Patrick Henry was called “a son of Thunder” by his admirers and “the very Devil in Politicks” by his detractors. He challenged the Tide-Water aristocrats and championed religious dissenters, the lesser planters of the Piedmont, and the farmers of the backcountry. His concern for liberty and self-government led him to make common cause with the like-minded patriots who pushed the American colonies into the War for Independence. Similarly, his abiding fear of a powerful national government led him to oppose vigorously the Constitution of 1787 and call for the addition of a Bill of Rights. A master orator who left remarkably few personal papers, Henry has remained perhaps the most enigmatic of our Founding Fathers.
In this latest biography, Henry Mayer paints a striking portrait of Patrick Henry the man, the politician, and the statesman. According to Mayer, Henry was at the vital center of the struggle over who should rule at home, which accompanied the war for independence from Great Britain. As the spokesman for an emerging democratic society, Henry shaped republican politics not only in his own state but in the young nation generally. Henry was also a man of many paradoxes. For example, he was a slaveholder who condemned slavery, an Anglican who supported dissenters, and an ever-aspiring member of the gentry who led the small planters and farmers. Mayer provides insight into these and other ambiguous aspects of Henry’s life and times.
Other Henry scholars will disagree with particular parts of Mayer’s interpretation; the facts are so thin that much about Henry’s motives must remain conjecture. Nevertheless, Mayer’s vivid prose makes Henry come to life once again. Both the scholarly and the general reader will enjoy this sensitive and exciting biography of the fiery Virginian who did so very much to back up those inspiring words, “Give me Liberty or give me Death.”