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Oh, Henry

By (February 1, 2011) 5 Comments

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

By Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press, 2010

Many Americans are familiar with the name Patrick Henry. He carved his name deep into the foundation stone of his nation’s history the day he stood in front of the Second Virginia Convention and declared “give me liberty or give me death!” This line ensured that Henry’s name would forever be immortalized in American grade school textbooks even if little else about him would.

Modern America often recalls its history as disparate snapshots of dramatic scenes — like Washington’s crossing of the Delaware or the Boston Tea Party — as opposed to a comprehensive whole. Scenes such as Henry’s ‘liberty or death’ speech, while not forgotten can sometimes find their way to the bottom of the pile like so many old photographs. The fates of the individuals involved in these moments can become equally obscured. Many important founding fathers have faded into the shadows of popular consciousness during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries; I myself had read little about Patrick Henry since returning that aforementioned school text book to my fifth grade social studies teacher. So I was genuinely pleased when I learned that a new Henry biography (somewhat lazily titled Lion of Liberty), written by Harlow Giles Unger, had hit bookstores — here was an opportunity to learn more about a second-tier founding father.

Unger’s biography starts off promisingly enough, stating his goal of restoring Henry’s reputation at the forefront of the American Founding Fathers: “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.”

Fair enough I thought, and assumed I was settling in for a sober, temperate analysis of a legendary American orator by a professional historian.

This assumption quickly proved incorrect. Early on in Lion of Liberty a great divergence appeared between Unger’s narrative and the facts laid out on the page. The schism is one of tone and interpretation, and at times there appears to be a startlingly blind eye turned on events to service what cannot fairly be called anything other than spin.

These divergences run through the book’s several evident themes; the first deals with Patrick Henry as Joe Everyman. Unger emphasizes that Henry was a common man with little formal education and no aristocratic background to use as a springboard to prominence. He underscores this point by stressing factors such as Henry’s penchant for wearing homespun clothing and his love of fiddling. Also we’re provided instances such as 1765 when the young Patrick Henry arrived as a freshman in Virginia’s House of Burgesses (the colonial legislature under British domination) and waged from the start an anti-establishment war on the privileges of the Tidewater aristocracy. Thus, in “fighting for his up-country hill folk – the farmers, hunters, frontiersmen, the disenfranchised and homeless who trusted him,” he carved out a fiefdom of support amongst the yeomanry and backwoodsman from the rural counties of the western Piedmont.

But elsewhere in the book, Unger has already told us that in the same western Piedmont area from which Henry hailed and where he began his career as a lawyer, seven of his family members, his father and step brother included, presided in the Hanover County Court. This hardly makes Henry an aristocrat on the level of George Washington, but it certainly makes his family a sort of regional petty nobility, with a ready-made power base that can be a useful hand-up for a determined young man. The young man in question here might have been determined, but he most definitely was not self-made.

Unger also obscures the issue of Henry’s personal wealth. It is true enough that Henry could not economically match the scale of Virginia’s Tidewater elites – Unger tells us for example that Washington owned over 20,000 acres and 300 slaves, which clearly dwarfs some of the several estates Henry owned in his lifetime – such as Scotchtown where he owned nearly a thousand acres and thirty slaves, or later Red Hill where he owned 3,000 acres and 69 slaves (who harvested 20,000 pounds of tobacco for Henry annually). While Henry’s properties in no way compare with Mount Vernon and as Unger persistently reminds us, he maintained simplicity in living, he still lived in immense opulence compared to the average Virginian of his time. Unger’s assertion of Henry’s humble yeoman standing is completely untenable. Henry clearly sympathized with the lower or working classes, but as patron to client, not as coevals.

An intertwined theme is slavery. What exactly was Henry’s relationship with the peculiar institution? Unger tells us that Henry abhorred slavery; it “tore” at him and he was never able to square it with his moral and religious beliefs. Unger seeks to distinguish Henry from other slave owners by stating he only ever purchased slaves as part of real estate acquisitions — as if these extenuating circumstances somehow diminish the evil of owning other human beings. It’s base for Unger to attempt to cloak Henry’s moral failure here in the guise of humanitarianism:

For Washington, like Henry and other well-meaning planters, straightforward abolition appeared as cruel as perpetuation of their bondage. To set loose nearly 190,000 largely unskilled, illiterate, or semiliterate people – one-third of them children and an equal number of crippled or overaged men and women – was unthinkable. Where would they go? What would they do? How would they eat?

It’s one thing for a historian to put forward such maneuvers as honest reporting, but it’s quite another to believe them, as Unger clearly does. The argument is the worst kind of specious; the colonies in Henry’s day contained many thousands of unskilled, semiliterate white people, yet nobody proposed enslaving them for their own good. When Unger gives a free pass like this, it raises questions not only about Henry’s hypocrisy when it came to the subject of liberty but also Unger’s ability to assess that hypocrisy.

Henry’s love of liberty was evident during his brief tenure as the military commander for the forces of Virginia where he was criticized by Edmund Pendleton for his laxity in enforcing military discipline. To this Unger retorts “what Pendleton called laxity, however, Henry called Liberty, believing that free men – neighbors all – needed only direction from their elected leader, not schoolhouse discipline.” The gift of hindsight ought to have afforded Unger the understanding that many of his contemporary sources almost unanimously agreed upon – that the lax discipline in colonial militia lead to free men – neighbors all – uniformly dropping their muskets and running away, and that military efficiency was not achieved until the Continental regulars spent a winter under the Prussian eyes of Von Steuben at Valley Forge.

One of the innumerable images of Patrick Henry at the Virginia Assembly of March 3, 1775; this is by Currier & Ives

In 1776 Henry was also involved in the drafting of a constitution for an independent Virginia but was the odd delegate out at that convention due to his strenuous arguments for a strong executive – a position he would later reverse, but not before taking up the seat of power himself and being (undemocratically) elected as the first governor of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson reports that it wasn’t six months before Henry proposed to the Virginia House of Delegates (the lower house of the independent Virginia’s bicameral legislature) “to create a dictator, invested with every power, legislative, executive and judiciary, civil and military, of life and of death, over our persons and over our properties.” Though they did not give him all the powers he asked for, the delegates did expand Henry’s authority. It still wasn’t enough for him, as Unger attempts to explain:

As titular leader of America’s largest, most powerful state, Henry decided to ignore the constitution and simply assume the powers he needed to act. [He was] Gambling that his popularity was too broad based for the House of Delegates to challenge him….

This is an almost perfect example of classical tyranny, but Unger is prepared to excuse it, trying to head off any criticisms of Henry by cautioning:

The irony of the self-professed opponent of British tyranny seeking dictatorial powers was not lost on his political opponents… Hypocritical or not, Henry’s political turnabout was nothing more than a statesman’s adaptation to changing realities. Every contemporary leader of consequence –Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others- would stage equally dramatic reversals of their political positions.

As the political world turned and Henry once again struck an anti-authority pose circa 1787, Unger revisits one of his favorite devices for contrasting divergent perspectives – in this instance the federalist against the republican – by saying what Washington called anarchy, Henry called liberty. As with the previous example involving Edmund Pendleton, this example with Washington begs the question what exactly was Henry’s positive definition of liberty? Unger’s attempts to give that definition, when boiled down to their essence, sound suspiciously modern:

After decades of ever more restrictive British laws, Americans were fed up with government telling them how to live and what to do with their earnings. They had heeded Henry’s call and risked death for “liberty” – and when they won their liberties, they expected government to stay out of their lives – as, indeed, did Henry. He envisioned post-revolutionary America developing into a vast agrarian society with farmers able to live as independent, self-sufficient property owners, free from the tyranny of big government.

The inconsistencies Henry displays concerning this philosophy paint him as being more of a reactionary than the thoughtful statesman Unger insists on portraying his subject as. Henry’s behavior as governor, the wild swings in principle, the inability to find and articulate his own motivations – all reveal deep fissures in the surface of Patrick Henry’s character that makes one wonder why on earth a biographer would want to try and smooth them over rather than probe them.

Eventually a point is reached when an author has so thoroughly lost the benefit of the doubt that his main point – in this case, that Patrick Henry should be ‘restored’ to the front ranks of the Founding Fathers – invites stern scrutiny. There are facts in support of what Unger wants, of course. Henry very early on spoke against British colonial policy, although he was not alone in doing so, James Otis, Samuel Adams and John Dickinson all did as well. But there are also facts against him being counted among the prominent founding fathers. Henry’s activities during the Revolution were completely confined to Virginia. The only important meeting of the Revolution he attended was the First Continental Congress in 1774 where even Unger admits his hero suffered from a bit of stage fright:

[Henry] had no more nor less impact at the Continental Congress than his counterparts – largely because he was, for the first time in his life, in the metaphorical big pond of American politics, with some of America’s best educated, best trained lawyers…. Henry did not display the meaningless rhetorical tricks and “string of learning” that mesmerized semiliterate mountain people in Hanover County, Virginia. Instead he held his tongue.

Henry did not attend the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, the 1775 Second Continental Congress, and refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, though the people of Virginia called upon him to go and fight for his convictions. In his later years, Henry missed further opportunities to mold the young national government, turning down a senate seat, the post of Secretary of State, and refusing an appointment to Chief justice of the Supreme Court –another missed opportunity to influence the national character and again by his own choice. From this perspective I cannot see why Henry deserves to be esteemed even as highly as a John Dickinson or John Jay who were leaders in many councils of the early republic. Given how crowded a stage Henry acted on, given the fact that he took little part in the actual winning of freedom, I cannot find Unger’s assertion that “Patrick Henry’s outrage at government taxation had provoked a war for independence that would free his countrymen from British rule,” very credible.

This condemns Unger far more than it does Henry. Its Unger who chooses to plow ahead with a lopsided narrative in spite of the facts he’d included seemingly only to ignore. These facts can’t help but offend the reader’s sense of balance. Equally troubling throughout Lion of Liberty is Unger’s tone and rhetoric. It’s disturbing when you witness a historian taking no pains to understand (much less explain) the motivations of the parties involved. A certain degree of empathy is necessary to avoid the vulgarity of worn-out stereotypes and present a reasonably balanced account. The following passages are examples of how not to illuminate a subject.

Here is Unger on the reaction to the repeal of the Stamp Act in Great Britain:

Bitterness gripped the hearts of the humiliated parliamentary tyrants who had provoked the crisis. Refusing to accept defeat or seek reconciliation they lit the fuse for the next colonial explosion by quietly passing a Declaratory Act on the very day they rereleased the Stamp Act.

Then by contrast, his reaction to the repeal of the Stamp Act in the Colonies:

With their Stamp Act victory, Henry and the Sons of Liberty in other colonies stowed their torches and banners, took the helms of their little ships of state and set sail over the uncertain seas to utopia.

The loaded language here draws a stark contrast between absolute evil and angelic salvation, and isn’t fit for elementary school textbook of mine. A more responsible description of events at any of several stages of the run-up to the American Revolution, whether it be the Stamp Act or the Townshend Acts would be: ‘King George and his dominant coalition in Parliament wholeheartedly believed Britain had the right to set policy for its subordinate colonies. In trying to exert their will upon the restive colonists they seriously miscalculated the colonists’ confidence in their ability to govern themselves.’ This language neither demonizes nor canonizes but what it loses in melodrama it gains in factual accuracy.

The problem at the core of Lion of Liberty is that it’s targeted toward a specific demographic with the proven ability to drive books of dubious scholarship to the top of bestseller lists. The rhetoric and vocabulary Unger uses are tailor-made to satisfy the requirements of right-wing tea-party America. As such it represents a race to the bottom, using the calculus of the lowest common denominator; it’s an exercise in the glorification of the rustic, bumptious and uneducated, which actively seeks to vilify, through conspiratorial aspersions, the opinions of educated “effete” elites. It’s a ham-fisted work of pseudo-historical invective that adds nothing to the readers’ understanding and only supplies a tired, two-dimensional perspective of American history.

Often the examples are explicit; this is certainly the case when it comes to the pains Unger goes to excuse the discrepancies between Henry’s actions and his beliefs on the subject of strict construction and limited government. Unger writes off Henry’s illegal acts by assuring us his subject is pure at heart and only breaks the law out of patriotic fervor – for the greater good. The last sixty years have seen the same rational applied by the defenders of McCarthy’s secret lists, Nixon’s domestic surveillance program, Reagan’s aiding of the Contras, and George W. Bush’s torture program. All were gross violations of domestic or international law however, but because in each case the ends could be stretched to justify the means, a certain strain of historian was inclined to excuse them. In some quarters, these men are often revered, not in spite of these actions but in many instances because of them.

Unger is perhaps at his most egregious in his summation, when he takes the opportunity to chastise his American readers for failing to live up to the example Henry has put before them and dresses Henry in a cloak of retrospective wisdom:

… almost every president, Congress, and Supreme Court has fulfilled Henry’s prophesies by usurping powers not delegated by the Constitution. Presidents have routinely failed to enforce many laws that do exist and exercised powers that do not; Congress has just as routinely enacted laws in areas the Constitution originally reserved to the states; and the U.S. Supreme Court has routinely issued decisions tantamount to legislation and exercised powers the Constitution reserves to the executive. Whether for better, worse, good, or evil – whether to protect the public or restrict it – the all-pervasive reach of the federal government and its laws is not what even the most ardent Federalists among the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote and signed the Constitution. Laws, by definition, are either proscriptive or enabling, but in both cases, they all necessarily restrict individual liberty and, to one degree or another, they fulfill Patrick Henry’s definition and prophecy of tyranny under big government.

Unger outlines specific examples (that happen to be lynch pins of the civil rights movement) to demonstrate how the safeguards the Framer’s tried to establish against tyranny have been trammeled by the juggernaut of “big government” which in Unger’s opinion only renders Henry’s warning that he “smelled a rat” at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 all the more prescient:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower fulfilled a Henry prophesy by sending troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, to enforce federal law. And, in Jun 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace invoked the Jefferson-Madison doctrine of nullification and stood “in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa to try to prevent desegregation of the all-white University of Alabama. Citing the Tenth Amendment, which relegates to the states all power not assigned to the Federal government by Constitution, Wallace argued that the federal government had usurped state authority over public-school education- a subject not mentioned in the Constitution. Federal officers physically removed the governor to enforce what was then a relatively new federal law passed in response to a Supreme Court decision.

Enter the conspiracy:

Although individual states persist in trying to nullify federal laws and restrict federal activities to constitutionally designated limits, federal courts serve as inevitable arbiters, and they seldom rule against the federal government, whose officials appoint them o the bench and of which they then become an integral part.

And now the swansong:

Henry’s cry for “liberty or death” continues to provoke profound emotions in the hearts of most patriotic Americans, but they – like their forefathers at the Constitutional Convention – seem unable to reach a consensus on the meaning of liberty. Their passive acquiescence to ever-increasing government intrusions into their lives, however, indicates that few would define it as Patrick Henry did when he cried out to his countrymen, “We must Fight!”

There now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? But seriously, this perspective is both ungenerous and purposefully obtuse. It fails to mention things as basic as how awful the states have historically been as arbiters of individual liberty, from slavery to Jim Crow to abetting the undue influence of local political bosses and organized crime syndicates. It fails to recognize the forces of nationalism, where more and more individuals choose to identify themselves as Americans rather than Virginians or Mainers. And most grievously it fails to understand the simple truth of the Federal Government, particularly since the democratizing amendments of the early twentieth century: that it is not dedicated to the states as the Articles of Confederation had been but in its preamble expressly dedicates itself to the collective citizenry. It is not a far off, alien assembly but a collection of representatives elected by the citizens of the various states, brought together to deliberate and legislate on behalf of Unger’s ill-used common good. The results of the process are of a mixed character – born of compromise and accommodation of disparate opinions, they are not inherently evil or evidence of conspiracy, but they are now and always have been easy prey for doctrinaires and demagogues.

Unger’s biography strains credulity in innumerable instances by attempting to sketch a character totally incapable of fallibility; in the place of providing any semblance of humanity, Unger attempts to fill this void with prophetic mysticism and messianic purpose. Before this telling of Henry’s story is over, logic is turned on its head, swaths of fact are tossed overboard, and morality is twisted to make a virtue of fanaticism. In Lion of Liberty Harlow Unger sets out to construct a paragon who embodies the historical fountainhead of a modern political ideology. The book, however, fails to mask the inconsistencies that all men, even the mighty Patrick Henry, possess and that worthy biographies embrace. The real Patrick Henry can be found between the lines of these sanitized pages, visible to the reader who cares to see him for the faulty mortal and faux demigod he was. Perhaps it is this unintentional dichotomy that reminds me of James Parton’s description of Andrew Jackson, also apropos to Unger’s conflicted projection of Patrick Henry:

I am given to understand, [he] was a patriot and a traitor. He was one of the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. A writer brilliant, elegant, eloquent, without being able to compose a correct sentence, or spell words of four syllables. The first of statesmen, he never devised, he never framed a measure. He was the most candid of men, and was capable of the profoundest dissimulation. A most law-defying, law-obeying citizen. A stickler for discipline, he never hesitated to disobey his superior. A democratic autocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.

Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston.