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This week in history: Patrick Henry calls for liberty or death

Historical interpreter, Michael Wells, right, delivers the famous line of "give me liberty or give me death" as he re-enacts the speech of Patrick Henry in St. John's church on church Hill in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Historical interpreter, Michael Wells, right, delivers the famous line of "give me liberty or give me death" as he re-enacts the speech of Patrick Henry in St. John's church on church Hill in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014.
Steve Helber, Associated Press

On March 23, 1775, Virginia lawyer and politician Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. The speech dramatized the depth of feeling that patriots held at the time, and helped to persuade the Virginia House of Burgesses to prepare for war with Britain.

By the mid-1770s, Great Britain and its American colonies were on a collision course. With the conclusion of the French and Indian War a decade earlier, Britain was left with crippling debt and had turned to new forms of taxation to stabilize its economy. In 1765, the colonies were hit with the Stamp Act, which taxed legal licenses and grants, pamphlets, newspapers, playing cards, dice and more. Opposition to the tax in the colonies was furious, and one of the leading voices calling for repeal belonged to Patrick Henry.

Henry had been born in 1736 in Virginia's Hanover County. A land and slave owner, Henry began his career as a gentleman farmer. He then became a successful lawyer before being elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses in 1765, just as the Stamp Act had been enacted.

In the book “The American Revolution,” historian Bruce Lancaster remarked on a session of the House of Burgesses a few days after Henry addressed the body: “The members were probably discussing the speech that Patrick Henry of Hanover County had made, a speech that shook the slender spire of the capitol. Cautious men muttered that Henry had come close to treason in his defiant speech against the new act; but all agreed that there had been a good deal in Henry's words.”

Because of Henry and others throughout the colonies, mobs formed that made certain the new taxes weren't collected, and with British merchants hit hard due to American boycotts, the British parliament backed down. It did, however, issue the Declaratory Act at the same time, which stated bluntly that it had the power and authority to issue any taxes or take any action it deemed appropriate at any time.

This led to more taxes and even the stationing of vast numbers of troops in Boston — a hotbed of anti-British sentiment. In 1770 several Bostonians were shot by British Redcoats in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre, heightening tensions between the colonies and Britain even further. In December 1773, Bostonians who resisted the new taxes on tea boarded three British ships in Boston harbor and dumped their cargo of tea into the bay which led to severe restrictions from Britain in the form of the Intolerable Acts.

Events in Boston reverberated throughout the colonies, however, and most colonial leaders knew that such British heavy-handedness could easily be turned against their locality as well. Throughout this period, Henry worked with Thomas Jefferson and other prominent Virginians to maintain communication between the colonies.

In early 1774, after Britain had called for the closing of the port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party, the Virginia House of Burgesses called for solidarity with Boston's residents and a day of prayer to beseech God to help their fellow colonials. Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, believed the House was acting disloyally to the king and officially dissolved the body. It soon reconstituted in a tavern as a convention, however, and agreed to send delegates to the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September 1774.

By early 1775, Britain appeared to be completely willing to use military force to crush any opposition to its authority in Massachusetts, and leaders throughout each of the colonies began to debate how to create their own military counter-force. Patrick Henry stood at the forefront of the debate in Virginia. The second convention was constituted on March 20, 1775, at St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the body debated whether or not to arm its militia, Patrick Henry stood up on March 23 to delivered the speech for which he ultimately became best known.

Henry began his remarks with deference to those who opposed his position: “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.”

After impressing upon his colleagues the urgency of action, and his belief that the subject dealt with nothing less than the freedom or slavery of the colonists, Henry then called for members of the House to awaken to the reality of what was happening: “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.”

Henry went on to detail Britain's offenses against the colonies and noted that its military buildup “in this quarter of the world” was intended for no enemy, but rather for use against the colonists. “And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last 10 years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing.”

Since there was no military to oppose the British, Henry stated, then “humble submission” was the only option left, and what terms, Henry asked, would they find?

“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... 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!”

He noted that the opposition to preparing a defense cited that fact that the colonies were weak. But when, Henry asked, would be the right time? If the colonies waited only until they were strong enough to take on Britain, the day would never come, for Britain would forcibly disarm all of the colonists long before they could build up their strength. Further, he noted that any conflict would not be won by force of arms alone, but also by relying on God, who surely supported their cause.

“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!”

Finally, Henry closed his speech with words that stirred the body to action and continue to stir men's souls to this day: “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!”

This, however, may not be the exact text of the speech. The text was not recorded until a few decades later by William Wirt, (himself an attorney general). There is some debate about exactly how much of the text of the speech came from Henry and how much was actually reconstructed by Wirt from second-hand sources. One thing is almost certain, however — the phrase "liberty or death," or at least that theme, was part of the speech. (The version quoted here is through Yale's Avalon project and online at avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/patrick.asp.)

Virginia residents ultimately decided to arm themselves and prepare for war in the aftermath of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts the following month. In June, the Second Continental Congress appointed George Washington, a Virginian, to command the newly created Continental Army.

Henry went on to become the governor of Virginia, and opposed the Constitutional Convention of 1787, believing that it would lead to an American monarchy. He famously said of the convention, “I smell a rat!” He then opposed Virginia's ratification of the Constitution, fearing that it centralized too much power in the new federal government. In 1799, he ran as a Federalist for a seat in Virginia legislature and won, though he died shortly before taking office.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and has taught at SLCC. He is currently a salesperson at Doug Smith Subaru in American Fork. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com