Patrick Henry: "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" 239 Years Later

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
03/26/2014
       
Patrick Henry: "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" 239 Years Later

Two hundred and thirty-nine years ago Patrick Henry delivered that famous ultimatum, "Give me liberty or give me death."

The poet Lord Byron called him the “Forest-born Demosthenes.” Others called him the “Lion of Liberty.” Whatever the title, Patrick Henry was known to speak boldly and fearlessly in defense of freedom. 

A brief review of the record of his many speeches reveals that the silver-tongued orator was never at a loss for words, and he spoke with a clarity and confidence that disarmed opponents. Indeed, Biographer William Wirt said of him in 1817, “Tis true he could talk — Gods how he could talk!”

Generations of his countrymen have celebrated Patrick Henry for his rousing calls to arms.

First, there was the speech in opposition to the Stamp Act when the 29-year-old newly minted delegate rose to address the Virginia House of Burgesses:

It was in the midst of this magnificent debate, while he was descanting on the tyranny of the obnoxious Act, that he exclaimed, in a voice of thunder, and with the look of a god, “Caesar had his Brutus — Charles the first, his Cromwell — and George the third — ” (“Treason,” cried the Speaker — “treason, treason,” echoed from every part of the House. — It was one of those trying moments which is decisive of character. — Henry faltered not an instant; but rising to a loftier attitude, and fixing on the Speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis) “may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Henry became one of the first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence and to face head on the repercussions thereof. He was undaunted in his defense of the right of man to be self-governing and free from the oppression of tyrants.

One account elegantly describes Henry’s critical role in the American struggle for independence:

Patrick Henry is all but forgotten as the first of the Founding Fathers to call for independence, for revolution against Britain, for a bill of rights, and for as much freedom as possible from ­government — American as well as British. If Washington was the "Sword of the Revolution" and Jefferson "the Pen," Patrick Henry more than earned his epithet as "the Trumpet" of the Revolution for rousing Americans to arms in the Revolutionary War.

The second of Patrick Henry’s most remembered bold renunciations of English despotism and reminders of the rights of Americans was delivered 239 years ago.

On March 23, 1775, Henry implored his fellow Virginians to take up arms not in revolution against a legitimate government, but to restore the rights of all Englishmen to have a say in the laws made to govern them.

Arising to address his fellow delegates at the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry stood in St. John’s Church in Richmond aware that Virginia’s support for the War against Great Britain was in great part dependent on his ability to once again ignite the fire of resistance in the Old Dominion.

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