This Day in History: “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
On this day in 1765, Patrick Henry gives a rousing speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses. You may know Henry for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775, but this one came earlier—and it shook Virginians in pre-Revolutionary War America to their core.
It just happened to be Henry’s 29th birthday. What a way to celebrate?
Virginians were then trying to decide what to do about the controversial Stamp Act. You won’t be surprised to hear that Henry was ready to take charge. He’d proposed a set of Resolutions and was now arguing for their approval by the Virginia House.
Henry’s speech was nothing if not brazen. He compared King George III to Julius Caesar! Yikes. Do you remember what ultimately happened to Caesar? (He was assassinated.) Needless to say, Patrick Henry was treading into dangerous territory.
Henry began thunderously: “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third . . . .” At this point, Henry was interrupted by cries of “Treason! Treason!” But Henry persevered in the face of these cries. “George the Third,” he said, “may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!”
Some reports suggest that Henry may then have apologized for the implication of his remark and may even have declared loyalty to the King. Or maybe he didn’t. But Thomas Jefferson would later recall that Henry had barely avoided the charge of treason.
“I well remember the cry of treason,” he wrote to a biographer of Henry’s, “the pause of mr Henry at the name of George the IIId and the presence of mind with which he closed his sentence, and baffled the charge vociferated.” Another contemporary agreed, writing that he’d “heard a Gentleman commend Mr. Henry’s dexterity in playing on the line of treason, without passing it.”
Either way, perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that the Burgesses approved five of the resolutions that Henry had written. Yet some of the older members of the House were so outraged that they recruited missing members of the House overnight. They got the fifth resolution rescinded the next day.
It was too strong and too controversial.
That last resolution read: “[T]he General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.”
The resolution may have been controversial to Americans in 1765. But by 1776, Americans would take an even stronger stand by declaring their complete independence from Britain.
Colonial Williamsburg: The Guide: The Official Companion to the Historic Area (Colonial Wiliamsburg Foundation)
Harlow Giles Unger, Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation (2010)
Patrick Henry's Resolutions Against the Stamp Act: May 29, 1765 to May 30, 1765 (Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation Red Hill)
William Wirt, Life of Patrick Henry (1817)