A Book Review
When most people think about Patrick Henry, they recite his most famous quote, “Give me liberty or give me death”. In a new biography, Jon Kukla thoroughly recounts the life and Revolutionary contributions of Virginia’s Patrick Henry.
A plantation owner and a most capable lawyer, Henry became an early advocate for independence. The Revolutionary Virginia Assembly elected Henry to the only national post he held to represent the state at the 1775 Continental Congress. In 1776, Virginia again turned to his talents and elected him its first non-Royal governor. As governor, Henry served five terms and led the Commonwealth during critical war and post-wartime periods. Henry also served in the 1788 Virginia Constitutional Convention. He vigorously opposed the new Federal constitution as he perceived that its provisions granted too much power to the Federal government and it did not contain a bill of rights. When Virginia narrowly approved the constitution, Henry magnanimously agreed to subjugate his personal views to the will of the people and support the new Federal government.
Many biographies of Henry have been written starting in 1818 with Henry Wirt and concluding with four others written in the 21st century. In his introduction, Kukla asserts that he is writing a new biography to correct prior errors and to utilize new sources. Unfortunately, he falls short on both accounts. In his afterword note on sources, Kukla describes the lack of primary, extant sources and does not describe the new sources that he refered to in the book’s introduction. While he does point out a few minor errors in the accompanying notes, the reader does not know how many errors he corrects or whether they are major or minor. However, the book is thoroughly researched with extensive supporting primary source references. Clearly, Kukla has an impressive, comprehensive understanding of the subject.
While this volume is not substantively different from the other biographies, it is engaging, scrupulously detailed and though-provoking. For example, Kukla’s treatment of relationships with other revolutionary leaders is insightful. Even though George Washington and Henry disagreed over the terms of the new Federal Constitution and on many other policy matters, they enjoyed a trusting and warm relationship. Kukla postulates that part of the reason for this close relationship is that Henry vigorously supported Washington during the Conway Cabal which threatened Washington’s leadership position.
On the other hand, after Thomas Jefferson’s term as governor, the once close relationship with Henry turned permanently sour. Jefferson believed that Henry denigrated his leadership and impinged courage after Jefferson fled from a British raid on Richmond and Monticello in 1781. Unlike his relationship with John Adams, Jefferson never reconciled with Henry. Perhaps political differences don’t poison personal relationships but personal differences do poison political relationships.
Kukla effectively describes what Henry accomplished and raises his stature to be among the most impactful Revolutionary leaders. What remains to be discerned is what kind of man Henry was; what motivated him and why he acted as he did. Henry faced many adversities and more insight into how they impacted him would be illuminating. We also don’t know that much about his family activities and the impact that he had on the lives of his wives and children. Perhaps this line of research is off point with Kukla’s study of Henry as a champion of liberty, but it would make a completer view of his character and failings.
I recommend Kukla’s book to those seeking to discern more about Patrick Henry than just a heroic quote. You will learn about a founding patriot who contributed signficant intellectual horsepower to the revolutionary cause and led the government of a pivotal state that kept the northern and southern states together during the Revolution.
For more information on Patrick Henry and a listing of the other Henry biographies, click.