All American schoolchildren are familiar with Patrick Henry’s words “Give me liberty or give me death,” but as adults we may have forgotten the context in which he spoke them and what they meant. Then-lawyer Patrick Henry, known throughout Virginia for his rhetorical abilities and oratory, was delivering a speech to delegates of the Second Virginia Convention when he said these famous words. At the time he was speaking defense of resolutions that he had proposed in order to prepare Virginia’s militia for the possibility of armed conflict with England. What he said was this:
“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!”
The expression of the American colonists’ choices in such stark terms resounded with the delegates and they went on to accept the resolutions he suggested. Patrick Henry showed great foresight in seeing that warfare between the nascent country and Great Britain was inevitable, and shortly after he spoke these words the war started. Patrick Henry embodied the very ideal of patriotism by refusing to compromise his country’s freedom no matter the cost.
This is not the only reason Patrick Henry qualifies as an American hero. Patrick Henry challenged the right of the British to tax the colonies in order to satisfy debts associated with the French and Indian War. In 1765, after he had become a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry proposed what are known as the Virginia Resolves, in which he stated that the colonists should have the same rights as the English, especially the right of taxation. He said that the American colonists should be able to collect taxes through their own representatives rather than through British ones. Following much debate, the House of Burgesses passed the bill. Many other colonies followed suit in subsequent months, citing the Virginia Resolves as inspiration. We take the right to tax ourselves for granted, but this is a right we owe directly to Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves.
In addition, Patrick Henry’s eloquence and aggression is largely responsible for the existence of the Bill of Rights. Patrick Henry had become the governor of Virginia following serving two successive terms in the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation were proving inadequate to the needs of the new country, and a Constitutional Convention was called, to which Patrick Henry was elected as a delegate. He declined to attend, fearing the perils of federalism, and his concerns were vindicated when the proposed Constitution emerged from the Convention without a Bill of Rights. He went on to lead the opposition to the new Constitution in Virginia for this very reason. Although not successful in preventing the Constitution from gaining acceptance, his outrage fueled protests at ratification conventions that ultimately resulted in the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution to protect American citizens from a powerful central government.
The next time you hear those famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death,” you’ll know that they were delivered by Patrick Henry in his famous exhortation of war against England at the Second Virginia Convention. You’ll know that the same man helped Americans secure the right of self-taxation and make the Bill of Rights an essential part of the American Constitution. His life is to be celebrated. He is a genuine American hero.
Thomas Davis – NEWSslinger Contributor