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'Lion Of Liberty': Patrick Henry's Fiery Life

Lion Cover

There might not have been a United States if it weren't for Patrick Henry, but as Founding Fathers go, the legendary orator and statesman from Virginia has been somewhat neglected in the national memory. Without a huge obelisk near the National Mall or an HBO miniseries to remind Americans, Henry seems to be chiefly remembered now for two fiery quotations: "If this be treason, make the most of it!" And the line that became the de facto motto of the American revolutionaries, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"

It's unfair to reduce Henry's career to excerpts from two speeches, but it's also fitting that he's remembered chiefly for his words. Henry was a hardworking lawyer, a somewhat adequate military commander, and a popular, if inconsistent, politician. He wasn't the best farmer or the best businessman, but he was almost certainly the greatest orator in 18th century America. And he was, in a way, the Father of the Founding Fathers -- as Harlow Giles Unger notes in his excellent new Lion of Liberty, Henry was the first of the American revolutionaries "to call for independence, for revolution against Britain, for a bill of rights, and for as much freedom as possible from government -- American as well as British."

Historical biographies can turn into hagiographies or hatchet jobs fairly easily. But Unger, a journalist who has written books about James Monroe, John Hancock and others, does remarkable work untangling a difficult subject -- Henry can be both inspiring and infuriating, and there's no doubt that he was sometimes a study in contradictions. (He opposed slavery, which he considered a "lamentable evil," but was himself a slave owner. He was conflicted enough to write, "I will not, I cannot justify [owning slaves]," but not conflicted enough to actually set anyone free.)

Unger doesn't make any attempt to hide his fascination with revolutionary history, and his sometimes breathless excitement about key battles and elections can be fantastically engaging. But Henry was a uniquely interesting person in his own right, and Unger proves to be impressively sensitive and perceptive when chronicling some of the patriot's darker moments, particularly his wife's crippling mental illness and death.

Henry was something like a Renaissance man, and he never stayed in one place very long, geographically or otherwise. Unger, though, is able to weave the sometimes disparate, frequently contradictory strands of Henry's life into a coherent, absorbing narrative. He's adept at explaining Henry's proto-libertarianism, which will sound familiar to current American readers, as new political movements suspicious of the federal government have dominated the American conversation in the past several months. Unger's book is the perfect introduction to the founder whose rhetoric started a revolution. Patrick Henry was more than just his words, but his words have never stopped resonating.

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Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.