Revered for his cry of “give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry was the first of the Founding Fathers to rouse Americans to revolution against Britain and the first to oppose establishment of a big federal government after independence. Elected Virginia’s first governor, he served five terms and organized the flow of arms, ammunition, and other supplies to George Washington’s Continental Army that made victory possible in the Revolutionary War.
After the United States gained independence, Henry led the Antifederalist struggle against ratification of the Constitution. An implacable foe of big government and federal taxes, Henry warned that the Constitution would give the federal government too much power and threaten state sovereignty and individual liberties. He argued that it set no limits on congressional taxing powers and gave the President free rein to lead the nation into undeclared wars. Above all, he argued, it failed to protect individual rights and would let the federal government extend its authority into every area of American daily life. Unable to block ratification of the Constitution, he led the fight for the Bill of Rights to guarantee Americans freedom of speech, freedom to worship as they please, freedom of the press, and the right to trial by jury.
Henry gained international fame as America’s most gifted orator and most brilliant – and often hilarious – defense attorney. His friends insisted that his eighteen children and seventy-seven grandchildren made him, not George Washington, the real father of our country.
About the author: Harlow Giles Unger is the author of Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation (Da Capo Press, November 2010).