Review of “Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty” by Jon Kukla

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Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty
by Jon Kukla
541 pages
Simon & Schuster
Published: July 2017

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty” by Jon Kukla is the most thorough biography of Patrick Henry to appear in more than three decades. Kukla is a historian and author who has led the Library of Virginia, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Red Hill / Patrick Henry National Memorial. His 2003 book “A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America” is on my short list of non-biographies to read.

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) is best-known for his 1775 exclamation “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But while he was an outspoken orator most of his life, Henry was also a farmer, lawyer, politician and Founding Father. And anyone who has read a biography of an early American president will have encountered Henry…probably as he argued against ratification of the Constitution.

Before this book’s publication, the most notable biographies of Henry were Henry Mayer’s 1986 “A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic,” Norine Dickson Campbell’s 1969 “Patrick Henry: Patriot and Statesman” and Robert Meade’s  two-volume series published between 1957 and 1969. But Kukla provocatively postulates that most biographies of Henry are tainted by “accumulated errors” built upon myths concocted by his earliest biographer, William Wirt.

Kukla’s narrative does leave the impression of meticulous research, thoughtful analysis and careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of Henry’s life. His writing style is straightforward and occasionally engaging but never exhibits the spirited vivacity of paragraphs penned by Chernow or McCullough. And because most of Henry’s personal papers were accidentally destroyed by fire, Kukla’s book is essentially a political biography (and a largely admiring one at that).

There can never be a fully satisfying explanation for someone claiming to abhor slavery while simultaneously owning slaves. But Kukla explores this issue in an engaging way and outlines the inherent contradictions in Henry’s attitude on the issue. Even more interesting is a chapter describing Henry’s spirited opposition to the Stamp Act, when he was essentially planting the early seeds of rebellion.

But the most valuable aspect of this biography for many readers will be the unique perspective it offers: witnessing the clamor for independence, the American Revolution and the early days of American democracy from Patrick Henry’s point of view. Given his lifelong residence in and around Richmond, this book offers a decidedly Virginia-centric perspective. But it is a frame of reference that will prove enlightening for many readers – particularly those who are broadly familiar with America’s earliest years.

Readers lacking a solid foundation in American history, however, will quickly realize this biography does not provide an ideal introduction to the Revolutionary War, drafting of the Constitution or the fascinating personalities involved in early America. Patrick Henry’s perspective is interesting, but it is just one piece of a much larger story. And while Kukla occasionally injects context into the narrative, some readers will become lost in events that they are unable to connect to a bigger picture.

In addition, given the limited availability of historical evidence, Kukla is unable to comprehensively convey the story of Patrick Henry’s entire life. As excellent a political biography as this may be, it reveals relatively little of Henry’s private life and most meaningful friendships. No one will finish this book feeling a close connection to Henry or a deep understanding of his inner-self. Finally, the book ends quickly after Henry’s death; there is almost no consideration of his legacy or standing among the Founding Fathers.

Overall, however, Jon Kukla’s “Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty” is a commendable biography of a consequential early champion of independence and individual rights. It is regrettable that Kukla is unable to offer more insight into Henry’s private life and personality. But readers wishing to understand Patrick Henry’s role in rebellion, revolution and the early republic will find this a consistently thoughtful, scholarly and informative book.

Overall rating: 4 stars