Give me liberty, or give me death! - Patrick Henry
Published: Aug 15, 2022
Give me liberty, or give me death! - Patrick Henry

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" is a quotation attributed to American politician and orator Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Henry is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future United States presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Over forty years after Patrick Henry delivered his speech and eighteen years after his death, biographer William Wirt published a posthumous reconstruction of the speech in his 1817 work Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. This is the version of the speech as it is widely known today and was reconstructed based on the recollections of elderly witnesses many decades later. A scholarly debate persists among colonial historians as to what extent Wirt or others invented parts of the speech including its famous closing words.

Background and speech

The Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond at St. John's Episcopal Church on March 20, 1775. Delegates selected a presiding officer, and they elected delegates to the Continental Congress. At the convention, Patrick Henry—a delegate from Hanover County—offered amendments to raise a militia independent of royal authority in terms that explicitly recognized that war with the British Empire was inevitable, sparking the opposition of convention moderates.

On March 23, Henry defended his amendments and purportedly concluded with the following statement:

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!

As he concluded, Henry plunged an ivory letter opener towards his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato the Younger.

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 – June 6, 1799) was an American attorney, planter, politician, and orator known for declaring to the Second Virginia Convention (1775): "Give me liberty, or give me death!" A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786.

A native of Hanover County, Virginia, Henry was for the most part educated at home. After an unsuccessful venture running a store, as well as assisting his father-in-law at Hanover Tavern, he became a lawyer through self-study. Beginning his practice in 1760, Henry soon became prominent through his victory in the Parson's Cause against the Anglican clergy. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he quickly became notable for his inflammatory rhetoric against the Stamp Act of 1765.

In 1774 and 1775, Henry served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses where he signed the Petition to the King, which he helped to draft, and signed the Continental Association. He gained further popularity among the people of Virginia, both through his oratory at the convention and by marching troops towards the colonial capital of Williamsburg after the Gunpowder Incident until the munitions seized by the royal government were paid for. Henry urged independence, and when the Fifth Virginia Convention endorsed this in 1776, he served on the committee charged with drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the original Virginia Constitution. Henry was promptly elected governor under the new charter and served a total of five one-year terms.

After leaving the governorship in 1779, Henry served in the Virginia House of Delegates until he began his last two terms as governor in 1784. The actions of the national government under the Articles of Confederation made Henry fear a strong federal government, and he declined appointment as a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He actively opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution, both fearing a powerful central government and because there was as yet no Bill of Rights. He returned to the practice of law in his final years, declining several offices under the federal government. A slaveholder throughout his adult life, he hoped to see the institution end but had no plan for that beyond ending the importation of slaves. Henry is remembered for his oratory and as an enthusiastic promoter of the fight for independence.
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