Of all the nation’s Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry was the most ardent advocate of liberty. In his new biography, Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, author Harlow Giles Unger explores the freedom-loving Virginian who roused Americans to fight government tyranny—both external and internal.
Unger, who has written five other biographies about the nation’s Founding Fathers, shares with American Profile his insights into the man who declared, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
American Profile: Who was Patrick Henry and why is he a pivotal figure in American history?
Harlow Giles Unger: Born into a farming family on the Virginia frontier, Henry grew up a fun-loving country boy, hunting, fishing and playing his fiddle. A self-educated lawyer and captivating orator, Henry became a five-term governor of Virginia, successful plantation owner and devoted father of 18. He was considered a hero by many of his fellow countrymen for challenging British authority to tax the American Colonies and, in doing so, becoming the first Founding Father to defy the threat of death for treason.
AP: How did Henry inspire Americans to take up arms against the British?
HGU: Henry’s words resounded across America in the spring of 1775 when he spoke to a gathering of Virginia legislators at St. John’s Church in Richmond. “Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand we here idle?” he roared, citing Colonial militias gathering against the British invasion in Massachusetts. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
AP: Would the Americans have won their independence without Henry?
HGU: Without the help that Henry provided as the governor of Virginia, the Americans probably wouldn’t have defeated the British and won independence. Great Britain at the time fielded the largest and most powerful army in the world. Henry ensured that Virginia, the richest and most populated of the 13 Colonies, supplied the largest share of arms and munitions to the outmanned and poorly provisioned Continental Army.
AP: Why did Henry oppose ratification of the U.S. Constitution?
HGU: Henry feared the Constitution would give the federal government too much power and threaten state sovereignty and individual liberties. He warned that the document set no limits on congressional taxing powers and gave the president the authority to lead the nation into undeclared wars. Above all, he argued that the Constitution failed to protect individual rights and would let the federal government encroach upon every facet of an American’s daily life.
AP: How did Henry help make America what it is today?
HGU: Henry adamantly championed passage of the Bill of Rights, which to this day guarantees Americans freedom of speech, press, religion, the right of trial by jury, and other individual liberties. In addition, Henry’s can-do spirit continues to inspire individual entrepreneurship and initiative.
AP: Do present-day Americans have anything in common with Henry?
HGU: Many liberty-loving Americans can identify with Henry, who feared—and foretold—the threats of a large and powerful federal government. In many ways, his lifelong struggle against excessive government spending, runaway taxation, government waste and corruption, and intrusion in the lives of Americans can be heard in political discussions today. Like Henry, many modern-day Americans fear expanding government powers may lead to tyranny.