Some of our Founding Fathers wrote extensively. They left an unambiguous record of their thoughts to share with us today. For example, consider the voluminous written collections of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin. Other Founders were orators. Much of what we know about them has been passed onto us through the prisms of the memories of others.
So is the case with Patrick Henry. He was a speaker with such passion that he inspired a state to mobilize. Yet, his most famous speech was reconstructed more than a decade after his death. I could find only a handful of letters actually written by Patrick Henry. All of his speeches seem to have been memorialized afterward by others.
We have William Wirt to thank for what we know about Patrick Henry’s most famous speech. It occurred to Wirt in the summer of 1805 that he should write a biography of Patrick Henry, and he should begin quickly before all of Mr. Henry’s contemporaries had passed away. Wirt collected information from 1805 to 1814 before beginning to actually write the biography. He relied upon eye witness accounts, correspondence, and public records. He noted that some eye witness accounts were contradicted either by multiple accounts of others, or by information that he obtained in public records. Wirt completed the work in 1817.
Patrick Henry’s public comments were often provocative and spread quickly through the colonies. Francis Fauquier, Virginia’s royal governor, ardently sought to suppress Henry’s proposed resolutions against the Stamp Act from the public record. Yet, they were published in all of the other Colonies within weeks of his statements before the Virginia House of Burgesses. We are all familiar with Henry’s most fearless call to action, “give me liberty or give me death,” which was made on March 23, 1775 during another meeting of the House of Burgesses. But what were the circumstances of the speech? What evoked that level of passion?
The House of Burgesses in Virginia had met the year before. Although they had pledged their allegiance to the King in correspondence issued after the meeting, they demanded that their grievances be resolved. Many of the same men returned to the House of Burgesses meeting in 1775 prepared to repeat the same process. They clung to the hope that the Colonies’ relationship to Britain would return to the halcyon days of the past. But not Patrick Henry. He soon proposed the following resolutions:
“Resolved, That a well regulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony, would for ever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us for the purpose of our defence, any standing army of mercenary soldiers, always subversive of the quiet, and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.
“That the establishment of such a militia is, at this time, peculiarly necessary, by the state of our laws, for the protection liberties, from those further violations with which they are threatened.
“Resolved, therefore, That this colony be immediately put into a state of defence, and that be a committee to prepare a plan for embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men, as may be sufficient for that purpose.”
Wirt reported that many of members of the group were horrified by his resolution. They questioned how an army could be raised with little money, no experience, and little time to prepare? Patrick Henry instinctively knew that it was time for him to use the powers of argument and persuasion that he had cultivated in his experience as an attorney. Wirt wrote,” He rose at this time with a majesty unusual to him in an exordium, and with all that self-possession by which he was so invariably distinguished.” Henry then began to speak.
Have you ever read the entire text of speech Henry gave before the House of Burgesses (as summarized by Wirt)? In addition to his most famous statement, I thought several of his other those might be meaningful to those who read this post. This is just a brief abridgement from Wirt’s text:
“This,’ he said, ‘was no time for ceremony. The question before the house was one of awful moment to this country. For his own part, he considered 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 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 syren, till she transforms us into beasts. Is it,’ he asked, ‘the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?…He had,’ he said, ‘but one lamp by which his feet were guided: and that was the lamp of experience. He knew of no way of judging of the future, but by the past. And judging by the past, he wished to know what there had been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes….Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition, comports with those warlike 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?…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….we have done every thing that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on….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,’ continued Mr. Henry, ‘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 back, 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. 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!!! 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,’ cried he, with both his arms extended aloft, his brows knit, every feature marked with the resolute purpose of his soul, and his voice swelled to its boldest note of exclamation— ’give me liberty, or give me death!’
Wirt reported the gathering was stunned after Henry finished his speech, Then, a seemingly unanimous cry of “To arms” rose up through the room. Henry’s resolution was adopted and a committee was selected to compose a plan of action. The members of that committee were Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard H. Lee, Isaac Zane, Robert C. Nicholas, Edmund Pendleton, Benjamin Harrison, William Christian, Lemuel Riddick, Andrew Lewis, and Adam Stevens.
In an interesting side note, it is Wirt’s biography in which the text of Henry’s speech is first recounted. As you can read from the above abridgement, Wirt uses the third person to recall Henry’s words. However, Henry’s speech is often recounted in the first person. That change leaves the reader with the impression that Henry read the speech from a prepared copy.
Read Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/wirt/menu.html