“I know not what course others may take;
but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
RICHMOND, Virginia, March 23, 1775 – 39-Year-old lawyer, with hair as red as the Virginia clay – Patrick Henry – today stepped across the irrevocable boundary line of rebellion against the Hanoverian Crown in an impassioned speech before the Virginia provincial convention, meeting in St. John’s Episcopal Church here.
Already noted for his angry speeches against the Stamp Act, Mr. Henry threw the convention into an uproar when he ended his talk with the stark words: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
Delegates to the convention immediately compared Mr. Henry’s speech with the outcry by Samuel Adams after the Boston Massacre five years ago this very month, and with John Hancock’s speech in Boston just a year ago memorializing that tragedy. However, Mr. Henry passed from the area of deprecation of British misrule into a call to arms.
If a single spark were needed to turn into action the plans already laid by the Continental Congress, this could easily be it. And it likewise was noted here that while Governor John Murray (Earl of Dunsmore) had been well aware of the stand to be taken by this convention-a stand bespoken by Mr. Henry-he sent no redcoats to intervene. Truly, this convention is Virginia’s body of spokesmen, rather than the House of Burgesses at Williamsburg and, noisy as he may seem to the more refined ears of his colleagues such as Peyton Randolph, Thomas Jefferson and John Mason, they are well content to let him speak for all.
Because of Virginia’s unique position of leadership in the contest with the British Cabinet at London, this speech ranks almost equally in importance with any delivered in the Continental Congress at Philadelphia in September and October of last year.
The convention must choose, Mr. Henry said, between the beguiling arguments of the “siren” of hope, and “the lamp of experience.” A decade of experience, he went on, had shown nothing in the conduct of the British ministry “to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves.”
Pointing figuratively to the eastern seaports, where British forces are constantly being reinforced; toward Boston, where four regiments of troops are encamped in that city; toward New York and Chesapeake Bay, where squadrons of British vessels lie at anchor, the speaker exclaimed: “I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? …They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other.”
Raising a warning finger, as he stood ramrod straight and faced the delegates, Mr. Henry spoke in the voice already noted for its hypnotic sway over juries in court trials: “lt is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace – but there is no peace. The war has actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!”
Despite varying opinions among those attending this convention, it is generally agreed that-hothead though Mr. Henry may sometimes seem to be – his speech today was no exaggeration.
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 offence, 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. 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, for 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 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 I 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 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!
~ Postlogue ~
Even Patrick Henry probably was surprised with the almost instantaneous manner in which his predictions were fulfilled.
Within less than a month, on April 19, tension exploded in Boston, with the resultant battles of Lexington and Concord.
The second Continental Congress met on May 10. By then Boston was under siege, but Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys on this very date captured Fort Ticonderoga, aided by a force under the then loyal Benedict Arnold.
By June the Continental Congress had “formalized the revolution” by authorizing formation of an army under General George Washington.
When the Declaration of Independence finally was forged into shape by Thomas Jefferson and adopted on July 4, 1776, Benjamin Franklin must have thought back to Henry’s words when he declared, with his wry sense of humor, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
For Patrick Henry personally this was virtually his “exit line” from the national stage. In the following year he became Virginia’s first elected governor, serving through 1769. As a lawyer he increased his wealth and prominence, but a military role in the Revolution – the one sure path to prominence – was denied to him, or even a role on the national political or diplomatic stages.
The destiny for the United States that he foresaw passed into other hands, and its interpretation to other orators.