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Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY