Patrick Henry and His Famous Speech
When the Second Virginia Convention convened, it did so upriver from the capital, since many of the delegates feared the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, might try to break up the proceedings. Richmond was at the time only a village, with no government building large enough to accommodate the convention, so the delegates assembled at Henrico Parish Church, later named St. John’s Church.
On March 23, 1775, Henry put forward a resolution that the colony immediately be put in a “state of defence.” More moderate delegates objected, arguing that military preparations would undercut any hope of reconciling with Great Britain. Again, Henry rose to speak, and again we turn to Wirt for his words:
“Gentlemen may cry peace, peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps 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,” 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!”
Without any contemporary record of Henry’s words, it is impossible to know how many of these were Henry’s and how many were Wirt’s. Some of the words may even have been drawn from Joseph Addison’s 1713 play, Cato. Wrote Addison: “The hand of fate is over us, and heav’n / Exacts severity from all our thoughts: / It is not now a time to talk of aught / But chains, or conquest; liberty or death.”
For the Liberty or Death speech, Wirt named two sources: St. George Tucker and John Tyler, both of whom were present at St. John’s Church. Others who were there (including Jefferson) did not contradict Wirt’s account (though Jefferson did say Wirt’s was “a poor book, written in bad taste, and gives an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry”). It seems likely, therefore, that the general outline of the speech and at least some of the words were Henry’s.
Whatever the exact words, there can again be no doubt of their impact. According to Edmund Randolph, the convention sat in silence for several minutes. Thomas Marshall told his son John, who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, that the speech was “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.” Edward Carrington, who was listening outside a window of the church, asked to be buried at this spot. In 1810, he got his wish.
More immediately, Henry’s resolution passed, and Henry was named chairman of the committee assigned to build a militia. Dunmore reacted by seizing the gunpowder in the public magazine at Williamsburg, Virginia’s equivalent of the battles of Lexington and Concord.
“Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention,” said George Mason on hearing Henry speak, “and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.”
“Scholars, understandably, are troubled by the way Wirt brought into print Henry’s classic Liberty or Death speech,” wrote historian Bernard Mayo. “Yet . . . its expressions. . . seemed to have burned themselves into men’s memories. Certainly its spirit is that of the fiery orator who in 1775 so powerfully influenced Virginians and events leading to American independence.”
Excerpt from We Hold These Truths, co-published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Aron, Paul. "John Adams." We Hold These Truths. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008. 86-88.