Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots • Thomas S. Kidd • New York: Basic Books, 2011 • xiv, 306 pp. • $28.00
Reviewed by Kevin J. Hayes, professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is the author of The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas.
When I learned a few years ago that Thomas Kidd was writing a new biography of Patrick Henry for Basic Books, I wondered whether the world really needed another Henry biography. I feared his book would follow the pattern of so many other commercial biographies, which often synthesize and simplify the published scholarship. My first glance at Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots reinforced my fears. Printed in a large font with generous leading, this new biography almost looks like a children's book. To be sure, much of its detail is elementary. The general information about the social and economic conditions of colonial Virginia in the opening chapter, for instance, has been common knowledge since the days of Philip Bruce. Similarly, the second chapter provides some basics about the Great Awakening and the religious climate of mid-eighteenth-century Virginia, but it provides no new details about Henry's life.
Increasingly eager for new information as I continued to read, I started flipping to the notes whenever I came across anything unfamiliar. Kidd quotes numerous manuscript letters to and from Henry located in libraries across the nation. His archival work looks promising initially. In chapter four, which treats the run-up to the Revolutionary War, he quotes a letter to Henry from New Jersey Quaker Samuel Allinson that parallels the issues of slavery and colonial American liberty. Kidd quotes the letter from the Allinson Family Papers at Rutgers University, but Larry Gerlach edited this same letter years ago for New Jersey in the American Revolution, 1763–1783: A Documentary History (1975). Other letters Kidd quotes were previously discovered by Robert Douthat Meade (1957), William Wirt Henry (1891), and even William Wirt (1817). Although Kidd's impulse to go back to the originals is commendable, one wonders if he might have exhausted the print materials first before heading to the archives. Some of the printed sources he uses do help supplement Henry's biography. He quotes one letter from Daniel Boone, which, though known to Boone scholars, has eluded Henry's biographers. Similarly, Kidd uses additional material generally known to scholars of John Marshall yet overlooked by earlier Henry biographers. Though Kidd's documentation of his source material gives the impression that his biography contains much new information, few of the documents he quotes represent new finds. Consequently, the conclusions he makes are not appreciably different from the ones that, for example, Henry Mayer makes in his more comprehensive biography, A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic (1986).
Maybe the world does not need a new Henry biography after all, but Patrick Henry: First among Patriots convinces me that what it does need is a thorough scholarly edition of Henry's letters, speeches, and other writings. Not since William Wirt Henry's Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches (1891) has there been an attempt to collect Henry's papers. It is time for a new edition, time to locate all the letters in print and manuscript and edit and annotate them properly. Now that would be an important contribution to scholarship. And once the last volume of The Papers of Patrick Henry is published, perhaps then will it be time for a new biography.