Patrick Henry: Liberty or Death

Patrick Henry delivers his famous speech before the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775.
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Patrick Henry: Liberty or Death

How the words of an American patriot inspired a nation to fight for freedom

On this day over 200 years ago, an American patriot delivered one of the most famous speeches of the American Revolution.

That man was Patrick Henry. According to one source, he delivered “the most powerful call to arms in history” on March 23, 1775. RealClearHistory recently listed this speech fifth on its top 10 speeches in history. His words inspired the American patriots to fight for liberty, even if it cost them their lives. In the years since that speech, his words have continued to inspire generations of loyal Americans. Much like the “shot heard ’round the world,” this speech had an impact far beyond what Patrick Henry probably ever thought it would.

I discuss this on my radio show today, which you can listen to here:

A lot of people are familiar with the famous conclusion of his speech, but not as many know the history behind it.

America’s 13 original colonies had been disgruntled for a number of years before Henry’s speech in 1775. There was American opposition to British rule as far back as 1765, when Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The Americans thought they were being unfairly taxed. They didn’t have any representatives in Parliament to argue their case, so their mantra became “No taxation without representation.” After continued objections by the Americans, Parliament eventually repealed the Stamp Act.

Things settled down for a time, until Parliament passed the Tea Act in the year 1773. That set off more confrontations. The Tea Act gave the British East India Company a monopoly on all tea bought and sold in the colonies. Americans took this as another instance of unfair taxation. In retaliation for the Tea Act, patriots in Massachusetts dumped thousands of pounds of British tea into Boston Harbor in what became known as the Boston Tea Party.

Britain cracked down on the colonies immediately, especially on the instigator Massachusetts. That led to the Boston Massacre. The growing unrest continued to increase with every instance of what the Americans saw as unfair treatment by the British.

The History Place sums up what happened next:

The First Continental Congress met in the fall of 1774 in Philadelphia with 56 American delegates, representing every colony, except Georgia. On September 17, the Congress declared its opposition to the repressive Acts of Parliament, saying they are “not to be obeyed,” and also promoted the formation of local militia units.

Thus economic and military tensions between the colonists and the British escalated. In February of 1775, a Provincial Congress was held in Massachusetts during which John Hancock and Joseph Warren began defensive preparations for a state of war. The British Parliament then declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

On March 23, in Virginia, the largest colony in America, a meeting of the colony’s delegates was held in St. John’s Church in Richmond. Resolutions were presented by Patrick Henry putting the colony of Virginia “into a posture of defense … embodying, arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.” Before the vote was taken on his resolutions, Henry delivered the speech … imploring the delegates to vote in favor.

He spoke without any notes in a voice that became louder and louder, climaxing with the now famous ending. Following his speech, the vote was taken in which his resolutions passed by a narrow margin, and thus Virginia joined in the American Revolution.

Patrick Henry was a Virginian, a lawyer, an orator and a fiery patriot. He also had a strong belief in God and the Bible. I would recommend that you read or listen to his speech (there is a great reenactment available here, and a transcript here). Notice how many references to God there are in his inspiring but fairly short speech! I counted five direct references to God, as well as a couple fairly overt scriptural references.

It was not long after this speech—April 1775—when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.

There were only two options in Patrick Henry’s mind: liberty or death. He fired up a nation with his determination and willingness to sacrifice everything for what he believed was right. Men like Patrick Henry built our nation, and they were willing to die for the freedoms we enjoy today. Think about the sacrifice those Founding Fathers made to establish the United States. Think about how many things they gave up! Think about the men who fought and died for the American cause. As David McCullough wrote in his book 1776, it is remarkable how many great statesmen there were in the 13 colonies in the 1770s—right at the moment that the fledgling nation needed them.

Patrick Henry said in his speech, “It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country.” Can you imagine something like that coming out of Washington today? What about this quote: “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.” Or this one: “There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

What would American patriots like Patrick Henry think of the United States today? What would the Founding Fathers think of the out-of-control spending that goes on every year in Washington, D.C.? It’s worth considering. I would say that they probably would be disappointed and possibly even horrified at what America has turned into. Long gone are the leading men who are willing to make painful sacrifices—to fight for freedom no matter the cost. Long gone are the leaders who are established in religion and morality. Long gone are the patriots who recognize the hand of God.

On the anniversary of Patrick Henry’s speech, it is fitting for us to consider the physical and spiritual meaning of his words: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”