Patrick Henry's “Liberty or Death” Speech

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Patrick Henry's “Liberty or Death” Speech

Patrick Henry was a major orator and political leader in the American Revolution. He comes from Studley, Virginia, and worked as a lawyer before becoming involved in politics. As a lawyer, he stood firmly behind the theory that humans are born with certain unalienable rights, a statement later included in the Declaration of Independence. 

By 1774, plans of revolting were brewing in the air among Americans. Delegates from the thirteen American colonies had already held their first formal political gathering called the Continental Congress. In the meeting, the delegates decided to send a petition to Britain’s King George III requesting reparations for Americans’ grievances. 

This creation of this petition was sparked by Britain’s implementation of the American-named “Intolerable Acts,” a series of laws that placed additional taxes on Americans and aimed to punish them for their participation in the Boston Tea Party incident. During the Boston Tea Party, Americans dumped over 300 chests of tea imported by Britain into the harbor. This act was fueled by the imposition of a new tea tax on Americans. 

With the political climate of America ripe for revolution, it set the stage perfectly for certain figures like Patrick Henry to voice their opinions. At this time, there was an absence of political leaders to speak out adamantly against Great Britain. Henry, an articulate public speaker and fierce debater, became one of the main galvanizers of the American uprise. 

The Context of Henry’s Speech

Henry already knew that the American colonies and Britain were probably about to war. The tension between the two entities had simply become unsustainable. In 1774, the delegates of the colonies got together at the Virginia Conventions to establish a constitution and a set of fundamental laws for America. 

Henry’s goal at the Virginia Convention was to sway his fellow delegates to stand strong against Britain. On March 23rd, he proposed a solution to the assembly, suggesting that Virginia’s counties recruit militia members to protect themselves in the case of a war. Other colonies had already raised militias of their own, including in Hanover County, where Henry was from. 

However, many delegates refused to approve any measures that might be perceived as combative toward Britain. After all, they were one of the most powerful military forces in the world at this point, and America was just a ragtag bundle of colonies. During this time, many Americans still had hope to be reconciled to Britain and maintain the relationship between the two.  

Henry’s Famous Speech

Not Henry, though. After listening to a few of his delegates speak on the issue, Henry got up from his seat and prepared to give his speech. He had no idea that he was about to deliver one of the most iconic speeches in American history that would be remembered for centuries to come. A Baptist minister who attended the convention described Henry as having “an unearthly fire burning in his eye.” 

Unfortunately, there is no formal record of Henry’s speech today. He gave his speech without any notes, and nobody at the conference was transcribing his exact words. As a result, the history books of America have largely relied on the reconstructed version of the speech written by William Wirt, a biographer who interviewed several men from the convention. Nonetheless, many quotes have become wildly famous from Henry’s speech. 

Henry started off the speech by discussing Americans’ past experiences with Britain and how the colonies have been consistently wronged by them. He brings up a caveat of the Intolerable Acts that allows Britain to quarter troops at Americans’ houses, saying, “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?”

Henry goes on to declare that there is no possibility of reconciliation between the colonies and Britain. At the end of his speech, he utters the famed words, “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!

The Impact

Though some of the delegates from the convention stuck to their loyalist views, many of them were moved by Henry’s words. After the meeting, there was no doubt that the delegates were leaning toward defending themselves against Britain. Even Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson supported Henry’s proposal. 

Henry’s plan was eventually passed, but only by a few votes. Henry was officially elected as the head of Virginia’s new committee, dedicated to preparing a militia for combat. Little did he know that his speech had come at a pivotal moment in time. Only about a month after the convention, an altercation between British troops and colonial minutemen at Lexington and Concord led to shots fired, and a few British redcoats were killed. This incident would mark the first casualties of the Revolutionary War and would later be coined as “the shot heard ‘round the world.”

Nearly eight years of bloodshed and agony would ensue on both sides. However, as we all know, the colonies would eventually come out as the victor, becoming its own independent state called “the United States of America.” Their victory was one of the biggest upsets in world history, as most outsiders viewed America as the clear underdog in the war. 

Henry’s speech at the Virginia Conventions was a key catalyst in the colonies taking a defensive stance against Britain and inciting a war. Despite the mass amount of casualties suffered, the war would birth one of the most powerful and influential nations in world history. It also showed the rest of the world that revolution was possible and that a nation can’t just blatantly mistreat its people because they have power over them. 

Still to this day, Henry’s speech is remembered by Americans all over the country. Without a doubt, “Give me liberty or give me death” will forever be an iconic phrase in our nation. You may even see these words printed on a t-shirt or hoodie while walking around in public. Here at Printed Kicks, we make sure to memorialize our country’s greats like Henry, offering a variety of clothing and accessories inspired by our ancestors. 

Henry’s Career

Henry went on to become the first elected governor of Virginia, serving five one-year terms between 1776 and 1779, then again between 1784 and 1786. He remained a hugely influential figure in his state, constantly voicing his opinions on the country’s issues. 

In 1788, Henry opposed Virginia’s endorsement of the U.S. Constitution because he was concerned that the new central government would be too powerful. Once the Constitution was adopted, though, he helped work to include ten amendments promising certain freedoms later deemed the Bill of Rights. 

Before dying in 1799, Henry gave one last speech begging his fellow Americans to be united. During this time, there was great division in the nation regarding the importance of states’ rights over federal rights. Regardless of his views, Henry looked at unity within the nation as a key indicator of its health. 

Conclusion

Without Henry, who knows if someone else in the delegation would have stepped up to speak out against Great Britain? In a time when everyone was hesitant to oppose such a strong force, Patrick Henry rose up and accepted the challenge. Without his bravery, the colonies would have been vastly unprepared for battle when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.

Henry’s proposal acted as the framework for America’s early military operations. In many ways, he was a visionary for the country. Too often in history, Henry is forgotten as one of our country’s important initial leaders. However, his impact has been felt for generations and will continue to be relevant for centuries to come. 

Hailing from Studley, Virginia as an ordinary lawyer, Henry was able to find new opportunities and thus impact the state of his country moving forward. He is a true American in every essence of the word. Let us celebrate his courage and keep his memory alive. 

If you’re looking for a way to support Henry’s message, check out our The People Never Give Up Our Liberties t-shirt on the Printed Kicks online store. If you want to show your support for our strong country and the brave people who helped found it, there’s much more where that came from. 

 

Sources

Patrick Henry's “Liberty or Death” Speech | HISTORY 

Liberty or Death: Patrick Henry's Speech | PBS 

Patrick Henry - Top 10 Greatest Speeches | TIME  

Give me liberty, or give me death! | loc.gov 

Boston Tea Party - Definition, Dates & Facts | HISTORY 


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