America’s Second Revolution: How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation
by Harlow Giles Unger, Wiley, 267 pp., $27.95
Patrick Henry, the greatest orator of his day, boycotted the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and marshaled a steady stream of high-flown rhetoric to voice his opposition to the efforts of George Washington and his Federalist allies to create a lasting framework for the new republic. “When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object,” he said. “But now, Sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire.”
In this fast-paced narrative, author Harlow Giles Unger unabashedly sides with the Federalists, who felt that the Constitution provided a necessary strengthening of the national government to make up for the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The book is at its best when he describes how Washington, though absent from Virginia’s ratification convention, worked to pull levers behind the scenes to best Henry and his allies. Especially interesting is Unger’s admiring account of how Washington persuaded Thomas Jefferson, an opponent of the Constitution, to stay neutral in the ratification fight, thus depriving Henry of a key ally. By contrast, Unger never passes up a chance to throw barbs at Henry. “Unlike Washington,” he writes, “Henry had never entertained any doubt about his infallibility.”
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.