Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.

Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.

Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers.  Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:

“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”

—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.

“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.

“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”

—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.”

—Here, when speaking of “our petition”,  Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.

“I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain.”

—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.

“Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”

—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”

—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.

“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against us?

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable, and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)

Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.

We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.

2 thoughts on “Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

  1. As someone who teaches Shakespeare, I’m fascinated by accounts of the putative power of stirring speeches to enact, well, actual action. That’s why I am so interested in the detail you provide about the long ranging effects of Henry’s speech: “Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts.” Do you think the speech had a kind of “slow burn” effect? That is, yet, they all jumped to their feet in the, as you say, adrenaline rush (presumably hooting USA USA :)) of hearing the speech, yet they must have spread snippets and recollections of it for days, weeks, and month afterward. When armed hostilities actually broke out, did the Virginia journalistic sources and broadsheets recall the speech at all?
    BTW: I am eagerly hoping that you will soon tackle the storm of controversey brewing over the new book about Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding:


    1. Hello John; thanks for writing. Your reference to Shakespeare is interesting—what’s the connection exactly? (We’re thinking perhaps of the speeches made by characters in his plays that provoke important actions?) Henry’s speech was exhilarating when given, but anyone listening to it could have made the point, after the first flush of excitement died down, that it was all conjecture: a war is coming—has already begun? What’s your proof? There is no proof, just frantic prophecies of doom. Until actual shots are fired, war is all rhetoric. People would have been eager, as Henry begins by saying, to tell themselves war would not really come and that Henry was just a hothead. This would all have been exploded later by the news coming in from Massachusetts about the battles on April 19 (which news likely reached Virginia in May). The speech wasn’t published (if it had been, we’d be sure that we have an accurate representation of it), but once word of the start of war arrived, those who had heard the Henry speech would have remembered his prediction. What was labeled as outlandish speculation in March was transformed into prescient wisdom in May.

      It may be that chants of USA! USA! USA! ensued, but that is all conjecture without actual transcripts.

      We’ll take a look at the Jefferson book—thanks!


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