“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Patrick Henry presented his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” oratory to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. This speech was part of a debate over whether the colony of Virginia should arm itself against potential British attacks or if the colony should, like the other colonies, continue to seek a diplomatic resolution to the British colonial crisis. Henry’s words turned the focus of this debate toward the topic of whether Virginia wanted its freedom or wanted to continue being subservient to Great Britain. This speech was seen by many as one of the most famous cries for freedom in world history.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the long-standing relationship between the American colonies and Britain began to experience great strains. Many colonists embraced the philosophical notions of a government run by the people rather than a sovereign. This idealism might have been isolated if not for a number of key incidents and trends that fanned the flames of the pro-independence movement.
One of the first of these events was the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. Britain, which needed to repay its debts from the French and Indian War, sought to generate revenues from the colonies by requiring that all official documents (such as legal papers, almanacs, diplomas, and books) be printed on stamped paper, to which a special tax was attached.
The Stamp Act was received with great negativity in the colonies, inciting riots and other protests. It also helped bring together a number of key figures in the American Revolution, such as James Otis, John Adams, and Patrick Henry, all of whom railed against the measure. The Stamp Act would not be the only such measure, however—Parliament levied more taxes and onerous policies on the colonies, prompting even stronger protests and confrontations, including the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
As Britain proceeded to crack down on the colonies, Adams and others formed the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774, organizing boycotts on British goods and raising local militias in response to the increasingly oppressive British activity. In February 1775, Parliament—responding to these colonial actions—declared the colonies to be in a state of open rebellion.
On March 1775, a convention was called at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, drawing the colony’s leaders away from the capital in Williamsburg. The purpose of the convention was to discuss a series of proposals to raise a colonial militia to defend the colony from British attack. Although coordinated attacks had not yet taken place, delegate Patrick Henry spoke in support of raising an army, stating that the war with the British had already begun. According to Henry, the time had come for Virginia to engage the British and fight for independence. His words, fiery and eloquent, called for the delegates to consider fighting for freedom or remain in submission to the Crown. The final words of this speech—”Give me liberty or give me death!”—were received by the audience first with shock and then with enthusiastic support.
Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Studley, a Virginia community located in Hanover County near Richmond. Although he was the son of a successful planter, Henry did not receive much formal education, with most of his early education coming from his father. Although he did launch some business ventures in his early career (most notably a small store), he did not prove successful as an entrepreneur. After marrying Sarah Shelton in 1754, Henry started a brief career as a farmer. When a fire destroyed their home, Henry and his wife moved into an apartment above the tavern owned by his father-in-law. As he worked in the tavern, Henry also educated himself, studying law on his own for over a year. In 1760, he proved successful in his pursuits, receiving admittance to the bar and launching another career as a defense attorney.
As an attorney, Patrick Henry was particularly interested in defending the common people. The most famous of Henry’s defense cases was part of the Parsons’ Cause. In response to poor crop yields that inflated the value of tobacco (the colony’s primary form of payment) in the late 1750s, colonial leaders issued the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758. These measures allowed the use of paper money for payment, prevented taxes from skyrocketing, and stabilized public salaries, including those for Anglican clergy, who protested the de facto salary cut after the acts were vetoed in 1759 by the Crown. In 1763, Henry vigorously defended a parish against Reverend James Maury’s lawsuit, railing against the Church of England and the king for interfering in the natural rights of his clients. Ultimately, the case was decided in favor of the defendant, and Henry was hailed for his pro-colonial stance.
In 1765, Henry’s legal success as well as his oratory skills helped him gain a seat at the Virginia House of Burgesses. After the Stamp Act was introduced, Henry used his position to publicly compare King George III to other tyrants of the past. These charges were branded as treasonous by conservatives in the House. Henry responded famously by stating, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” A day after he made these comments, the House passed most of Patrick’s resolutions criticizing taxation without representation.
In the fall of 1774, Henry became a delegate to the First Continental Congress before returning to Virginia, where he gave his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech in March 1775. That May, Henry again represented Virginia at the Second Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War, he briefly commanded a group of militia while continuing his service to Virginia. He was elected governor five times during and after the war. Although he opposed ratification of the US Constitution, he contributed significantly to the formulation of the Bill of Rights. Henry continued to serve in the Virginia state government until he died of cancer on June 6, 1799.
In 1774, Patrick Henry took part in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He made apparent his views that America was on the brink of war. Although not all of the delegates to the Continental Congress concurred, Henry gained the attention of John Adams. Adams later recalled that only Henry seemed to appreciate the severity of the situation and that the colonies were on the precipice of war against Britain. Figures like Adams, Jefferson and others eventually generated support as Henry returned to Virginia.
In early 1775, the American colonies were declared by Parliament to be in a state of rebellion. The Second Virginia Convention would have taken place in the colonial capital of Williamsburg were it not for the careful eye and wrathful nature of the royal governor, Lord Dunmore. Without a capitol building in which to hold the proceedings, the participants therefore found a venue large enough in St. John’s Church in Richmond. The atypical venue made for a long series of debates and presentations by the delegates. The church setting also gave Henry an opportunity to speak more freely than he might have under the charge of the governor, a venue not dissimilar from Philadelphia, where he shared his thoughts a year earlier.
Like the First Continental Congress, the delegates to the Second Virginia Convention were split on the course of action necessary to address the British policies regarding the colonies. Although few doubted that Virginia needed to be defended from Britain’s continuing encroachment, many hoped that the crisis could be averted through continued appeals to the king and Parliament. As was the case in Philadelphia, Henry was among the minority with his views. His comments to the convention would therefore need to be emphatic and stirring.
Any formal actions, such as the raising of a militia and other anti-British policies, might have been tabled during the Second Virginia Convention if not for Henry’s speech. Loyalists (conservatives who sided with Britain as the pro-independence movement grew) were among the many delegates on hand, representing a large Loyalist base in the general population of Virginia. These delegates were joined by others who were wary of passing any sort of resolution that openly defied the king and fostered war and were in favor of seeking conciliation. Before Henry took the floor, historians believe that the vote to arm Virginia and enter war with Britain was split. It was therefore incumbent upon him to argue that war was already upon the colonies and the time had come to defend Virginia.
When Henry took the floor, he immediately distinguished his views on the conflict from those of his Loyalist peers. He begins his speech by stating his respect for the delegates who have spoken before him, commending their patriotism as well as their knowledge and abilities as legislators. However, Henry holds a different point of view from his fellow delegates, as well as a different approach to expressing his ideals. Because of the location of the convention—a church instead of a capitol building——there was less pressure to remain decorous and completely respectful of the king and Parliament. Additionally, Henry acknowledges his reputation for breaking such careful rules in order to speak his mind freely without fear of reprisal. Indeed, Henry asserts that the proceedings of the Second Virginia Convention should not be mired in ceremony or hampered by tempered language. Rather, the task before the convention was pivotal—to answer the question of whether Virginia should remain in “slavery” under the British government or if the colony, along with the rest of the colonies, should fight for its freedom. Henry adds that an issue of this magnitude warrants a frank and open debate and that such an approach is the only way the truth could be established and the issue addressed responsibly.
With this demand for free speech, Henry also proclaims that he must not hold back his tongue for fear of insulting or offending anyone—to do so, would make him guilty of treason against America and God. He therefore presents his proposals and resolutions to the convention in an unapologetic and unflinching manner.
Henry states that it is a natural response for men, when faced with painful truths, to shut their eyes and hold out hope that the hard issues at hand will be rectified. He equates such an action to the men of Homer’s Odyssey—such men would be lured, entranced, by the intoxicating call of the siren, who led the men’s ships to crash in shallow, rocky waters. In colonial America, Henry argues, a similar siren’s call was being sounded, leading the colonies’ leaders to shut their eyes to British hostilities until the colonies were defeated and crushed.
Henry calls upon his fellow leaders to remove their hands from their eyes as he did. Although the truths that would become evident were painful ones, Henry had prepared himself for such harsh truths, but many in colonial governments were not choosing this course of action. He therefore implores his colleagues to behave wisely, engage in the struggle for liberty, and fearlessly open their eyes to the truth.
Henry next states that his experience has led him to seek independence. Over the decade leading up to the Second Virginia Convention, Henry says, the British government seemed to be focused on increasing its oppressive rule over the colonies. Neither Parliament nor the king, in light of these events, had demonstrated a desire for open government that would justify the hope in the eyes of the colonists.
Henry cautions his fellow delegates not to be swayed by hopes that the situation would change. In his view, though the British claimed to seek a resolution to these issues, they had done nothing to validate that promise. Instead, every petition and appeal offered by the colonists was either ignored or given a response in the form of more oppressive measures and troop buildups. The British had embraced the pursuit of continued oppression and subjugation of their subjects in America, and despite several good-faith attempts at reconciliation offered by the colonists, Britain proceeded along its warlike path.
Henry adds that there was no evidence to support the notion that Britain was a nation with which the colonists could reconcile their differences. He advises his colleagues not to trust the false hope that war could be avoided, reminding them that the colonists had sent petitions to the king and Parliament, only to see the king respond by sending more troops and ships. He cautions his fellow delegates not to deceive themselves with the possibility that Britain might seek a peaceful resolution—the increased presence of British troops and ships amounted to nothing more than “the implements of war and subjugation.”
Furthermore, such deployments were typically a king’s last resort when faced with an unyielding enemy. There was no other reason for an increased troop buildup—by then, Great Britain had no other enemy in the region that would warrant such a force. The heightened presence of military forces had but one unmistakable focus: to secure and render submissive the colonies.
Henry’s repeated references to the intentions of the British were meant to clear what he saw as the clouded minds of those who did not want to engage Britain militarily. Henry felt that too many within the convention would rather seek peace at any cost, when it was painfully clear to him and other pro-independence advocates that peace simply was not going to be offered by the main instigator of this conflict, Britain.
Henry next asks his colleagues how they would prefer to deal with the situation. He discounts the viability of further negotiation, which had been attempted for more than ten years. He suggests that no further ideas had been offered because no other viable avenue was available. The only other option was complete submission, which he implies the colonists simply could not do. Henry concludes that even this course of action had inadvertently been followed while the colonists appealed to the king and Parliament.
Put simply, Henry argues, the colonists could do nothing more to halt the oppressive actions of the tyrannical British government. They had petitioned, protested, pled, and even “prostrated” themselves before the king in order to “arrest the tyrannical hands” of Parliament and the king. Each of these efforts was ignored, dismissed, or reciprocated with further sanctions. To embrace the hope that Britain might change its policies and instead embrace peace and reconciliation, Henry claims, was pure vanity.
Henry next acknowledges what was at stake with regard to lifting the yoke of British tyranny. The basic rights of all the colonists had been suppressed under these policies, he says, despite the colonists’ efforts to preserve them over many years. Henry spoke from experience, having been a central figure in the fight over the Stamp Act and having witnessed other key events leading up to the First Continental Congress.
Given the stakes, the colonists’ many attempts to have their interests represented and issues addressed, and the negative responses these petitions garnered, Henry proclaims it is time to embrace reality rather than hope. For a long time, Henry reminds his listeners, the colonists worked toward the goals of fair treatment and representation in government as well as the basic rights due to all men. Unless the colonists wished to abandon this effort, there was but one course of action left for the America to take: “We must fight!” Henry urges repeatedly, adding that the only avenue toward peace is through the strength of arms and the support of God.
Henry further asserts that the pursuit of military action must occur quickly. Britain believed the colonists to be weak and unable to withstand the formidable force of the British military. The British continued to build their strength in the colonies, sending more and more troops and weapons into the colonies while the colonists stood idly. Henry implores his fellow delegates to show resolve and decisiveness, for the British troops would do so.
In Henry’s estimation, no success would be found in inaction. As the colonists continued to talk and negotiate, he predicts, the British would disarm and bind them as they clung to a delusion of a peaceful resolution. The British idea of colonial weakness and submissiveness would be validated if Americans continued to cling to “the phantom of hope.”
America, Henry argues, was not inherently weak, however—the American colonists had the potential to be so strong and formidable that even the great powers of Britain could not defeat them. After all, Henry states, God had presented the colonists with a number of great assets. First, they had strength in numbers—over two million people were living in the American colonies by that time, and most of them could take up arms and/or contribute to the cause. Second, the battle would be fought in their own country, which meant that the colonists could draw their own supplies and resources to support the effort, while the British would need to bring in supplies on ships.
Above all, Henry reminds his colleagues, they would not be fighting alone. In fact, the pursuit of liberty, he maintains, is a holy cause, and therefore God, who presides over the destiny of all nations, would raise other nations to come to the aid of the colonists as they fought the British. These nations would even fight Britain on behalf of the colonies, disrupting and undermining the British campaign in America.
Although military might is important in war, Henry acknowledges, the colonies had a number of great traits that would make them seemingly invincible in the face of the British. He notes that to win the war, the colonists must be vigilant, ever ready and watchful. Second, they must be active, rather than passive—Henry repeatedly warns his colleagues of the dangers of complacency. Furthermore, Henry urges the colonists to be brave—desire would lead them to the battlefield but fearlessness would lead the Americans to victory.
Henry next repeats his warning that, whether the colonists were prepared or not, war with Britain had already begun. The colonists rightly desired a change from the oppressive nature of British rule, and the king and Parliament had responded with brute force. They could not “retire” from this battle, unless the colonists wished to remain in a state of submission and “slavery.” Henry says that his fellow delegates could hear the colonists’ metaphorical chains rattling in Boston, which suggested that their will to be free would not be undone. The British would therefore be coming to silence them and bring America once again into submission. War with Britain, Henry claims, is inevitable, and he welcomes it, saying emphatically, “Let it come!”
Henry nears the end of his remarks by again reminding his colleagues that attempting to maintain peaceful conditions during the ongoing conflict between the colonies and Britain is an exercise in futility. Besides, he states, there is no peace. The next sound Patrick Henry and his fellow Virginians would hear from New England would be the sounds of war, as guns, cannons, and swords rattled on the battlefield. Their fellow colonists were already engaged in combat, and this fighting was spreading rapidly throughout the colonies.
Henry concludes his remarks by questioning why the convention’s delegates remained idle as war raged in the north. He asks them what they sought that prevented them from immediately joining the war. Only through war would they gain the liberty they sought and protect the life and peace so dear to them. With no compunction, Henry defiantly proclaims his own preference: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
As described earlier, the Second Virginia Convention entered this session divided on the subject of arming the Virginia colony and joining with the other colonies in war against the British. Henry’s impassioned, blunt words swayed a number of key swing votes, and his proposals were accepted. The speech resonated beyond the walls of St. John’s Church, reaching the ears of Governor Dunmore in Williamsburg. Dunmore soon dispatched troops to the public magazine in Williamsburg to remove all munitions. Henry and the local militia were vocal in their protests, marching on Williamsburg and demanding compensation for the theft. Dunmore proclaimed that Henry had steered Virginia into war with Britain, lending credence to the notion that the American War of Independence had already begun.
Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech was presented during a pivotal period for the eighteenth-century American colonies. The colonies had been subjected to increased sanctions and heavy-handed policies, including the Stamp Act of 1765. These policies helped fan the flames of such pro-liberty figures as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Otis (as well as Deputy Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin, who initially agreed to the Stamp Act but later became outwardly critical of British policy). Coupled with incidents like the Boston Massacre, these policies added to tensions and confrontations that left the colonies teetering on the edge of war.
For many of the delegates to the First Continental Congress and the Second Virginia Convention, however, there was a glimmer of hope that war could be averted and reconciliation with the Crown could be accomplished. Some elements remained loyal to Britain, while others simply sought an amicable solution that avoided violence. Patrick Henry was not among either of these camps—he, like John Adams and other so-called radicals, believed that there was no hope of reconciliation, and that war was inevitable.
As he had done on previous occasions, Henry here offers blunt, unapologetic language about the state of British-American relations. He states clearly to his colleagues in Richmond that any further humble, forceful appeals sent to Parliament and the king would be almost certainly rebuffed and returned with additional sanctions. Whether the delegates embraced it or not, he adds, the only way to defend America’s way of life is by taking up arms against the oncoming British forces. Henry also gives the delegates reason to believe that they could, through strength of arms, bravery, and faith in God, wrest freedom from Britain. Henry therefore encourages his fellow leaders to face reality and enthusiastically prepare for the coming war.
To foster this attitude and energy, Henry reminds his colleagues of what was at stake. Life, liberty, and peace were qualities far too important to the colonists to be exchanged for submission to the king’s continued pursuit of colonial subjugation. Henry further argues that for the colonists to remain hopeful for a reconciliation that would never come only hastened the shackling of the colonies into utter submission. Now, he says, is the time for fight for their liberty.
Shortly after Henry gave this speech, it became clear that the British were indeed seeking to disarm the colonies and put down the growing rebellion. Less than a month after the convention, colonial minutemen engaged the British army in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Two months later, the two sides fought on another battlefield, this time at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Branded a traitor after his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, Patrick Henry came to be viewed among the colonists less as a radical and more as a critical leader in the American Revolution.
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