On this date, in 1775, Virginian Patrick Henry, a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention from Hanover County, Virginia sat in on the ongoing debate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.
The 28-year old then stood to give his defense of his proposed amendments to the petition then being debated. Below is the last few lines of his now famous statement, with the last sentence being the one most remembered;
“If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
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!” (emphasis added)
Henry ended the speech with a flair for the dramatic, grasping an ivory letter opener and pointing the sharp end toward his chest, imitating a scene contributed to Cato the Younger, a known Roman patriot of antiquity.
Although we remember today this speech being a rallying cry and greeted with instant approbation by the assembled delegates, the initial response was a silence, probably attributable to the fact the assembled delegates were slightly stunned by the passion and mentally processing the verbiage used by Henry. According to Edmund Randolph, the silence that followed Henry’s conclusion lasted for a few minutes. Another member, Thomas Marshall, the father of John, told his son that Henry’s words were “one of the boldest, vehement, and animated pieces” that he had ever heard.
The version that is most common today would not be set to type until 1817, when author Henry Wirt had finished his biography of the late Patrick Henry, who had died 18 years prior. Yet, these words were passed to Wirt by St. George Tucker who was present but was dictating his answer to the biographer of Henry by memory. Some historians believe that the exact words of Henry’s had more vitriol and dire warnings of possible calamities if a fissure with Great Britain did not happen.
No matter the exact wording that emanated from Henry’s pen, the reaction in the coming days showed their impact. A militia was raised and a declaration that the colonies were to be free of Great Britain was passed. Less than a month later, the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore ordered the seizure of gunpowder stores in Williamsburg, Virginia, the then capital of the colony, causing a further rift between the two developing sides. In addition Henry was also was elected to represent the Old Dominion at the Second Continental Congress, where a further declaration would be declared in the summer of 1776.
Although one cannot physically visit the site of this famous church today, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, you can keep up to date and learn about this National Register of Historic Places entry virtually by clicking here. (In closing, the message left on St. John’s Page by their executive director is worth reading and a good use of a historic quote!)
However, one can take a few moments, on this 245th anniversary to remember these powerful words and the gravity that they meant. Henry, like many others would be asked to make this decision, of liberty or death, with their very lives in the coming conflict.