Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book review: Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation by Harlow Giles Unger

Amongst the founding fathers, most of the attention is paid to those who were major players in national politics, and in particular those who attained the presidency.  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe get the lion's share of the glory in popular historical writing, while other major founders like Hamilton, Jay and Marshall receive significantly less attention by modern writers.  At the bottom of the heap nowadays are those founders who were important for a brief period on the national stage but who spent most of their political careers working at the state or local level.  Names that were revered in the past, like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, simply don't get the kind of attention that they deserve given their historic impact on our nation's history.  Harlow Giles Unger, an historian and former visiting fellow at Mount Vernon, has written a delightful biography that tries to rectify the lack of attention paid to Patriot leader and Virginia politician Patrick Henry.  Unger's book hits just the right note -- not to short, not too long -- and provides insightful glimpses into the life and work of one of the most important men who helped to bring about the creation of the American republic.

Unger provides a solid overview of the life of Henry, detailed but not too detailed for the general reader.  While certainly not exhaustive, Unger's book delves into key events in Henry's life, explaining how the episodes discussed helped to shape Henry's work and approach to politics.  Henry's commitment to liberty is explained within the context of Virginia's social and political climate, the prevalence of slavery and aristocracy in the Old Dominion, and the tension that existed between wealthy planters and hardscrabble farmers who were outside of the establishment of their day.  Unger demonstrates how Henry's opposition to what he viewed as oppressive royal government had roots that went back to Henry's earliest days as a backwoods lawyer, long before independence was even being discussed.   In fact, Henry's commitment to liberty is the thread that Unger uses to explain his subject's political career -- his support for the Patriot cause, his opposition to the Constitution of 1789, his support of the Bill of Rights, and his eventual shift from the Republican movement to the Federalist Party at the end of his life.  Henry's friendships and family life are explored as well, with particular attention paid to his legal career and his relationship with George Washington.

One aspect of the book that readers of this blog might find of special interest regards the beginning of Henry's public life.  Henry's first major legal case was an argument in defense of a group of farmers 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 the distant imperial & colonial governments featured large in how Henry litigated the case.  Unger quotes a part of Henry's closing argument, where the colonial lawyer provided an eloquent condemnation of the desire of the Anglican clergy to feast at the tax trough:
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 world, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, form the widow and her orphaned children their last milch cow!  the last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!
Henry's opposition to government support of religious establishment would fade after the American Revolution, but prior to the split with the British, he viewed the Anglican Church as parasitic to the people.  In his closing argument, Henry contended that the royal tax in support of the Anglican Church breached the king's duty to provide for the well-being of his people -- the poor were being dispossessed to aid the affluent clergy.  This charge lead to cries of "treason," against Henry, much as his later calls for American independence would elicit the same cry.  Henry's approach to the question of public funding of religious bodies was part of a much deeper and sophisticated critique of government power.  For Henry, liberty and the common good were intertwined principles, principles which in different contexts might lead to a shift in political positions in order to defend those underlying principles.

It is that view by Henry that also explains his shift, at the end of his life, to the Federalist Party.  Long a dedicated opponent of centralized power and a relentless critic of any step by which the federal government seemed to move beyond a limited scope, Henry was also committed to the notion that the United States was in fact a single nation, not simply a collection of independent if confederated republics.  While an opponent of the ratification of the Constitution of 1789, Henry leaped to the charter's defense during Washington's administration, when local tax revolts were springing up in the frontier areas.  Shocked at the political machinations of Jefferson and Madison, Henry moved to support Washington and the Federalists as the political culture of the 1790's grew increasingly polarized.  In 1799, after pleas from both John Marshall and a retired George Washington, a dying Patrick Henry ran for election to Congress, blasting Jefferson and Madison for their support for efforts to undermine national unity via the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.  While Henry, as Unger explains, had been "a bitter opponent of the Constitution, it was the law of the land, and he was, above all, a law-abiding citizen." 

Unger's book on Henry is well worth its $26.00 price.  A fascinating study of one of the most important public men of the founding era, Unger's work is a fitting reintroduction to the life and work of a pivotal Patriot leader.  Highly recommended.


King of Ireland said...

See my comment on Jon's post on the French Revolution on the "Age of Federalism" you describe here and the parallels to our current political climate.

I find it interesting that Henry went Federalist. Maybe our founders were more classically conservative than we give them credit for?

Mark D. said...

Yes, I think that the Founders were as a group more classically conservative than is usually perceived. Henry certainly was. There was a significant group within the Republican movement that were opposed to Jefferson and Madison. Henry was one of these. John Randolph of Roanoake was another. After Jefferson became president, Randolph formed the Tertium Quids ("third way") bloc within the Republican Party to oppose what he saw as Jefferson's inclination to totalitarianism. Eventually, these Republican opponents of Jeffersonianism started calling themselves National Republicans, as opposed to Democratic Republicans (the Jeffersonians). When John Quincy Adams ran for president, the remnants of the Federalists and the National Republicans supported him against the Democratic Republicans under Jackson. That split eventually paved the way for the rise of the modern Democratic Party under Jackson and the formation of the Whig Party out of a fusion of the Federalists and the National Republicans. The Whigs, of course, eventually died out to be replaced by the modern Republican Party, which took the name "Republican" in order to build off of the old National Republican party. Hence the early nickname for the modern Republican Party, the "Grand Old Party." The "Old Party" was the National Republican Party.

All of this is complicated, of course, by the fact that Lincoln was not just a Whig, he also saw himself as a Jeffersonian. Politics, like life, is rarely tidy!

King of Ireland said...

Did not know some of what you just said. We are going through it right now with the Tea Party. We shall see where it all ends.