This Day in History: “As for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

On this day in 1775, Patrick Henry gives a stirring speech. You’ve almost certainly heard of this one! Henry closed the speech with the unforgettable words: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

At the time, Henry was a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention. The convention had been assembled in Richmond, away from the Capitol, where it was thought the British would be less likely to undermine the proceedings. The Convention was trying to decide what to do about the increasingly tense situation between Britain and the American colonies. Some still wanted to find a way to reconcile with Britain. Others were ready to go to arms.

Henry fell in the latter camp. On March 23, he presented his proposal to raise volunteer militias throughout Virginia. He did so in a fiery speech that was unforgettable.

There is no official transcript of the speech. Remember, the audience wouldn’t have had iPhones or other smart devices to help them record or document the speech. Instead, the transcript that we have comes from the work of William Wirt, Henry’s first biographer. Wirt worked hard to obtain contemporary accounts and wrote that he took the speech “almost entirely . . . verbatim” from a report by Judge St. George Tucker.

Henry’s speech stunned and emboldened his audience. One person later wrote: “[I]magine you heard a voice as from heaven uttering the words: ‘We must fight,’ as the doom of Fate.” Another noted Henry’s appearance: “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations.” John Marshall, a future Chief Justice of the United States, remembered his father describing the speech as “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.”

Ironically, on the other side of the ocean, one Parliamentary member was then urging the British government to concede and seek peace. Only a day earlier, Edmund Burke had warned the House of Commons that “things were hastening towards an incurable alienation of our colonies.” (See yesterday’s history post.) Burke’s plea was falling on deaf ears. Presumably, Burke would not have been too surprised to hear the tough nature of Henry’s speech—nor to hear of its effect on Henry’s audience.

And how could Henry’s audience not be emboldened, listening to his strong words?! Henry’s proposals were approved. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and others were appointed to plan a defense for Virginia. The battle at Lexington and Concord occurred less than a month later.

The war was on.