Patrick Henry (1736–1799) was a prominent Virginia statesman who was best known as a fiery orator. Henry was a force in Virginia politics during the events leading up to the American Revolution and in Virginia’s first decades as a commonwealth. He was born in Hanover County to John and Sarah Syme Henry. Henry belonged to the Anglican Church and his uncle was an Anglican minister. However, members of his mother’s family were religious dissenters. Following failed attempts at running a store, Henry decided to study law and within a few months obtained his law license in Williamsburg. Henry began his career in the House of Burgesses nine days before the Stamp Act crisis. He became one of the great orators in the colony during the events leading to the American Revolution. His most famous speech occurred in the church during the Second Virginia Convention. For over thirty years, Henry was one of Virginia’s foremost leaders, becoming one of the most influential defenders of the colonials’ rights as Englishmen. Henry was elected the first governor of Virginia and served four additional one-year terms. Henry died on June 6, 1799, and is buried at Red Hill his last home, located in Charlotte County, Virginia.
Patrick Henry and the Stamp Act
Patrick Henry, a newly elected burgess from Hanover County, led the protest against the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses. Working with fellow burgesses John Fleming and George Johnston, Henry challenged the constitutionality of the Stamp Act. He introduced five resolutions in the House of Burgesses on 30 May 1765. The first four resolutions stated that the colonists had all the rights and privileges of Englishmen, that only the people or their elected representatives could levy a tax on them, and that this right was part of the constitution, recognized by the kings and people of Britain. The fifth resolution radically declared that only the House of Burgesses had the right to tax the inhabitants of the colony.
In support of his resolutions, Henry made a dramatic speech, described by an eyewitness as “one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favour of his Country.” Another first hand account, although written many years after the event, recalled that Henry declared “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third” before he was interrupted with cries of treason, and then completed the sentence stating “And George the Third may profit by their example! “Thomas Jefferson remembered that Henry seemed “to speak as Homer wrote” and that during the “most bloody debate” Henry spoke “torrents of sublime eloquence.”
After a spirited debate, the House of Burgesses passed the five resolutions. Henry and some of the other burgesses left town to return home. The next day, the remaining burgesses rescinded the radical fifth resolution. But newspapers throughout the colonies printed all five resolutions, along with two others that Henry may not have even introduced. The sixth and seventh resolutions asserted that inhabitants of the colony were not bound to pay taxes imposed by anyone other than their own assembly and that those who assert that another person had this right or authority would be considered an enemy. The public perception was that the House of Burgesses had adopted a more radical position than it did. The Virginia resolutions were an alarm that encouraged additional protest and resistance throughout the colonies.
Patrick Henry and the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church
On 20 January 1775, the Virginia Gazette contained a small notice, advising that “The several counties and corporations in this Colony are requested to elect delegates to represent them in Convention who are desired to meet at the Town of Richmond in the County of Henrico, on Monday the 20th of March, next. “The second extralegal convention was called by Peyton Randolph to elect delegates to the Second Continental Congress to be held on 10 May 1775.
Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of the colony, following instructions from the British ministry, had recently published a proclamation notifying the members of the House of Burgesses that they would not convene until May. Dunmore had prorogued, or dismissed, the delegates each time their actions became critical of the British ministry. As a consequence, several laws had lapsed, among them the important act establishing the colonial militia, leaving the colony without forces for frontier defense. Dunmore suspected that the delegates were meeting to form a provincial government and to form a militia. The committee of Fairfax County had passed resolutions on 17 January 1775 recommending that a contribution be collected for the purpose of providing ammunition for the militia. The committee also ordered the militia to assemble and drill, as had a meeting of protectors in Maryland the previous month. The resolution was “the first recorded instance in which a committee not only moved to arm a county but arrogated to itself the power to levy and collect a tax.” The colonial assemblies were unconsciously beginning to take the reigns of government and Dunmore, along with other royal officials, was certainly alarmed.
Attendance at the Second Virginia Convention was high due to the critical state of relations with the mother country and the end of the October 1774 conflict between volunteers from Virginia and Indian tribes in the Ohio Valley, later known as Dunmore’s War. The delegates came and went over the course of the convention, which lasted from Monday, 20 March–Monday, 27 March 1775. On the first day, 20 March, 95 delegates were present and as the days went by and the delegates came and went, the number rose to 120. Seven eligible men were never recorded as present. The convention met in the Henrico Parish Church, now called St. John’s Church.
On the first day, the delegates elected John Tazewell clerk and Peyton Randolph president. Randolph had been moderator of the first convention, Speaker of the House of Burgesses and president of the First Continental Congress. Randolph brought before the convention the proceedings of the Continental Congress. The convention passed a resolution asking Miles Selden, the rector of Henrico Parish, to read prayers each morning and the delegates agreed to conduct business according to the rules of the House of Burgesses. During the second and third days, the convention discussed the proceedings of the Continental Congress. They passed a resolution approving the proceedings and giving their “warmest Thanks” to the Virginia members, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton.
On the fourth day of the convention, 23 March, Patrick Henry introduced three resolutions. The first stated “that a well regulated Militia composed of Gentlemen and Yeomen is the natural Strength and only Security of a free Government: that such a Militia in this Colony would forever render it unnecessary for the Mother Country to keep among us for the purpose of our Defense any standing Army of mercenary Forces, always subversive of the Quiet, and dangerous to the Liberties of the People; and would obviate the Pretext of taxing us for their Support.
His second resolution stated “that the Establishment of such a Militia is at this Time peculiarly necessary by the State of our Laws for the protection and Defence of the Country, some of which are already expired and others will shortly do so; and that the known Remissness of Government in calling us together in a Legislative Capacity renders it too insecure in this time of Danger and Distress to rely; that Opportunity will be given of renewing them in General Assembly, or making any provision to secure our inestimable Rights & Liberties from those further Violations with which they are threatened.
Henry’s first resolution followed very closely the spirit of the Fairfax County resolutions but did not call for a voluntary contribution to support and supply the militia. By forming a militia that was drilled and prepared, the colonists were taking steps to prevent Britain from maintaining a standing army in their midst and taxing them to support the expense. The second resolution was a sharp condemnation of the royal governor and the King’s ministers who had failed to call the House of Burgesses into session, preventing them from enacting legislation. Henry’s third resolution was the most provocative: “Resolved therefore that his Colony be immediately put into a posture of Defence,” that a Committee be appointed “to prepare a Plan for embodying, arming, and disciplining such a Number of Men as may be sufficient for that purpose.”
The third resolution touched off a debate concerning whether it would be seen as a “prophesy of war” and “would place Virginia in the false position of appearing not to resist armed conflict but to invite it.”
Henry rose and delivered the most famous oration of his life in support of his resolutions. His “Liberty or Death” speech was a masterful argument, outlining the interactions between the British ministry and the colonials. Henry began by urging the delegates to examine the past behavior of the ministry and not to cloud their judgment with false hope, declaring, “are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not.” “I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.” He argued that the colonials had spent ten years petitioning and pleading with the ministry and Parliament to recognize their rights as Englishmen. He asked the delegates to make their decisions using “the lamp of experience” and stated that there “was no way of judging the future but by the past.” In that light, he concluded, “in vain . . . may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation.” Henry pleaded with the delegates to recognize that the presence of armies and navies was an act of hostility, not of reconciliation. He warned them that the time for action had arrived, that no matter how weak they perceived themselves to be, they would be even more vulnerable if disarmed and in the presence of the British army. Henry urged the delegates to recognize that “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.” He continued, “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!” Henry closed dramatically by invoking the choice that he believed they then had to make, “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!”
Henry’s speech was powerful and carried the resolutions in a close vote. The convention journal does not record the actual vote, but Parker wrote that the resolution was “carried by a Majority of 65 to 60.” The convention records indicate that only 118 delegates were likely present that day. The vote was close, and the resolution passed by a narrow margin.
The Outcome of the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church
Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were named first and second, respectively, in the list of committee members, to propose plans for embodying an army and disciplining the militia. According to parliamentary procedure Henry, having presented the resolution, was named chairman and Lee, who seconded it, was placed next in seniority. Thomas Jefferson supported the resolutions during the debates and was appointed to the committee, as were Andrew Lewis and William Christian (who had gained military experience in Dunmore’s War), and Adam Stephen and George Washington (who were veterans of the French and Indian War). Isaac Zane, who managed an iron works, was also appointed to the committee. And in a departure from standard practice, men who had been skeptical about the wisdom of adopting Henry’s bold resolution were also appointed. The more cautious faction was represented by Robert Carter Nicholas, Lemuel Riddick, Edmund Pendleton, and Benjamin Harrison. The committee members presented their militia plan to the other delegates on the fifth day of the convention, but discussion was postponed until the following day, when it was unanimously agreed to model the current militia after the Militia Law passed in 1738.
The delegates also adopted a resolution thanking the soldiers and Dunmore for their service in Dunmore’s War. The convention reelected the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. The final day of the convention, a committee charged to investigate ways to encourage industry in the colony and to alleviate shortages resulting from the nonimportation agreement reported ways to encourage manufacturing to provide employment and further reduce the colony’s dependence on foreign goods.
In its final acts of business, the delegates to the convention received a report from Robert Carter Nicholas on funds received for the delegates to the First Continental Congress, appointed Thomas Jefferson to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress if Randolph was unable to attend, thanked Miles Selden and the town of Richmond for their hospitality, and requested Alexander Purdie to print the proceedings of the convention.
The convention ended on 27 March and less than a month later on 19 April the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. Henry’s speech was prophetic and has been credited as “the signal utterance of the Revolution, a speech whose eloquent and ringing defense of liberty best expressed the colonials’ emerging will to independence.” Henry’s phrase, “liberty or death,” became a rallying cry during the Revolution.
Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” Speech
Henry was a superb orator who spoke extemporaneously. One aspect of Henry’s genius was that he was able to take ideas and phrases that were part of the intellectual life of the colonies and put them into eloquent words and persuasive arguments. There is no written record of this speech. It was not until William Wirt, Henry’s first biographer, published Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry in 1817 that a reconstruction of the speech was printed. Based on the recollections of men who had been present when the speech was made, the main source was a lengthy letter that St. George Tucker wrote relating his memories of the speech. Some scholars attribute the version of the speech commonly known to Tucker, but there are other firsthand accounts that characterize Henry’s speech in a similar manner, giving weight to Tucker’s memories of the words that Henry spoke.
James Parker, a Norfolk merchant who talked with delegates after the convention, wrote a letter on 6 April 1775 that describes Henry’s speech as “infamously insolent,” and repeats that Henry referred to the King as “a Tyrant, a fool, a puppet & a tool to the ministry, Said there was now no Englishmen, no Scots, no Britons, but a set of wretches sunk in luxury, they had lost their nature courage, & unable to look the brave Americans in the face.” Edmund Randolph, in a history of Virginia that he wrote in the early nineteenth century, recalled that Henry “with indignation ridiculed the idea of peace‚ when there is no peace.” The language reflected in these descriptions of Henry’s speech is similar to that which William Wirt included in his reconstruction.
The above text is from “Liberty or Death: St. John’s Church and the American Revolution” by Kay C. Peninger, former Executive Director of St. John’s Church Foundation.
Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death Speech by Patrick Henry to the Second Virginia Revolutionary Convention meeting at St. John’s Church, Richmond, on March 23, 1775 *
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. This is no time for ceremony. The questing 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 fulfill 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 offense, 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.
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. 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 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 those warlike 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. 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. 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!
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? 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. The 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. 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.
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!
* William Wirt (1772-1834) reconstructed this accepted text of Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech for his biography of Patrick Henry. Wirt’s Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry was published in 1817 and reprinted about two dozen times in the nineteenth-century. Historians and biographers have often debated the merits and limits of William Wirt’s reconstruction of the text.