His admirers, quoting the Bible, called him “a son of Thunder.” His critics portrayed him as “the very Devil in Politicks.” Patrick Henry challenged the Tidewater aristocrats and became the champion of religious dissenters, the lesser planters of the Piedmont, and the farmers of the backcountry and frontier. Ambitious and talented, he sought and achieved political power, social status, and wealth. Yet he could be selfless as well as self-seeking. When the British Parliament threatened American liberty and self-government, he risked everything and made common cause with other patriots who led the Colonies into the War for Independence. Following the Revolution, he remained fearful of strong central government, vigorously attacked the proposed Constitution of 1787, and rallied public opinion in favor of the Bill of Rights. In fact, like his friends Richard Henry Lee and Sam Adams, Patrick Henry had serious doubts about the future of the nation he had done so much to bring into existence.
Historians have not had an easy time extracting the real Patrick Henry from popular mythology. Henry himself was a paradoxical figure. An aggressive and acquisitive land speculator, he denounced the material indulgence he saw around him during and after the Revolution and warned that it endangered republican virtues. An ever-aspiring member of the gentry, he still identified with the small planters and farmers; he condemned slavery as morally wrong but continued to buy and sell slaves. Although an Anglican and supporter of the Episcopal establishment, he was much influenced by dissenting preachers and endorsed religious toleration. These paradoxes are hard to resolve because of the scarcity of pertinent Henry papers. Recognized as the most brilliant orator of the Revolution, Henry took little care to preserve his correspondence or even copies of his historic speeches. It is not always clear what he said, much less why he said it. Beginning with William Wirt in 1817, Henry biographers have struggled to explain the man and his motives despite the incomplete nature of the evidence. The latest to do so is Henry Mayer, who paints a vivid and compelling portrait of Henry the man, the politician, and the statesman.
Mayer is an educator, writer, and historian who taught history for fifteen years in colleges and secondary schools. He knows how to tell a good story, and the primary merit of this analysis is the recounting of Henry’s life in terms of eighteenth century Virginia society. Henry was first and foremost a political dissenter. It is that dissenting political tradition that Mayer especially tried to recapture in looking at the life of the fiery Virginian. He presents Henry as the personification of the struggle for who should rule at home which accompanied the war for home rule against Great Britain. As the spokesman for an emerging democratic society, Henry influenced republican politics not only in Virginia but also throughout the young nation generally. As far as Henry’s contradictory views and deeds are concerned, Mayer finds them understandable given the Virginian’s quest for personal and family security on the one hand and his commitment to liberty and republican government on the other. Mayer’s account is a joy to read, but it is popular history and certainly breaks no new scholarly ground.
The biography is divided into four parts, each dealing with successive stages of Henry’s life and times. Part 1 (1736-1766) recounts his family background, focusing especially upon his father, John Henry, and the latter’s move upward in the social structure, thanks largely to his marriage to the wealthy Widow Syme, Patrick’s mother. Mayer portrays John Henry as the “dilapidated colonel,” given to too much drink and not very successful either as a planter or a land speculator. That assessment is debatable, as is the notion that young Patrick grew up recognizing that he was on the fringes of the gentry class. Richard Beeman, a respected Henry scholar, places the Henry family in the same category as the Jeffersons and the Madisons, clearly among the elite, though hardly at the very top. Other facts are less disputable. Patrick was educated primarily by his father. Not much of a scholar, he served an apprenticeship as a clerk, failed in the retail businesses set up by his father, and married sixteen-year-old Sarah (Sallie) Shelton when he was eighteen. Mayer tells it all with flair, dramatizing the sketchy evidence, especially the hardships that beset Patrick and Sallie as they failed as tobacco farmers. In 1757, after three unsuccessful years on their farm, Patrick, Sallie, and their two children moved into John Shelton’s tavern, and Patrick began running the place for his father-in-law. As Mayer makes clear, despite the bad luck and many hardships, Henry found much consolation in his wife and children. He was a devoted family man.
Henry decided to become a lawyer while working in the tavern. He read law briefly, primarily on his own, and thus had little legal training. Yet he knew enough in 1760 for several of the best lawyers in Virginia to certify him qualified to practice law. He clearly made the most of the opportunity. Working hard and refining his skills, Henry steadily...
(The entire section is 2134 words.)