Today in 1775: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

March 23, 2010

Patrick HenryPatrick Henry was one of our most verbally gifted Founding Fathers, and on March 23, 1775, he delivered this famous line in a crowded church in Richmond as he urged his fellow Virginians to commit troops to the looming war with Great Britain.

“Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’ – but there is no peace; the war is actually begun!” he shouted to the crowd. “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!”

At least that’s what we think he said. Patrick Henry’s words had to be reconstructed by historians years later, since no one bothered to write them down at the time. (You can read the speech here, courtesy of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, or listen to it here, courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

Regardless of the exact words he used, there’s no doubt that Patrick Henry was a phenomenal public speaker with a talent for stirring up crowds – but his oratory skills weren’t always evident, even to himself. He was born and raised on a Virginia plantation but didn’t have much ambition for life on the farm. And by the time he turned 20, he was already a failed businessman with a reputation as a slacker.

Patrick Henry found his calling at the age of 25, when he decided to pursue a career in law. He passed the bar exam after just six weeks of study, and soon after that he began arguing cases before the courts. In 1765, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and just a year after his famous speech, voters made him the first governor of the independent state of Virginia.

Patrick Henry’s feisty defiance didn’t end with the war. During the 1780s, he led the original states’ rights movement – the “anti-federalist” movement – whose adherents fiercely opposed replacing the Articles of Confederation with the yet-to-be-ratified U.S. Constitution, which would concentrate much more power into the hands of the federal government. Anti-federalist opposition led directly to the passage of the Bill of Rights, and echoes of this sentiment – like Patrick Henry’s famous call to arms – can still be heard today.