Patrick Henry is best known for his defiant words delivered in a May 1775 speech: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” In his authoritative, detailed and absorbing Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty, Jon Kukla explores Henry’s crucial public roles as an early leader of opposition to the Stamp Act and other repressive measures, as well as a key legislative strategist, an outstanding orator and, perhaps most importantly, a very effective five-term governor of Virginia, his first election to the position coming in 1776. At that time, Henry’s priority was to win the war against Britain and support the Congress and George Washington. After the war, Henry dealt with difficult situations of state and national authority including Native American warfare and a congressional conspiracy against Virginia’s vast western expansion interests.
Washington and Henry were colleagues for years in politics and war, a relationship that was strengthened by Henry’s loyal support of Washington in 1777-78 during an alleged plot to replace him as military commander. The mutual trust remained despite, 10 years later, Washington’s favoring of and Henry’s opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. Henry’s opposition was based on his ideas of liberty and federalism and his fear that the national government would become too powerful. He was instrumental in pushing for a Bill of Rights before James Madison championed the idea. As president, Washington offered Henry positions as secretary of state and as ambassador to Spain, but he declined both.
Henry was increasingly distressed as party politics came to play a more important role in governmental decisions. Henry and Washington felt that true patriots should be able to rise above partisan politics and make decisions based on disinterested commitment to the welfare of the community.
Kukla’s vivid recreation of Henry’s life and times enlightens readers about a man who was much more than his courageous words spoken in 1775.