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Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death

A famous quotation attributed to Patrick Henry (1775)

Tina S
Tina S
Jan 29, 2010
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"Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" is a famous quotation attributed to Patrick Henry( One of the American revolutionaries and founding fathers of the United States) from a speech he made in a court hearing on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, and is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Reportedly, those in attendance, upon hearing the speech, shouted, "To arms! To arms!"

The text of this speech first appeared in print in Life and Character of Patrick Henry by William Wirt which was first published in 1816, seventeen years after Patrick Henry's death. In 1815, Wirt wrote to a friend, "from 1763 to 1789... not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech" Wirt corresponded with men who had heard the speech and others who were acquainted with people who were there at the time. Wirt wrote to Judge St. George Tucker, who had been present for the speech, that "I have taken almost entirely Mr. Henry's speech in the Convention of '75 from you, as well as your description of its effect on you verbatim."

He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765. Always a fiery orator, after the passage of the Stamp Act Henry reminded the Crown that "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Oliver Cromwell, and George the Third -- may profit from their example!" By way of explanation, Caesar's friend Brutus, as we know, participated in the dictator's murder. Cromwell arranged the trial and execution of his sovereign, King Charles. Reminded by Conservatives that such utterings were treasonous, Henry replied "If this be treason, make the most of it!"

On the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every Virginia county. By custom, Henry addressed himself to the Convention's president, Peyton Randolph of Williamsburg. Henry's words were not transcribed, but no one who heard them forgot their eloquence, or Henry's closing words: "Give me liberty, or give me death!"

To avoid interference from Lieutenant-Governor Dunmore and his Royal Marines, the Second Virginia Convention met March 20, 1775 inland at Richmond--in what is now called St. John's Church--instead of the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. Henry's opponents urged caution and patience until the crown replied to Congress' latest petition for reconciliation.

Henry's first biographer, William Wirt of Maryland, was three-years-old in 1775. An assistant federal prosecutor in Aaron Burr's trial for treason at Richmond in 1807, and later attorney general of the United States, Wirt began to collect materials for the biography in 1808, nine years after Henry's death.

Tucker's account was based upon recollections and not notes. Tucker attempted a reconstruction of only the first two paragraphs of the speech.

Tucker wrote, "In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech". While this implies a degree of uncertainty over the content of the speech, the amount of research done by Wirt in the process of creating his text strongly argues that he was able to accurately reconstruct the key points, especially the famous quote itself.

It is generally agreed that it ended with, "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!"

Ear-witnesses to Henry's hypnotic orations remarked that while they always seemed to be convincing in the moment, they had a difficult time remembering exactly what he had said immediately afterwards: according to Thomas Jefferson, "Although it was difficult, when [Henry] had spoken, to tell what he had said, yet, while speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself, when he ceased, 'What the devil has he said?' and could never answer the inquiry."

The text of the speech as presented by Wirt contains many biblical allusions and radical pronouncements, and ends by asserting that war has already begun, the only question being whether or not to fight. In Henry's delivery of the speech, Wirt compared Henry with the Roman statesman Cato. Cato was a famous orator and a leading proponent of the Stoicism philosophy in which it is believed that death was a guarantee of personal freedom. Cato was a proponent of Republicanism in opposition to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. Cato chose suicide over living in a tyranny. Some scholars believe that this line was inspired by Cato.


The play Cato, a Tragedy contains the line, "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death" (Act II, Scene 4). This play was popular in the colonies and was well-known by the Founding Fathers, who used quotes from the play. George Washington had this play performed for the Continental Army at Valley Forge.The phrase "Liberty or Death" also appears on the Culpeper Minutemen flag of 1775.


Author's note: Ref: wikipedia
Keywords: Give,Liberty,Me,Death,Patrick Henry,St. George,Tucker,1775,United States,William Wirt,biography,Thomas Jefferson,Julius caesar,Cato,Liberty or Death,freedom,virginia,House of Burgesses.



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