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Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest

“Liberty or Death” Speech

by Carl Rollyson, PhD

Date: 1775

Author: Patrick Henry

Genre: Speech

Summary Overview

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Liberty or Death” Speech to a meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses being held at St. John’s Church in Richmond. A renowned orator, Henry was speaking out of more than a decade of opposition to the British Crown, which he viewed as usurping the rights of American colonists. As he arose to speak, he understood that several of his fellow burgesses were not yet prepared to accept the idea of revolution. While acknowledging their reservations about such a drastic course of action, he framed the debate as a question of freedom or slavery. It was too late to talk of peace when the war, in his view, had already begun with the Crown’s massing of its military forces. Henry’s frustration, anger, and passion poured forth in his most famous speech. Warning that men were grasping at the “illusions of hope” while Britain prepared for war, an exasperated Henry declared that “war is actually begun!”

His speech elevated public discourse far beyond mere protests against the British Crown or even the upholding of the colonists’ rights as British subjects. Henry’s words became famous because he suggested that what was at stake was the very identity of free citizens and demanded that Virginia support its New England brethren who were facing British guns.

Defining Moment

In May 1774, Lord Dunmore,the British governor of the Virginia, dissolved the colonial assembly because of its participation in the Committees of Correspondence (groups organized by colonists to obtain advance knowledge of acts of Parliament that had an impact on the American colonies). Believing that the governor’s act was an effort to curb colonial self-government, Henry began in November 1774 to organize a volunteer militia in his home county of Hanover, moving toward a position of armed opposition to the British Crown. Both Governor Dunmore and Henry also were responding to the actions of other colonies, especially Massachusetts, which as early as 1773 had initiated its own Committee of Correspondence.

Some members of the Virginia House of Burgesses considered Henry’s views extreme. They were prepared to defend colonial rights, but believed that a negotiated settlement could be reached with the mother country. To Henry, this position weakened the rights he was attempting to preserve. While caution and prudence might seem the wisest course, in fact it would doom the colonies to servitude. Great Britain was already taking measures that showed it had little interest in recognizing colonial rights, Henry pointed out to the burgesses. He believed the moderates were no longer responding to the reality of the situation, which was one of crisis.

It was time for immediate and decisive action. Henry’s powerful speech in March 1775 acknowledged his colleagues’ concerns about the consequences of open resistance to royal authority, but he was asserting that the time for compromise had already elapsed and that the threat to liberty was so grave that calls for conciliation were no longer beneficial. The choice he described was stark: The colonists had to assert their rights with force. To do otherwise would result in nothing less than slavery. Henry believed that moderation was not an option because colonial self-government had already eroded to a point that made it impossible for the colonists to retrieve their rights from royal authority.

Author Biography

Patrick Henry was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on May 29, 1736. After working in a store, then farming, he studied law and began practicing in 1760. One of Henry’s early court cases challenged the English Crown’s authority to overturn a law passed by the Virginia assembly. Although he lost his case, Henry became a popular colonial leader.

He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, gaining a reputation for good speechmaking and strong defense of Virginian rights. He became so outraged over the Stamp Act that he proposed that the Virginia Assembly should declare itself independent. The incensed Henry even issued a threat to the British monarchy, warning King George III to heed the examples of previous rulers who had lost their lives to usurpers.

Now aligned with a radical faction that included Thomas Jefferson, Henry joined a number of burgesses calling for a Virginia constitutional convention and a continental congress—his response to the royal governor’s dissolution of the colonial assembly in 1774. As a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses (1774–1775), he called for the arming of a militia—the first step, he openly announced, in a war he deemed inescapable.

Henry’s passionate commitment to individual liberty made him a keen supporter of the American Revolution and the Articles of Confederation, a document that ceded sovereign authority to the states but opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, arguing that it granted the federal government too much power, and made the states subordinate. Henry rejected efforts to make him part of the newly formed U.S. government, although in 1799 he consented in deference to President George Washington’s request to run as a Federalist for a Virginia state senate seat. Henry won but died on June 6, 1799, before taking office.

Historical Document

No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen 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 reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the numbers of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received?

Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, 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; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation.

There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength but irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, 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. 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!

Glossary

awful: enormously important, extremely shocking, or so impressive as to inspire awe

extentuate: to lessen the seriousness of a mistake or wrongdoing

insidious: slowly and subtly harmful or destructive

irresolution: the state of being unsure and unable to make decisions

remonstrated: reasoned or pleaded forcefully

supplicated: begged

Document Analysis

Henry’s first sentence directs a compliment at his opposition, admiring their patriotism. Henry, with a well-known reputation for radicalism, begins his speech in the mildest, most engaging way to address the concerns of those dissenting from his views.

The topic of Henry’s speech is his craving for liberty, which he emphasizes by using the word freely and discussing the notion that a man should be able to speak “without reserve.” Henry’s speech thus becomes the personification of his ideas: a free man speaking freely who means no disrespect to those who think otherwise. The first two sentences exhibit a man keenly desirous of maintaining the decorum of the assembly, taking issue with certain opinions by expressing his own, as is inevitable among groups of different men. The final sentence in the first paragraph concludes by putting the British monarch in his place by reminding Henry’s fellow burgesses that their ultimate loyalty must be to the Creator, the first cause of all life. Henry suggests that his radicalism is founded on universal principles that cannot be overturned by any lesser authority than God.

In Henry’s second, shorter paragraph, he cautions against being blind to the truth of British tyranny. As difficult as it may be, it needs to be faced. The short second paragraph is followed by two paragraphs in which Henry gathers up the experience of the colony’s last decade (beginning in 1765, when he delivered his defiant attack on the Stamp Act). The only way to gauge the future is by assessing the past, which leads Henry to reject the counsel of those who believe they can negotiate better terms with the British ministry. At this point, presenting old arguments to Britain would only be a form of self-deception. Then, in two hammer-blow sentences, Henry dispatches the efforts of a decade: No amount of pleading, begging, and bowing has moved the king to intervene on the colonists’ behalf; indeed, the monarch has spurned their love. Henry works up a scene of shame in which the colonists have allowed themselves to be the victims of a tyrannical government. They can recover their dignity only by abandoning spurious reasons to hope. Henry reaches the crescendo of this paragraph when he boldly declares his solution to all these years of shame: In order to be free, the colonists must fight.

Having declared his support for war, Henry now confronts in the fifth paragraph the concern that the colonies do not have the strength to fight an empire. He argues that the colonists can only become weaker if they delay their declaration of war. Hope has become a phantom, which Henry pictures as the colonists lying supinely on their backs, unable to take decisive action. Liberty, Henry assures his fellow burgesses, is a “holy cause” and will draw millions to its defense. The idea of freedom is invincible, Henry asserts. God is just, and right is on the colonists’ side. They will be fighting for the destiny of their nation, and there will be friends to help, perhaps an allusion to American hopes that the French would side against the British. The coming battle will reward the brave and the watchful—those who have given up hope in British fairness and integrity. It is too late for any other choice: Any retreat at this point would mean submitting to the Crown’s power and thus to slavery. Shifting again to vivid imagery, Henry announces, “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.” From initially expressing due deference to his opponents, Henry has moved to an uncompromising, radical, and vehement call for war, rousing his fellow burgesses to embrace the inevitable conflict and to do so with enthusiasm.

He concludes by saying there is no point in pursuing the matter, as the time for excusing or rationalizing British actions is over. Some still cry for peace, but the war has actually begun, Henry insists, returning to his vehemence. Colonists are already on the field of battle, he notes, alluding to the clashes between the royal government and colonists in Boston. Henry asks his fellow burgesses: Is life precious at any cost, at the cost of freedom? Is a life of slavery preferable to death? Then, shifting the responsibility from them to himself, Henry concludes in one of the most powerful and famous declarations in American history: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Essential Themes

When Patrick Henry began speaking on March 23, 1775, he understood that while his calls for militant action against the British Crown enjoyed considerable support, many of his fellow burgesses still questioned the wisdom of a direct confrontation with the king and Parliament. Quite aside from a sense of loyalty to the mother country, which many of the burgesses continued to espouse with diminishing enthusiasm, Virginia and the other colonies faced the world’s greatest empire. Great Britain had vanquished France in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), and the idea of a band of colonists emerging victorious from a war with a world power seemed doubtful to a considerable number of Virginians. How other colonies would react to a call to arms also remained a problem. Certainly Massachusetts could be counted on, but Pennsylvania, for example, continued to be dominated by a political elite that resisted demands for direct and immediate action against the royal government.

In his speech, Henry does not side-step the considerable challenges faced by Virginia and other colonies who chose to stand against what they perceived to be Britain’s tyranny. He does, however, use vivid imagery combined with a sharp indictment of the past decade of British-Colonial relations to argue, persuasively, that the conflict moderate Virginians wish to avoid has been thrust upon them. Since the first assaults against liberty in the 1760s, the choices that face colonists have dwindled to two: liberty or death.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

1 

Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974).

2 

Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1986).

3 

Mayo, Bernard. Myths and Men: Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1959).

4 

Meade, Robert D. Patrick Henry. 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957–1969).

5 

Willison, George F. Patrick Henry and His World. (Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1969).

Citation Types

Type
Format
MLA 9th
Rollyson, Carl. "“Liberty Or Death” Speech." Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest, edited by Aaron Gulyas, Salem Press, 2017. Salem Online, online.salempress.com/articleDetails.do?articleName=DDProtest_0015.
APA 7th
Rollyson, C. (2017). “Liberty or Death” Speech. In A. Gulyas (Ed.), Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Salem Press.
CMOS 17th
Rollyson, Carl. "“Liberty Or Death” Speech." Edited by Aaron Gulyas. Defining Documents in American History: Dissent and Protest. Hackensack: Salem Press, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2024. online.salempress.com.