A new biography of the American statesman who Thomas Jefferson said “was our leader in the measures of the Revolution in Virginia.”
Most Americans know little about Patrick Henry (1736-1799) aside from his proclamation during a speech: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” He deserves better, and historian Kukla (Mr. Jefferson’s Women, 2007, etc.) has written a compelling biography that serves his subject well. The son of a Virginia planter who became a lawyer, Henry proved a pugnacious advocate and superb speaker at a time when oratory was valued far more than it is today. Elected to the Virginia legislature in 1765, he arrived as it received the final text of the notorious Stamp Act. Almost immediately, Henry proposed resolutions asserting that Colonial legislatures, not Parliament, had exclusive right to tax the Colonies. These were more inflammatory than similar responses in other Colonies and widely admired, and the author considers them a major catalyst of the Revolution. Henry continued to attack Britain and served in the Continental Congress until 1776, when he became Virginia’s first post-Revolution governor, serving six one-year terms. He worked hard for the Revolution, but like most Americans (although not most of the elite) after 1783, he felt no need for a strong central government. Henry was not an intellectual like Adams, Jefferson, and Madison or a respected general like Washington. He was an agitator, similar to Samuel Adams. He played a central role in stirring up rebellion, a lesser role once the revolution began, and he did not help his reputation by leading Virginia’s opposition to ratifying the Constitution.
A skilled historian, Kukla has done his homework and written a detailed, lively, probably definitive biography of a revolutionary figure who merits more recognition but perhaps not promotion beyond the second tier of Founding Fathers.