Patrick Henry: First among Patriots

By Gilje, Paul A. | The Historian, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Patrick Henry: First among Patriots


Gilje, Paul A., The Historian


Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. By Thomas S. Kidd. (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011. Pp. xiii, 291. $28.00.)

This new biography of Patrick Henry will find a wide readership. Writing for a popular audience, Thomas S. Kidd provides a sketch of Henry's life and an overview of the revolutionary conflict with Great Britain. The Patrick Henry that emerges from its pages should be a darling of the Tea Party of the early twenty-first century. Stridently for state's rights, Henry opposed the United States Constitution because he saw its oversized government as a threat to the liberty for which he had become so great a spokesman. Moreover, he advocated government support for Christian religion while encouraging the disestablishment of a single church. This appeal to the political Right is intentional: Kidd's final words are, "in 1776, Patrick Henry's ideals of liberty, religion, a moral society, small government, and local politics were essential principles upon which America was built" (254). Moreover, the reviewer's copy of the book outlines the national marketing strategy, which includes using a "conservative radio campaign" to publicize the book.

Whatever the popular response to the book, many professional historians will be disappointed. The portrayal of both the Revolution and Patrick Henry is monodimensional. Ignoring divisions within American society and the idea that the Revolution was an Anglo-American civil war, Kidd writes, "The era summoned heroic personalities like his [Henry's], men who were called to defend America's liberties with political and moral fervor" (66). Similarly, Kidd implies on one page that there were hardly any Loyalists after Dunmore's proclamation offering freedom to slaves and two pages later refers to the persistence of Loyalists in the Tidewater (110, 112). …

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