"Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death!"
On Thursday, March 23, 1775, some of the most prominent leaders of the Old Dominion were gathered together at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Two of the attendees in particular, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were destined to play indispensable roles in the years ahead for America. On this day’s meeting of the Second Virginia Convention, however, the spotlight was owned by Patrick Henry.
A skilled politician, lawyer, and orator, Henry believed that the American colonies and the mighty British Empire were on the verge of a fate-changing collision. Never hesitant to speak out against oppressive British taxation and other measures passed by a parliament nearly 3,000 miles away that lacked any American representation, now was the hour when his words had their greatest effect.
Patrick Henry of Virginia. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With British troops mobilizing across the colonies, Henry presented a proposal on March 23 urging that a volunteer company of infantry or cavalry be organized in every Virginia county. After several delegates had their say on the matter, Henry rose up from his pew, and as was the custom, addressed his remarks to the Convention’s president. Although Henry’s words were not transcribed that day, no one in attendance would forget his fiery oration, especially his concluding remarks:
“It is 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 sweat, 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!”
Awed by Henry’s words as he watched the orator through one of the church windows, Colonel Edward Carrington turned to a fellow spectator and said, “Let me be buried at this spot!” He was one of the many who were left mesmerized. The resolution passed and Henry was tasked with leading a new committee to prepare the Virginia militia for whatever was to come. Less than a month after his speech at St. John’s Church, the crash of musketry on the fields of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts signaled the beginning of the Revolutionary War. In the fiery trial ahead, the words “Liberty or Death” became a constant rallying cry for American soldiers. Some Virginians even sewed the words onto their shirts as they rushed to join local militias at the beginning of the war.
American Battlefield Trust: Patrick Henry.
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History.com: 8 Legendary Battle Cries.
History.com: Henry's "Liberty or Death" Speech.