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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. A prototype of the 18th- and 19th-century American frontiersman, Henry claimed individual liberties as a “natural right” to live free of “the tyranny of rulers”—American, as well as British. Henry believed that individual rights were more secure in small republics than in large republics, which many of the other Founding Fathers hoped to create after the Revolution.
Henry was one of the most important and 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, as America’s first important proponent of states’ rights, the Civil War.
Harlow Giles Unger, a former distinguished visiting fellow in American history at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, is a veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator, and historian. His books include The Last Founding Father and four other biographies of America’s Founding Fathers, plus many more. He lives in New York.
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By David I. Williams on 05-13-13
A Decent Book on an Amazing Character
Patrick Henry is one of those characters in history that many people know his name, but know little about him. Many are familiar with the line from his famous speech where he declared "Give me liberty or give me death." Few know much more about him. Harlow Giles Unger has set out to change that. In the past Unger has written about James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. In this book he turns his attention to Patrick Henry. Henry was not like a lot of his Virginia colleagues. He was not born to a wealthy planter. After failing at a few business ventures he finally took up the study of law. Before long he had established himself as a well respected attorney. Henry's strong appeal was his common sense and his love of liberty. He was a radical long before it was popular.
He was married twice. He had six children with his first wife and twelve more with his second. Many in his own time joked that he was the true father of his country. Henry was a man who believed in personal liberty. The belief was so strong that he opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Like many in his age he feared the dangers that a strong national government posed. He particularly feared the lack of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. He was not happy that the Constitution was ratified, but he refused to oppose the new government.
Unger is an entertaining writer. If he has one major flaw it is to take the side of his subject a little too freely. In his biography of Monroe he felt the need to downplay the importance of John Quincy Adams. In his biography of Adams he builds him up as being incredibly important. One glaring example stuck out in this book. When Edmund Randolph and Thomas Jefferson gave their approval of the Constitution, despite serious reservations, Unger implies not only that Henry thought that there was a conspiracy between these men and Washington, but also that such a theory might have credence. It is absurd to imply that George Washington bribed Randolph and Jefferson with cabinet positions. No evidence is given, just a random thought thrown out. The occasional lapse aside Unger is a good writer, if a bit on the enthusiastic. There are so few books on this important founder that it is well worth checking this book out.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
By Jean on 01-23-15
Engaging easy readable biography
In reading this book I have learn a great deal of information about the life and work of Patrick Henry. Henry was mentioned in every biography I have read of the time frame, from George Washington to James Madison, Henry was discussed in the book but only in passing. Historians have paid the most attention to the founding fathers that attained the presidency. At the bottom of the bag, nowadays are those founders who were important for a brief period on the national level but whose working career was at the local level. Henry was the first governor of Virginia. People like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry did not get much attention.
Harlow Giles Unger, an historian and former visiting fellow at Mount Vernon, has written a delightful biography that tries to rectify the prior lack of attention paid to Patrick Henry. The author provides an insightful glimpse into the life and work of one of the most important men who helped bring about the creation of the American republic.
Unger provides an overview of the life of Henry. The book is not a comprehensive biography. The author delves into the key events in Henry’s life explaining how the episodes discussed helped to shape Henry’s work and approach to politics. The book covers Henry’s earliest days as a backwoods lawyer. Unger covers Henry’s friendships and family life (he fathered 18 children) as well as his relationship with George Washington.
What I found most interesting was the discussion of some of Henry’s cases as a lawyer. For example, Henry argues in defense of a group of famer’s who had refused to pay the Church tax to support the established Anglican Church of Virginia colony. Henry’s opposition to what he saw as both a violation of religious liberty and the freedom of the people to be secure against oppressive taxation by distant imperial and colonial governments.
Unger’s book is a fascinating study of one of the most colorful and important public men of the founding era. If you are interested in the formation of this country this is a book to read. William Hughes narrated the book.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful