Patrick Henry Critical Context - Essay

Critical Context

Campion relied principally on one source, William Wirt’s phenomenally successful Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817), which mythologizes much of Henry’s life. Campion, though having access to more recent scholarship and even listing some of it in her bibliography, uses Wirt’s book uncritically. For example, her characterization of Henry as indolent, preferring to spend his time fishing rather than working, is clearly derivative of Wirt’s. Yet Henry’s phenomenal success as a lawyer is directly attributable to his hard work; unlike Thomas Jefferson, who was thoroughly grounded in theoretical law but seldom practiced his craft, Henry maintained a large and thriving practice most of his life. Henry’s desire to protect his massive frontier land acquisitions is transformed in Campion’s work into a desire to protect the western Native American tribes.

Campion frequently ignores more recent scholarship that contradicts Wirt’s study. Robert Meade, in his Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making (1957), describes university-educated John Henry’s extensive library and the value that the Henry family placed on self-education. Aware of this work, Campion nevertheless prefers Wirt’s depiction of an uneducated Henry, the victim of a severely retarded educational system. Uncritical of her sources, Campion often ignores facts contradicting her vision of Henry as a virtuous, unprivileged country boy. Frequently condescending, her book is contrived and distorted. By exaggerating Henry’s accomplishments and exalting his moral character, Campion’s biography belongs more appropriately with nineteenth century hagiography.