Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty
by Jon Kukla.
Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Hardcover, 592 pages, $35.
Judging by the local Barnes & Noble, the success of Hamilton: An American Musical has brought about a Federalist renaissance. Two years after its debut, as Hamilton progresses toward a film adaptation, continues to receive bipartisan praise and to sell albums, T-shirts, and occasionally books, a welcome and well-timed new biography of a quite different founder has arrived.
While Patrick Henry (1736–99) is familiar to most modern Americans, they likely recall little beyond “Give me liberty or give me death,” an ultimatum that came midway through a long career. Those who, their way prepared by Hamilton, investigate further may face disappointment in what they find—a slaveowner, like Hamilton’s nemesis Jefferson, and an antifederalist, an opponent of the Constitution. Worse, among the handful of mentions in the book that inspired the musical, Ron Chernow writes that “antifederalists … posed as plucky populists, even though their ranks included many rich slaveholders. Patrick Henry, the leading antifederalist, warned delegates who supported the Constitution, ‘They’ll free your n*****s.’”
Reaction, hypocrisy, racism—a litany of sins that, in twenty-first century America, demands renunciation. Fortunately, Jon Kukla’s Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty offers a rounded portrait of a man too easily dismissed by those who see his resistance to the Constitution as proof of shortsightedness or his circumstances as unforgivably problematic.
Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1736, the son of a judge. He married at eighteen and settled on a three-hundred-acre farm, which he worked with a small number of slaves received as a wedding present. This proved a lean time, with fires, bad harvests, and the mercantilist policies of the colonial government combining to drive Henry into other fields of endeavor, including several stores, of which the best “had mixed success.” In his twenties he turned to the law and was licensed in 1760.
One gets the strongest sense of Henry as a man from these early chapters—a hardworking frontier farmer of some means but struggling to succeed, who studied law on his own time and borrowed every book he could lay hands on. He already shone as a speaker and made a good impression on all who met him—except for Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who visited Henry as a young man and sulked when Henry’s sparkling conversation did not turn toward the natural sciences. Even the judges who tested the admittedly ignorant youth for the bar were struck, predicting that “if your industry be only half equal to your genius I augur that you will do well, and become an ornament and an honor to your profession.”
Henry made his name in the Parson’s Cause, a 1763 case in which he defended Virginia’s prerogatives against the salaried clergy of the established church, who effectively represented the power of the crown. Through this and other local cases he earned popular goodwill and a reputation for skilled argument. He began long correspondence with Baptist dissenters who sought his support in the cause of religious liberty, and with Quaker abolitionists like Robert Pleasants (1723–1801), to whom Henry addressed frequent and trenchant remarks about the evils of slavery.
The book from this point forward becomes almost entirely a political biography, and the details of Henry’s friendships, personality, and family life recede. The births and occasional deaths of his children are only mentioned, and even his first wife Sarah’s famous mental illness occupies barely two pages. But Kukla outlines Henry’s rise—from lawyer to member of the House of Burgesses, from the Parson’s Cause to becoming the leader of colonial resistance to the Stamp Act (1765), to the First Continental Congress (1774), to the first governorship of postcolonial Virginia—in abundant detail, displaying magisterial command of the extant sources regarding Henry’s life and world. Not all of this detail is, strictly speaking, relevant. Of a figure so minor that he is not even indexed, one reads: “The rector of Saint Mary’s Parish in Pendleton’s home county since 1773, Waugh had served as chaplain to William Woodford’s regiment during the war and was reputed to be ‘the best dancer of the minuet in Virginia.’”
While Henry himself sometimes goes missing among the details, factoids, and color commentary, the cumulative effect places him squarely in his world—noisy, striving, chaotic, sometimes absurd, intensely personal. Along the way Kukla combats a host of misunderstandings or myths. Henry did not, for instance, ever work as a bartender, as warm and quaint as that may seem to modern Americans. The story was popularized by Jefferson, a great but subtle hater, long after Henry was dead. This contextualization helps bridge the gap between Henry and the modern reader most effectively on the subject of slavery. Kukla shows how Henry, over his three-decade career, went from opponent to man of the status quo without changing his opinions.
The key is that Henry was a working politician, a man grounded in face-to-face politicking and the real-life concerns of Virginians. While a national figure who often employed high-flown nationalist language, Henry remained rooted at home. And while intelligent and incisive, his political sense arose not from abstract theory derived from his extensive reading, but from the requirements of farm life and the effects of taxation on ordinary people.
This sensibility drove Henry’s greatest but least appreciated stand—that against the new Constitution. Rather than reaction or mere stubbornness, it was the fruit of a life of principle originating in experience. Decades of continuous guard against encroachments upon the rights inherited from the past sharpened this sensibility. When Edmund Burke described how Americans “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze,” he could have been describing Henry. Henry viewed his opponents—especially James Madison (1751–1836)—as being in thrall to abstract theory, theory that already threatened real-world disaster.
Congress seemed prepared to give up navigation rights to the Mississippi, which portended ruin to westward-trekking Virginians. Other worries multiplied: the power of the executive, the threat of a standing federal army, and the implications of Congress’s power to tax. This raised the issue of slavery, which Henry had striven to limit and ameliorate on the state level, into one of national import. (It was in this context that Henry purportedly uttered the line quoted by Chernow, a line that, suspiciously, only first appears in a letter from 1850.)
Henry’s opponents fretted that his opinion alone would doom ratification in his state. That was not to be. When Virginia ratified the Constitution 89 to 79, Henry’s loss might have placed him, in modern terms, on “the wrong side of history,” but his loss was not total. Kukla argues that Henry’s stand was a conscious delaying action, meant to raise enough concerns about federal power that Virginia could extract a guarantee of the rights that the new consolidated government could not breach.
The result—and the antifederalists’ monument—was the Bill of Rights—a fortuitous outcome given the trends of overreach since, trends Henry predicted. As Kukla puts it, “the nasty truth may well be that after two and a quarter centuries Henry’s worries about hostile majorities have proven more accurate” than Madison’s optimistic theories:
America’s subsequent history, not only with slavery but with countless other issues about which national majorities maintain strong opinions (such as prohibition, labor unions, communism, abortion, drugs, education, or religion) may suggest that Henry rather than Madison more clearly anticipated how the political process of levying national taxes could eventually result in federal intervention on a wide array of subjects.
“He will submit to it peaceably,” George Washington said of Henry after ratification. He did. Henry’s late career is sometimes depicted as a turn to the Federalist side—a notion he repudiated in a letter Kukla quotes—or a renunciation of his principles in the face of failing health and political defeat. In reality, his post-ratification support of the new government carried on the principles that made him great in the first place: adherence to concrete rights and the rule of law, the desire to work with the materials at hand rather than remaking them from (abstract, theoretical) scratch, and a deep concern for the wellbeing of the people of Virginia. That all Americans have benefited and continue to benefit from his actions is a measure of his ultimate success.
In an era besotted with power and nationalism, one longs for an antifederalist musical.
Jordan M. Poss teaches Western Civilization and American history at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, South Carolina and writes historical fiction in his spare time. He is the author of No Snakes in Iceland and the forthcoming Griswoldville.