This is an older biography of Patrick Henry (1961), with target audience of middle school/junior high. Overall, this was a really excellent read, with plenty of details about Henry’s life and career, but not too overwhelming. It’s written to engage younger readers, so there is some dialogue and little anecdotes along the way, but most of these stories added to the character development of Henry, helping us to see what shaped him throughout his younger years and even as an adult.
It’s been a while since I studied this era of American history, so my memories of Henry were a bit vague, other than attributing his famous cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Reading this book made me want to learn more about this fascinating man – poorly educated, more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else, a failure at so many careers, a self-made lawyer, a man who lived his religious beliefs, a non-drinker, father of seventeen children, the first governor of Virginia, and a passionate advocate of personal freedom and the equality of all men.
Campion did a really wonderful job of putting Henry in his time period as well. For instance, the topic of slavery is touched on a few times – something that Henry struggled with, but was more or less resigned to, a product not just of his time, but of time immortal, as there have always been slaves throughout the history of mankind. (Which obviously does not justify it, but I think sometimes people get really hung up on the concept that the founding fathers could fight so passionately for their freedom while ignoring the fact that so many people were enslaved. A terrible thing, yes, but not as hypocritical as we may believe at this time. There has been slavery throughout every time of recorded history, and are still slaves even today; I think it is rather unfair to expect those founding fathers to not only set up the world’s first democracy from scratch, but to also expect them to reject a concept ingrained in humanity for thousands of years, as though their failure on that point means that everything else they did was worthless. But I digress.)
While Henry was initially friends with Thomas Jefferson, their relationship soured over the years, and Campion also weaves that story throughout the book, helping the reader to see how this breakdown could have occurred. And while Henry was a passionate speech-maker, he was no writer, which means that much of our perspective of Henry as a person is through people who, at the time, were writers… like Thomas Jefferson. While Campion never comes across as defending Henry, she does remind the reader that historians are people, too, who have personal opinions and beliefs, so when someone like Jefferson says that Henry was “avaricious and rotten-hearted,” he may not have been completely objective.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am interested to read more about Henry’s life. Campion’s description of the build-up to Henry’s greatest speech genuinely gave me chills. I wished that I could have learned a little more about his home life (with seventeen children, it seems like there would be scope for something interesting there!), and I also think that a more in-depth biography would have more information about Henry’s negative views on the Constitution (which Henry believed was basically worthless without a Bill of Rights to accompany it).
All in all, Firebrand of the Revolution was a great place to start – enough to give me a good overview of Henry’s life and leave me interested to learn more. 5/5 and recommended.