When one thinks of colonial America, the American Revolutionary period, and the birth of this nation, many great names come to mind. Among these, of course, are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and, George Washington. Stories of America’s founding fathers and brothers abound. All of these men, and so many others were instrumental in the birth of our country. Sometimes, the legends of these men outshine the other patriots and influential members of society who also played an important role throughout these important periods. One such often overlooked giant of the time period was Patrick Henry.
Those who have heard of Patrick Henry probably only recall that he uttered the famous lines, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” The context of the speech, and Henry’s history before making that famous statement are forgotten, or never learned by many. Some students of history may recall that in his later years Patrick Henry argued against the adoption of the Constitution, though the connection between his “liberty” speech and his opposition to that founding document is probably lost on many.
The fact that Patrick Henry’s life has been forgotten by so many is sad because Patrick Henry was, in fact, one of the most important thinkers, speakers, leaders, and influencers in our country’s great history. Because Henry’s life was so rich, and so important, it would take a skilled historian and a gifted writer to effectively bring his story to modern-day readers. Author Jon Kukla does just that in his outstanding tome, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty.
Kukla’s biography of Patrick Henry is extremely detailed and thorough. The research that went into this book was vast as is demonstrated by the over 120 pages of notes contained after the text. In short, Kukla left no stone unturned in his extensive history of this important American.
In business and in education today, we are often encouraged to “begin with the end in mind.” In this wonderful biography, Kukla does just that beginning the tale with the story of Patrick Henry’s last moments. The story is so compelling, and the writing so engaging, that the reader is immediately brought back to 1799 in the somber room with Patrick Henry, his family, and his doctor. One he grabs the reader, Kukla does an excellent job keeping the reader’s attention. The desire to learn more about this great man begins from the very first words of the text. In that first chapter, the reader is provided with a good overview of Patrick Henry’s life and philosophies.
This reviewer struggled a bit in the chapters that focused on Patrick Henry’s early life. Details about Henry’s family abound, as do descriptions of the (many) areas where he lived and traveled. At first, the detail was a little overwhelming, but the reader soon realizes that Kukla is a historian who often writes like a novelist. When one re-reads with the purpose of enjoying the prose and not getting lost in the specifics, he sees what a truly gifted writer Kukla truly is.
A history of this nature deserves an extensive and thorough review, but to give the book the recognition it deserves, the review would have to almost be as long as book. In many ways it is amazing that Kukla is able to deliver such a thorough biography, as the text itself comes in at just under 400 pages. It is only because Kukla is such an expert on Patrick Henry and the America of this time period that so much is packed into this amount of pages. Kukla’s review of Henry’s life and the time period is comprehensive and extremely well done.
The tale of Patrick Henry’s life gains traction and momentum as Henry begins his career in law and public life. From the start, Henry used his brilliant mind to make cogent and logical arguments that compelled others to take note and listen. Kukla’s articulation of the time period around the Stamp Act and Henry’s rise to prominence is especially compelling. When Patrick Henry utters, “If this be treason, make the most of it,” the reader feels as though he at the House of Burgesses witnessing this public speech (along with Thomas Jefferson and others) in awe of this dynamic speaker and revolutionary leader.
In addition to his gifted use of language, Kukla is also a true historian. Many biographies fail because the author gets caught up trying to navigate the difficult balance between telling the story of a person’s life and offering quality analysis of the person, the time period, or the key historical events. Kukla never falls victim to this trap. This might be because of his quality writing, or maybe it is because he is a gifted storyteller. The asides and the historical analysis come naturally throughout the text. These have a way of drawing the reader, even more, into the story compelling him to turn each page and discover more about the life of Patrick Henry.
The gifted writer compels his reader to be satisfied and yet want additional information. I find myself wishing to drive to Virginia to travel in Patrick Henry’s footsteps to learn more (if that is even possible) about this oft forgotten giant of American history.
In short, Kukla’s biography is a masterpiece. It is, at once, a biography, a novel, and a thorough history. This book is one that will remain in my personal library and it is a book that this reviewer plans to read again and again.
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