Patrick Henry was devoted to liberty, patriotism, and public moral virtue. These three threads are important to understanding his life and impact.
In First Among Patriots, Thomas Kidd examines the man known as the “Voice of the American Revolution.” Most Americans know Henry only for his “Give me liberty” speech. Many, through history and in contemporary culture, try to claim him as a patron saint for their own political positions. Henry, however, is much more than any popular conception.
A native of what was then the “back-woods” region of Virginia, Henry achieved prominence as a lawyer and eventually as a representative in the colonial legislature. It was there that his oratorical skills would help rouse the nation to the cause of Independence. Considered a radical by some, a patriot by others, Henry would become a controversial figure in both Virginia and national politics.
He would serve as the state’s war-time governor and repeatedly in the state legislature. His legendary oratorical skills were not matched by political aptitude, and he often grew impatient with extended deliberation. This was to his detriment – on more than one occasion, he would lose a battle he thought already won.
Henry’s passion for liberty would rouse a nation to independence. His passion for limited government would pit him against the architects of the new American government. It was his role as a leader of the anti-Federalists, those who opposed the adoption of the Constitution, that earned him the animosity of many of the founding fathers and his former friends.
Kidd makes note of the influence of faith in Henry’s life. Much of his thinking, including his views on an established church, was shaped by a firm belief in the necessity of public morality to the stability of a nation. Siding against his one-time friend Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists of Virginia, he believed that the government should encourage morality through support of churches.
The author notes that Henry believed the government should promote morality. “Two primary ways of doing this were punishing immorality under the law, and encouraging morality through churches and schools.” He continues, “Jefferson and Madison cooperated with many evangelical dissenters, especially Baptists, in arguing that religion would survive, and even thrive, on a purely voluntary basis.”
Henry was no saint. His flaws include inconsistency on the issue of slavery, a tendency to bend principle for the sake of profit, and occasional lapses in his characteristic frugality are evident. Kidd highlights these, but frames them charitably in their proper context.
I found this book enjoyable to read. It provides a more accurate portrait of the man I consider one of the most underrated of the founding fathers. The author strikes a proper balance between the subject and the historical setting without getting either out of focus. He gives insight into an important period of our history through the life of a man who was “first among patriots.”
You can preview a portion of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots at Amazon.