lived . . . He had a nice ear for music . . . was an excellent performer on the violin.5
Fiddling, of course, was one of the most popular pastimes in early America. Fiddlers such as Henry seldom read music, relying instead on memory and improvisational skills to learn the tunes they played. He also learned to play the flute, English guitar, and harpsichord.
Like most country boys, he learned to fish in his early years, and, by the time he was ten, his father had taught him to shoot a muzzle-loading musket with unfailing accuracy—and add tasty small game to the family fare. Like most literate parents in the colonies, the Henrys taught their two boys to read, write, and calculate, using the Scriptures and a variety of literature and periodicals. John Henry taught his sons Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, and science—and the histories of Rome, England, and the American colonies. Sarah improved their skills in reading and writing and exposed them to English literature. "He was delighted with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy," one friend recalled. "I have known him to read several hours together, lying with his back upon a bed. He had a most retentive memory, making whatever he read his own."6
By the time Patrick Henry was fifteen, he and his brother had read the Odyssey in Greek, mastered Horace, Virgil, and Livy in Latin, and conversed well enough in colloquial Latin to chat with educated Europeans who could not speak English.
Despite his fine education, Patrick Henry grew up with the coarse mountain accent of the wild country boys that lived nearby. "Mr. Henry was remarkably well acquainted with mankind," his son-in-law Judge Spencer Roane explained. "This faculty arose from mingling freely with mankind and from a keen sense of observation. . . . Nothing escaped his attention."7
Unlike Tidewater Virginians, Piedmonters were a secular lot, chafing under taxes they had to pay to the Anglican Church, resenting restrictions on non-Anglican religious practices, hating government agents, and mocking both royalty and nobility in the bawdy folk tunes they sang at local taverns. Although baptized in the Anglican Church of his father and uncle, Patrick Henry also attended his mother's Presbyterian services, where he learned the differences between autocracy and democracy. Anglicans pledged unquestioned allegiance to the king and the Bishop of London, who appointed all parish priests; Presbyterians governed their own churches and elected their own ministers. It was the Presbyterian Church that "nourished . . . his partiality for the dissenters of the Established Church," according to Edmund Randolph, a cousin of Thomas Jefferson and scion of one of Virginia's oldest and most powerful families. "From a repetition of . . . the history of their sufferings," Randolph said, Henry began "descanting . . . on the martyrs in the cause of liberty."8 By attending two churches, Henry received a broad-based religious education, learning of the infallibility of King and Church in his father's Anglican church and the fallibility of King and Church in his mother's Presbyterian church.
When Patrick Henry turned fifteen, John Henry lacked the money to send his son to an English or Scottish university, but reasoned that a university education would be of little practical use in the West. He sent young Patrick to work in a country store to learn how to run a business. A year later he helped Patrick and William open a store of their own, where Virginia's complex barter economy put the boys at an immediate disadvantage. Ninety-five percent of Americans lived on farms and bought what they needed with a jug of whiskey, a bag of grain, a piglet, a chicken, a land certificate, or a personal note. By the end of their first year, the Henry boys had accumulated a stack of IOUs, but no liquid assets to replenish their merchandise, and they went out of business.
In the fall of 1754, Patrick Henry, now eighteen, married sixteen-year-old Sarah Shelton, a girl he had known since early childhood. Sarah's grandfather was a bookseller and the first publisher of the Virginia Gazette. Her father was not only a successful Hanover County planter, he owned the thriving inn and tavern opposite the Hanover County Courthouse, on the Stage Road from Fredericksburg to Williamsburg. After Patrick Henry's uncle married them, Sarah's father gave the newlyweds a 300-acre farm adjoining his own, along with six slaves. From the beginning, however, their lives on the farm seemed destined for disaster. Years of successive tobacco crops had depleted soil nutrients and left the land yielding low-quality weed. In 1757, Henry harvested only 6.5 bushels of tobacco, for which he received just over £10 pounds ($610 today) at market. Making matters worse, their six slaves were mere boys—children of recently imported slaves. Unskilled and unable to speak English, they were of little use to Patrick, who nonetheless had to feed, clothe, and house them—while he himself performed the "labor on his farm with his own hands," according to his grandson.9
Nor was Sarah's life any easier. Within a year, their first child, Martha, was born. A boy, John, followed the next year, and a third—another boy, William—was on his way in 1757 when fire consumed their farmhouse and its contents. Patrick, Sarah, and the children moved into an empty cabin and tried to halt their financial free fall. Patrick sold his slaves to furnish the cabin and buy a stock of goods to open another store, then hired a clerk to tend the store while he worked the fields and Sarah tended the children and kitchen garden.
He could not have picked a worse time to open a store: A drought had devastated the area's harvest and left farmers without means to buy necessities, let alone extras or luxuries. At the end of his first year, Patrick Henry had collected a mere £10. During the first half of his second year, only twenty-six customers set foot in the store. In debt himself, without capital to buy more inventory, with a wife, a newborn, and two other children to feed, he closed the store and moved his family into the attic of his father-in-law's inn, across the road from the Hanover County Courthouse. In exchange for room and board, Henry tended bar and entertained customers with his fiddle, hiring an overseer to continue wringing whatever he could out of the farmland.
In the winter of 1759-1760, Patrick went by himself to several Christmas celebrations to search for job opportunities, leaving Sarah alone at home to mind the children—a lonely, isolated role she would play almost without variation the rest of her life.
"My acquaintance with Mr. Henry commenced in the winter of 1759- 1760," Thomas Jefferson recalled. On his way to enroll at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was spending his Christmas holidays on the 6,000-acre Hanover plantation of the wealthy shipbuilder Nathaniel West Dandridge, a son-in-law of the colonial governor and a cousin of George Washington's fiancée, Martha Dandridge Custis. A neighbor of John Henry, Dandridge was a close friend of the judge, and young Patrick "was at home as one of the family," according to Jefferson.


On Sale
Oct 26, 2010
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press

Harlow Giles Unger

About the Author

Acclaimed historian Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of twenty-six previous books, including twelve biographies of America’s Founding Fathers and three histories of the early Republic. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author