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  • Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty by Jon Kukla
  • R. B. Bernstein (bio)
Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. By Jon Kukla. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. Pp. xiv, 541. $35.00 cloth; $18.00 paper; $13.99 ebook)

In the realm of legend, Patrick Henry roars, bellows, and erupts; by contrast, this thoroughly documented, beautifully written, and carefully argued biography presents a measured and quiet account of Henry's life and career. Jon Kukla, a leading scholar of Virginia history and of Patrick Henry, stirs our emotions but also makes us think. He [End Page 101] has written an exemplary biography, demonstrating why Henry was a key leader of the American Revolution. This fine book situates Henry to the center of events, enabling us to know him on his own terms and not through the perspective of legend—and legendary enmities.

Kukla establishes the facts of Henry's life—no easy feat, given the occasionally patchy historical record. Unlike such historical and biographical packrats as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Henry was not given to saving private papers, legal papers, or drafts of public papers. Kukla displays considerable resourcefulness in reconstructing Henry's context, to suggest by means of that context the man who operated in it.

Kukla does a superb job of giving us a sense of how Henry saw and thought about politics, both in general and concerning such issues as the rights of the American colonies in the British Empire; the need to achieve independence; and the relations between church and state needed to preserve liberty and republican government. Kukla's absorbing, illuminating account also gives us an enlightening perspective on colonial and revolutionary Virginia. His portrait of Henry's state differs significantly from that we get from studies of his fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington because Henry's origins and early life unfolded on a different social plane and in different economic and political circumstances from those shaping the colony's (and state's) elite politicians.

Kukla helps us push past the clichés and distortions of Henry's remembered life. Tracing those distortions to assiduous mythmaking by Jefferson, Kukla also deconstructs and explains that mythmaking. Wanting to both present history for posterity's edification and to shape history for his own benefit, Jefferson distorted Henry's early life, political views, and political actions. This led to the mistaken but firm insistence that Henry began as a bartender and to equally determined efforts to portray Henry's oratory and style of argument as emotional without a trace of logic or reason. What prompted Jefferson's animus against Henry? Kukla identifies Jefferson's desire to get his own back against what he saw as Henry's animus against [End Page 102] him, dating to Jefferson's controversial governorship of the state (1779–1781) and Henry's willingness to support a state legislative investigation into Jefferson's governorship.

The most valuable feature of Kukla's biography is his penetrating analysis of Henry's role in controversial episodes of Virginia's history including Virginia's struggles over relations between church and state in the 1780s; Henry's refusal to attend the Federal Convention of 1787 even though the Virginia legislature named him a delegate; Henry's leadership of Virginians opposing the Constitution's ratification in 1787–1788; and his movement from opposition to the Constitution to allying himself with George Washington, John Adams, and the Federalists by the mid-1790s. In each case, Kukla tells us not only what Henry did but why he did it. For example, Kukla shows that Henry rejected a strict separationist understanding of relations between church and state because he believed that an accomodationist relationship between religion and government was necessary to uphold the citizenry's virtue as essential to maintaining republican government and preserving human liberty. So, too, Henry opposed the proposed U.S. Constitution because he saw the Constitution as threatening Virginia's liberty and sovereignty. Kukla's interpretative approach to Henry is calm and even-handed. His biography wears no campaign buttons or bumper stickers; it does not seek to recruit us to Henry's cause but rather aspires to enrich our understanding of why Henry...


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