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The Greatest Rallying Cry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

The Greatest Rallying Cry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

March 23, 1775, a Thursday, was the fourth day of a revolutionary convention in Virginia. But just how revolutionary, nobody until that day could have predicted.

The convention was revolutionary because it was independent of the colonial government, yet many of its delegates hoped it would be perceived as conciliatory. Their main goal was to elect new representatives to serve at the pleasure of the English governor, Lord Dunmore. But Patrick Henry, a man who tended to speak out on subjects that others confined to their hearts, was there, convinced that something much more urgent was in the air.

About a hundred delegates had showed up for the opening session, on Monday, March 20. It was in Richmond, not yet Virginia’s capital but just a struggling hamlet of 600, with only one building large enough to hold that many people. The Henrico Parish Church, plain and boxy on the outside, was neatly divided into pew boxes on the inside. By Thursday, the temperature in those boxes had risen steeply, in part from the unusually strong sun beaming through the windows and in part from the frustration of the delegates, once they were finished with the business of choosing representatives for the colony. With that done, the conversation in the church and on the muddy walkways leading to it turned to a favorite topic of the time: the American colonies’ relationship to Britain. Two sides formed in Richmond—those who thought negotiation and patience would bring results and those who believed talk was leading nowhere and immediate war was the only way.

Patrick Henry, a lawyer from Scotchtown, was already known as something of a hawk. And so there was immediately some resistance when he offered a resolution authorizing the colony of Virginia to raise a militia. In part, as his resolution explained, a Virginia militia would answer Britain’s claim that one of the reasons it needed to tax the colonies so heavily was that it needed to underwrite the army assigned to their defense. Henry‘s response was that the colonies could defend themselves, thank you very much.

The specter of a militia “for the purpose of our defense” raised the question of just what the militia would defend against. Henry gave an answer in his resolution. The militia, he said, was a “provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those further violations with which they are threatened.” That wasn’t entirely belligerent, but it was too close for the delegates who saw themselves as prudent and saw Henry as a firebrand. The fact that other colonies, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maryland, had already issued similar proclamations (in similarly renegade conventions) did not mollify Henry’s opponents. They regarded Virginia as the most ancient, most responsible, and most influential of all the 13 colonies. Virginia took to itself the role of steadying the others, especially Massachusetts, which was roiling in discontent at the beginning of 1775.

Those at Richmond who wanted to lean their colony’s weight toward maintaining the peace worked actively against Henry’s resolution. But they may have felt afterward that they should have adopted it, and quickly, rather than rouse Patrick Henry to tell the world what he really thought.

Henry was known as the “Cicero of Virginia”—that is, as an orator of eloquent phrasing. When he stepped forward in Henrico Parish Church to mount the pulpit and deliver his remarks in response to his opponents, he knew practically everyone in the audience personally, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were there. He had been a handsome, strapping fellow in his youth but was now a stoop-shouldered man with thinning gray hair. He was only 38 but is said to have looked 20 years older. Yet he had lost none of the vitality for which he had earlier been known, though he cunningly chose not to show it at first.

At the beginning of his speech (which was not transcribed at the time but was reconstructed by his biographer, based on the memories of those who were there), he was quiet in tone and courtly in his words. “No man,” he said, “thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as the abilities, of the very worthy gentleman 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 reservations.” He proceeded to do just that—and catapulted himself that day to the very forefront of the revolutionary movement in the American colonies.

With “all the calm dignity of Cato of Utica,” as a member of the audience recalled it, Henry restated the compulsion for liberty that had fomented over the previous ten years. He said that peace had been tried, and tried, and tried:

“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; applications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.”

That was fine rhetoric, and it had a stirring lyrical cadence typical for Henry. But such sentiments had long since become boilerplate in revolutionary speech-making, so the audience in Richmond loved it, but it didn’t rankle or upset, frighten or bestir. However, Patrick Henry was still just beginning.

Fully warmed up, he started to wave his arms, with a theatrical but apparently sincere inability to contain his passions. He began to speak louder than before, and as he reached his next-to-last paragraph, he was moved by the sound of his voice to address the audience with even greater intensity. He was on the verge of breaking through old bounds and entering new territory for a colonial speaker. He was about to do something horrific, irrevocable, and dangerous—and preposterous, if it were not for the conviction in his trumpeting voice. Patrick Henry, private citizen, was about to declare war on the strongest nation on earth:

“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 [i.e., no choice]. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!”

“The war is inevitable,” he shouted in the close confines of the church, “And let it come!” In a sense, he was by this point a part of the audience for his speech. Even he was carried away by his pent-up expression of the truth, as he saw it. Even he seemed to want to verify that he had just heard what he thought he’d heard. “I repeat it, sir,” he offered, “let it come!”

He had coined a battle cry for the colonies. Up to that moment, they had been uncertain that they were even headed for battle. If the speech had ended there, the words “And let it come!” might have rung through the war years in the 13 colonies as the motto of American courage. But Henry was unable to stop, not until he vented everything in his heart. He had yet another battle cry for the colonies, and it was one that so far has lasted through 231 years in the worldwide transition from monarchies and dictatorships to self-rule.

“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!”

As Henry finished, his arms stood straight out, his eyes fixed on the audience, in a defiant stance that would have been maniacal had it not been so contagious. During the afternoon, his resolution passed. That was the small victory of the day. The grand one was acknowledged by Thomas Jefferson, a man of reason who was not always an admirer of Patrick Henry’s extroverted ways. “After all,” Jefferson said in retrospect, “it must be allowed that he was our leader in the measures of the Revolution in Virginia, and in that respect more is due to him than to any other person . . . He left all of us far behind.”

Julie M. Fenster is the author with Douglas Brinkley of Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (Morrow, 2006).