Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!

HenryBy Patrick Henry

St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia
March 23, 1775.

To avoid interference from Lieutenant-Governor Dunmore and his Royal Marines, the Second Virginia Convention met March 20, 1775 inland at Richmond–in what is now called St. John’s Church–instead of the Capitol in Williamsburg.

On March 23rd Delegate Patrick Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every Virginia county. By custom, Henry addressed himself to the Convention’s president, Peyton Randolph of Williamsburg. Henry’s words were not transcribed, but no one who heard them forgot their eloquence, or Henry’s closing words: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Drawing on the recollections of men like Thomas Jefferson, Henry’s first biographer, William Wirt of Maryland, reconstructed an account of Henry’s life, including the noteworthy address.

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 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 fulfil 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 offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward 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. Is 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 fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have 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 motive 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 upon 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. 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 free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if 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 those 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 inevitable²and 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!

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Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give me Death,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, n.d.

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19 thoughts on “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”

  1. Fantastic speech by Henry and delivery by Welles. We were recently at St. John’s Church and heard an inspired reenactor deliver parts of this speech. Henry was also famous for saying in 1765, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
    As to Welles, he uses anger to great effect. Contrast that to today’s Shakespeareans who use fairly natural speech – these acting fads go in cycles. Only high drama characterizes the seething anger that we all should feel toward our corrupt government, and complicit press.

  2. Thank you Prof Tracy, for this eloquent Forth of July reminder of the founding principles of this great nation. Recently, O’Hare Airport quietly removed the enormous statue of Abraham Lincoln – a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. I was beginning to worry that the government might determine this holiday to be too martial, and politically incorrect.

    Whew, still here! Happy Forth to all my fellow great Americans who continue to contribute insights to this blog.

  3. This speech has many correlations to this day and age, peace has no profit,. there is money in war. Freedom is the right of any man or woman. But we are not free to choose, we are persuaded to take what they offer in every walk of life, Utilities, food, medicine, and banks, we are even told what boiler to use in Britain..! you wonder how far we have come on since 1775.

  4. Like Richard Burton, Orson Welles was not a truly great actor, but he did have a truly great speaking voice, which he puts to excellent use here. The speech itself, even if only hopefully reconstructed correctly, makes any political speech heard since the halcyon days of Winston Churchill seem as if written by Pygmies with little understanding of the possibilities inherent in our mother tongue – and I do not exempt JFK, Dr. King, Mr. Reagan, etc. from that comparison. (Meanwhile, an aside: In or around 1943, Mr. Welles, along with other well-meaning celebrities -Charles Chaplin, Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, etc. – held a great rally (I believe at Madison Square Garden, but maybe in another venue of like size and importance) to champion the opening of a Second Front in Eastern Europe to help the Russians. In a letter to Jeanette MacDonald from Chaplin, she was invited to appear at that great rally. She demurred, softly but strongly, asking why the conduct of a war should be better off in the hands of entertainers than in those of FDR and the military, but strongly suggesting that Mr. Chaplin might consider traveling to Russia to start such a Second Front himself, and especially that Mr. Welles, being 27 or 28 at the time, might consider joining the armed forces and acting out for real his best instincts for the preservation of humanity, instead of just sitting around waiting for others to do so. What Mr. Chaplin had forgotten, or perhaps never even knew, is that Ms. MacDonald’s husband, Gene Raymond, a decade older than Mr. Welles, was at the time flying bombing missions over Germany!)

  5. Patrick Henry, when he Proclaimed Freedom, was operatively a major slave holder of his county. It is the eloquence of the ideological rhetoric between what is Proclaimed and what is done that has been instrumental in deluding the American people. Subjugating and enslaving people while Proclaiming Freedom. This Orwellian duplicity is the reason for the US reputation for hypocrisy among the people of the world.

    1. I disagree. Everyone had slaves.
      I had to swallow back tears reading this (I didn’t watch the video). It applies to us now in almost every facet. If someone were to say that before congress and change britain to federal gov and change 3 million to 300…

      1. Back then, everyone had slaves. That’s just about right, if you could afford to buy them and pay for their housing, food, medical care, etc. and since they were so expensive the stories of frequent whippings and other ill treatment would be over blown. Even some freed black folks who struck it rich had slaves. And let’s not forget the facts of who captured the slaves and to whom they sold them to. The Carnegie Institute has a collection of over 300 slave ship logs that tell quite the story.

      2. granite and TheHolyCow are both correct, but let’s not forget slavery was practiced not only in America, but pretty much all over the world at the time. We are the only country that wrings its hands about it, though, as if it was an unusual thing and our guilt can never be expunged. They feel no such pathological regret in Brazil, or in England itself–and it is, after all, businessmen in London who started African slavery in the American colonies.

        I recently read Robinson Crusoe for the first time. I highly recommend it. Crusoe is a middle class English youth who can’t stand the torpor of dreary, uneventful life; he longs to see the world, so he becomes a sailor. Soon, off the coast of Morocco, his ship is captured by Moslems, and all on board are sold into slavery. No one is surprised by this, incidentally; that’s just the way of the world at the time.

        Robin was a slave for I believe three years before he finally devised a way to escape, and hitched a ride on a ship headed for Brazil, where he set up a plantation. The problem for him and his neighbors was that there were far too few slaves in Brazil to keep their operations running, so Robin hired a ship and headed back to Africa to purchase a load of slaves. This was as natural for people at the time as it is for us to buy a new car. The fact that he did not like it when he was himself a slave seems not to have occurred to him.

        He never gets back to Africa, of course. He is the only one to survive a shipwreck, and REALLY lucky that the island he washes up on is uninhabited–because all the Indians in the Caribbean were cannibals, who one suspects would enjoy the varied diet an Englishman’s flesh would provide; I’m guessing that all the Indian tribes taste the same after a while.

        What’s amazing is how quickly, and dramatically, the world has changed in this regard. Moslems, of course, still trade slaves, but we don’t like to talk about it. And although all the Indians were cleared out of the Caribbean to make way for black slaves, I would be surprised if they would still be feasting upon one another if that had not happened.

        That is to say, today’s pretty much world-wide moral standards are a recent development, and it is foolish to impose them on people in the past.

    2. America did not invent slavery. it has been in existence since the beginning of time and still is. The notion of just letting slaves free would give them a better life is false, many wise folks saw this and attempted to ease the transition.

      It is a known fact that minorities are suffering more than double, but that is government data so maybe it should be multiplied by a factor of 10, 20 or 50%? Was it not just reported that 50% of the households in Detroit have or will soon have their water disconnected for nonpayment and the UN is threatening to take over this assault on human life?

      Welfare and government dependence is just another form of slavery, very few have any hope of breaking free of the chains or the desire to do so.

      Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “America” is in the theaters now, haven’t been to the theater in many years because of the propaganda, but will definitely see this.

      http://www.americathemovie.com/

      Of course, Mark may just be a government drone, always posting about how bad slavery was so many hundreds of years ago. This is evidenced by his failure to respond to our current humanity crisis, perhaps hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are being housed like cattle and this pesky little federal law that all school districts must educate all children, regardless of what language they speak or their citizenship.

      http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2014/07/03/criticism-building-against-judge-jenkins-plan-for-unaccompanied-minors/

  6. Funny how the language was so different then, but yet every word makes sense. Especially the statement about should we wait until there is a soldier at every corner. We are there folks. Wake up and rise up to the tyranny.

    1. The pain and strange complexity of our world is becoming harder and harder to express through words… Music seems more adept these days at capturing the raw emotions of outrage and despair, longing and defeat… And then triumph and resurrection… The Passion Play of Life and Death…

  7. I agree, Granite, that the speech is quite moving, I am merely suggesting that it is intellectually fraudulent. It was published by his biographer Hirt 40 years or so after it made it. Hirt did not hear the speech, but questioned Taylor who was there, but he couldn’t remember much of it. Apparently the speech included the need to counter the Indians who were threatening to attack when the White settlers were stealing their land but Hirt didn’t include it.

    The British offered to free the slaves that would fight for them, and protect the Indians who would join them. Many fought for the British and were freed and protected.This enlisted the slave holders and Indian fighters on the side of Freedom, or Liberty, if you feel that there is difference between them. Fighting for the freedom to enslave people were plantation owners like Patrick Henry, owning ten thousand acres.

    Howard Zinn asks whether it was necessary to wage a war against the British for the US to attain their freedom. Canada, Ireland, and India didn’t; their revolt was primarily political and ideological. 25 thousand people were apparently killed, the equivalent in proportion tot he population, according to Zinn, of 2 and a half million persons.

    Homicide, including political homicide, tends to be considered Manly, Tough, realistic, and effective by the American people, not least because of orators like Patrick Henry. I suggest that a change in our political culture saves blood. But this kind of liberation is very difficult if you prefer the emotional wish-based truth to the reality-based truth. I suggest that the American people do.

    However I am certainly not saying here that everything we know is wrong, just the most important things.

    1. I always wondered why the period between the Pilgrims’ landing and the American Revolution was pretty much glossed over in elementary introductions to American history. Yes, we know about Washington’s participation in the French and Indian (Seven Years) War, but pretty much as an explanation for where he got his training to make him such a great general of the revolution. What kind of bodies were hidden under those floorboards then?

      I began to find them in my own family history. How could so many New England men just get hatcheted by Indians? Were they simply plowing their fields when it happened? Why were they always on the bad side of the tomahawk, generation after generation, like the family of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump? But a little digging told the tale: they were roving Indian fighters, going wherever powerful men sent them, to take out various tribal upstarts, mostly the new generation trying to win its spurs. It’s not a pretty picture of colonial New England.

      For another view, I have just discovered an AMC series (Turn) with some scenes to recommend it, which show the real crux of the problem with British occupation, and this I address primarily to Mark:

      No matter how much you decide to play nice and be loyal to a distant superpower, if they occupy your land, they will most likely start to step on you and over-tax your courtesy to them, even if you are a loyalist. The revolution appears inevitable in the circumstances and no amount of making nice could have worked given the contempt in which Americans were held. Those countries which now inhabit the Commonwealth have various ways of getting along, some poorly (Pakistan), What I discovered in the same family history that revealed the Indian fighters is that their descendants (being non-intellectuals) mostly went with King and Country and tried to be loyal. But something snapped, and a year or so into the revolution, they’d had enough of occupation (New York mostly). They turned.

      These more nuanced stories, about people seeing things in a new light, or doing things from expediency, are not tales of pure heroes, but of people making the best of a bad situation. Even the Indian fighters did not come to America and decide to be that kind of psychotic they had to be. It kind of fell on them. What will fall on us?

  8. You got it, babe. Making the best of a bad situation. It’s all people can do. Occasionally something snaps and there is a revolution, successful or not, whether most people want it or not. And most people didn’t the American revolution; Ben Franklyn estimated a third were for it, and third neutral, and a third against, many going to Canada.

    What’s going to happen to us, or our kids and their kids, is not going to be pretty, for two reasons. First, American ideology, and the history books that exemplify it, are a pack of lies from beginning to end. And Americans don’t want new ideas that subvert these untruths even if they know that their essential. So Americans who were taught and told this ideology by the American truth institutions will have a hard time knowing what to do to make the best of a bad situation.

    Worse, our political values are perverted, as you can see from the commenters justifying and minimizing slavery. Most Americans believe in capital punishment, according the polls. The majority believe in torture. The majority are against closing gitmo. Most Americans are finally against these bloody and stupid wars, but they are for the conditions that create them. A belief in killing, enslaving, and torturing people is not a favorable condition for making the best of a bad situation. But people at this stage just don’t want to know, as conditions get worse.

  9. In response to my comment on the Orwellian duplicity of the Patrick Henry speech, five commenters responded essentially that slavery was Natural and Normal at the time, and ‘everybody owned slaves.’ This not only deviated from a comment about truth to a comment about race, when I was talking about ideological truth, but the notion that ‘everyone owned slaves’ is patently false, as can easily be verified on the internet.

    In the 1860 census there were about 4 million slaves and 27 million non-slaves. The 4 million slaves were owned by about 4 hundred thousand slave owners, less than 2% of the population. But the need of commenters to believe untruth about racial slavery changed my mind about White racism.

    I had always assumed without thinking about it, since I come from a marxist truth tradition, that Sterling racism was the most important kind, since it was buttressed on his paying his Black basketball players less. But this oligarchical racism is not what infects the American people; it is more of naive Cliven Bundy kind of racism.

    There are almost no African American people in the desert north of Las Vegas where Bundy’s ranch is located, so his senseless racial drivel, that Blacks would be better off as slaves, was based on complete ignorance, as well as Republican oppression. it may have reached the intellectual level of his more erudite cows, but not their moral level, since the cattle were perfectly happy to dine in the pasture with their fellow creatures regardless of the color of their hides.

    But White Americans, as exemplified by the commenters, appear to favor the Bundy racist approach rather than the Sterling oligarchical approach, values rather than interests. This means that if a systematic ideological effort were made to confront it, instead of the Progressive pretense that we are all Colorblind, it would be possible to diminish and eventually destroy it over historical time, from the bottom up. It might be easier to cure bottom racists than top racists.

    The expose of false flags might play an important role in this effort, because they illustrate that American White oligarchical power is directed homicidally as well at White people. Indeed, I have even noticed slight changes in some of the anti-false fllag racist commenters, although most of the more decent commenters racially have been driven off by the unabashed vulgar racism. But surely this kind of problem could be overcome, if it is recognized that anti-racism is a long term spiritual problem.

    Prof Chossudovsky argued that we should direct a rank and file campaign against the media. More generally, it should be directed against the American truth institutions; not only the media but the schools, universities, churches, Entertainment venues, and political and social science. I think such a campaign could be usefully expanded to include homicidal racism, which would encompass American militarism and imperialism.

    This would form an ideological covering for money issues, since corporate capitalism is now based on unalloyed avarice untouched by moral or spiritual values. This is a historical project of course and to change American political culture would require a long term historical strategy. One is possible.

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