Peruse the language of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street movements, and you will, at some point, encounter “give me liberty or give me death.” Apart from the various preambles and amendments to our founding documents, these are arguably the best- known and most invoked words from the American Revolution. The phrase has far outlived the reputation of its author: two centuries after his death, Patrick Henry remains associated with a fragment of a speech he delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s church in the spring of 1775, and little else. But Henry, the subject of a fine new biography by historian Thomas S. Kidd, should be remembered for much more.
Virginia’s first governor, and one of the earliest and most articulate advocates for American independence, Henry was essential to the nation’s founding. He was also a complex, contradictory figure whose legacy doesn’t easily lend itself to modern appropriation: a Founding Father who fought tooth and nail against the ratification of the Constitution, a staunch defender of human liberty who owned scores of slaves, and a firm exponent of Christian virtue not entirely uncomfortable using his power for personal gain. Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots portrays a sui generis patriot whose career illustrates the probity and failings of men and the governments they craft—as well as the power of words.