Speeches That Made History: Patrick Henry Ignites the Flame of Revolution

by Derrick G. Jeter

Patrick Henry was considered the Demosthenes of his day—the famous Greek orator and statesman, and the man of whom it was said, “When other speakers present we applaud. But when Demosthenes speaks, we arise and go to war.” At thirty-eight, this self-taught lawyer delivered one of the most famous speeches in American oration—and sparked the tender of patriotic hearts and minds into the flame of the American Revolution.
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry sat on the third pew of St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, as one of 122 members to the Virginia Convention of Delegates. It was a beautiful spring day, and the windows of the church were opened so the crowds outside could hear such Virginia luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee take up resolutions of either conciliation or war with Great Britain. In London, just the day before, Edmund Burke rose in the House of Commons to urge the British government to reach a conciliatory agreement with her colonies in America. In Richmond, Henry rose and argued, not for conciliation, but for revolution.
As Henry waited for his opportunity to address the delegates, he felt the political pressure of being in the minority of the Virginia delegates who had just returned from Philadelphia, and of what he was about to unsheathe. Henry’s anxiety was also heightened by a personal tragedy—his wife, Sarah, had gone mad, and to prevent her from committing suicide he had her bound in a straightjacket. Sarah, however, died earlier in the years. “Some of the greatest orations in history,” Robert Douthat Meade observed, “have been delivered under difficulties that would crush ordinary men.”[1] But Henry was no ordinary man. Facing personal tragedy and mounting political opposition—much of it lead by Thomas Jefferson—“it now remained to be seen whether [Henry] could rise above personal sorrow as well as the timidity and caution opposing him in Richmond.”[2] Rise above it did; he took aim and unleashing the first volley of war. Less than a month later the first deadly shot was fired outside of Boston, in the sleepy villages of Lexington and Concord.
A.J. Langguth, writing about this speech in his superb history, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution stated that “Jefferson had been pleased to receive reports from Philadelphia that the committees there had considered Henry’s writing inadequate. But at this meeting in Richmond, Jefferson had to grant that Henry’s nerve was leaving the rest of them behind.”[3]
At a time when men identified themselves and their country as their home colonies, Henry was and American because his country was America. (At the First Continental Convention in 1774, Henry declared to the amazement of all present: “I am not a Virginian but an American.”[4]) Speaking as an American, he laid the foundation of his revolutionary call on the conviction that to remain silent would be an act of treason against America and an act of disloyalty to the King of Heaven. Speaking as a Christian gentleman, Henry filled his speech with references to God and biblical allusions. Making his appeal “to the God of Hosts,” he echoed English philosopher John Locke, who a century before, advanced the revolutionary idea that man had God-given rights which superseded the divine right of kings. (Thomas Jefferson, borrowing from Locke and others—and maybe persuaded by Henry—would later make the same appeal in the Declaration of Independence.)
The rhetorical method is heated interrogation and blistering answer. But in the conclusion, Henry calmly questioned the delegates—crossing his wrists, as if in a straightjacket: “is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Raising his eyes to heaven and lifting his crossed hands, he paused. Looking intently at the men who oppose him, Henry delivered, between clinched teeth, one of the most bone-crushing propositions in American oratory: “I know not what course others may take: but as for me, give me liberty,”—pausing to let his words explode in their minds’. Dropping his left hand to his side, he made a fist around an ivory letter opener with his right hand and thrusting it down to his heart like a dagger, he cried, “or give me death!” After Henry sat down, the audience, for a brief moment, remained quiet and still, as if dead.
Mr. President:
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 that 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. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts. In 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.
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 of 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? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motives for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer on the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. 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—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, 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!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. 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!
Edward Carrington, a future veteran of the Revolution, not finding a seat in the church, stood outside and listened through an open window. Immediately after the speech he rushed home and told his wife that he wished to be buried on the very spot where he stood when he heard these words. And so he was. A Baptist minister, who was present, wrote, “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibration. Finally his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats with their heads strained forward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker’s. . . . [When he sat down, I] felt sick with excitement.”[5] And so they all did.
[1] Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry: Practical Revolutionary (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1969), 16.
[2] Meade, Patrick Henry, 16.
[3] A. J. Langguth Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 222.
[4] Langguth, Patriots, 210.
[5] Moses Coit Tyler, Patrick Henry, in American Statesmen, ed. John T. Morse Jr. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899), 129.