Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lion of Liberty by Harlow Giles Unger

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.

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