The Greatest Lawyer That Ever Lived: Patrick Henry at the Bar of History

Excerpts from the Preface by Richard Schumann

Compared with other Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry was rather inconsiderate to historians, because he was a talker, not a pamphleteer. Unlike his principal detractor, Thomas Jefferson (who labored perpetually to ensure that he would be revered by future generations by saving every scrap of paper upon which he ever scribbled), if Henry did keep journals, he destroyed them, or they were destroyed by fire or flood. His daughters recounted how he would write beautiful poetry, read the verses aloud to his family and, promptly afterwards, slip the poems into the fire, believing that it was unseemly for a statesman such as he to be known as a poet. Happily, though, enough primary source data exists to piece together a real, living, breathing man who can not only interest, but exhilarate, an audience of today. Naturally, I am always delighted to hear others’ scholarly insights into what made Mr. Henry tick.

Which brings me to George Morrow’s excellent and thorough studies of Patrick Henry. I am not a lawyer (though I play one on TV). Extant documents prove that Henry was an extraordinary lawyer. But it takes a lawyer to know a lawyer, and thanks to George Morrow’s wonderful insights expressed so amusingly in The Greatest Lawyer, I am better able to fathom Henry’s legal genius, and so may the casual reader just looking for a good time. I might even go so far as to suggest that law professors would be well advised to make The Greatest Lawyer required reading for their students. The nature of man does not change and the tactics employed by Henry in the 18th century courtrooms of Virginia would be equally effective today.

Richard Schumann
The Colonial Williamsburg's Patrick Henry

Revised Edition

Excerpts from "The Greatest Lawyer," Part I of the Book, by George Morrow

That Henry got amazing results in mysterious ways was a common observation. Of his son’s speech in the Parson’s Cause, John Henry told Judge Winston it was given “without Hesitation or Embarrassment . . . on a Subject, of which I did not think he had any Knowledge.” Judge Roane told of a case in which Henry was so persuasive the jury found his client not guilty, despite the fact his guilt had already been decided and the only issue was whether it was murder! Another friend recalled the time when one of Henry’s oratorical assaults on the tyrannical “British King and ministry” so inflamed spectators sitting in the gallery of the House that they “all at once . . . rushed out. It was at first supposed that the House was on fire. Not so.” So fiery was Henry’s language that someone ran up and doused the royal flag on the cupola. Judge Roane also recalled his father telling him about going up to hear Henry speak in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg with a Scotsman named Bradfute, “a man of learning,” who became so “enchanted with his eloquence as to have unconsciously squirted tobacco juice from the gallery on the heads of the members, and to have nearly fallen onto the House floor.” On another occasion, a thunderstorm broke over the capitol just as Henry was “depicting the awful immensity” of a decision that, he suggested, “the ethereal beings were awaiting with anxiety.” Suddenly a peal of thunder shook the building. Henry’s audience of veteran politicians “broke up in confusion.”

Excerpts from the Preface regarding "Patrick Henry and the Puffing Squirt,"
Part II of the Book

Thomas Jefferson’s legal abilities – or rather, inabilities – are also explored in the study. I pray that Jeffersonian scholars and groupies will forgive me for being very biased about the Henry/Jefferson relationship explored in such great detail in Puffing Squirt. I feel duty bound to defend the integrity of the gentleman I’ve been living with for 15 years, particularly as he was unable to do so himself. Jefferson, after all, waited until Henry’s death before he so viciously maligned the object of his jealousy. Jeffersonians should read this study, the better to understand their man. One can only imagine the bewilderment of Henry’s first biographer, William Wirt, when he compared the recollections of Jefferson to those of his other correspondents. The source of Jefferson’s venomous hostility towards Henry has been discussed by other historians, but George Morrow delves into aspects of Jefferson’s character that no others have. Were Henry to read this work, he might very well say, “Vindication and redemption at last!”. . .

Excerpts regarding "Patrick Henry and the Puffing Squirt,"
Part II of the Book, by George Morrow

Among chroniclers of what he has described as the “duplicity” of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis stands out, both for his insightful analyses of his subject and his genial acceptance of the hostility that seems to go with being Jefferson exposer-inchief. In American Sphinx, Ellis compares Jefferson’s enmity for Patrick Henry to his hatred of Alexander Hamilton and finds that Henry, like Hamilton, “was a youthful prodigy of impoverished origins . . . whose visible cravings for greatness violated the understated code of the true Virginia aristocrat. To make matters worse, Hamilton as an opponent was equally formidable on his feet and in print.” Like Jefferson, Henry and Hamilton were lawyers; unlike Jefferson, they did not fear confrontation. How did a shy, scholarly lawyer deal with conflict? If his name was Jefferson, he went to ground. “Cautious and shy,” was how Hamilton described him in 1792, “wrapped up in impenetrable silence and mystery, he reserves his abhorrence for the arcana of a certain snug sanctuary [Monticello], where seated on his pivot chair, and involved in all the obscurity of political mystery and deception . . . he circulates his poison thro’ the medium of [Phillip Freneau’s Republican newspaper] National Gazette.”

The comparison between Hamilton and Patrick Henry is apt for another reason. If Jefferson disliked Alexander Hamilton, he was truly obsessed with taking revenge on Henry whom (he said) “had inflicted a wound on his spirit” that “only the all healing grave” could cure. Jefferson was convinced that Henry had orchestrated a Virginia Assembly inquiry into his inept and seemingly cowardly conduct as Governor of Virginia during the British invasion of 1780–81. Even worse for Jefferson than the thought of Henry’s five term record of success in the same job was the mortifying recollection of Henry’s dominance in Virginia political and legislative affairs. In a 1784 letter, Jefferson asked James Madison – in code – to “devoutly pray” for Henry’s death. At other times, Jefferson described Henry as “implacable,” “a great foe” and a potential dictator seeking “every power . . . over our persons.” If Jefferson’s vocabulary for Henry reminds us of the monsters in the old sagas it is because Henry inspired in Jefferson a deep, archetypal loathing. For most Virginians, Patrick Henry would remain the revered defender of their country’s liberties. For Jefferson, he was a threat to both country and ego; a would-be despot and usurper of his peace of mind.