On this day in history: 'Give me liberty, or give me death!'

  • 23 March 2016
  • NormanL
'Give me liberty, or give me death!'

On March 23, 1775, the Second Virginia Convention gathered at St. John's Church in Richmond. The aim was to elect delegates to the Second Continental Congress, which was to convene in May.

Up to 120 delegates from across the Old Dominion attended the convention, including a lawyer named Patrick Henry. At the convention, he introduced three resolutions. The third sparked great debate:

 “Resolved therefore that his Colony be immediately put into a posture of Defence,” that a Committee be appointed “to prepare a Plan for embodying, arming, and disciplining such a Number of Men as may be sufficient for that purpose.”

In essence, this resolution put Virginia on a war footing with England. And in defending his resolutions, Henry delivered one of the most important political speeches in American history:

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 by 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!

You can read the entire speech here, at the website of St. John's Church. Every year, the Church has re-enactments of Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech, and if you haven't seen it, we urge you to do so. Details can be found here.
And you may also wish to consider supporting the St. John's Church Foundation to help ensure their excellent work to preserve and share this critical event in our history can continue.