On 20 March 1775, The Second Virginia Convention convened at St. John's Church in Richmond. They assembled to consider weighty matters concerning the tyranny and oppression of the Crown. Many favored continued conciliatory measures. A thirty-nine year old delegate from Hanover County named Pätrick Henry took a seat in the third pew.Here sat a man with a burden. He knew he faced "an irresolute body; that he would be opposed by the powerful, wealthy, Tory element among the members. He realized that the Loyalists were insidiously entrenched and the outcome was uncertain. Pätrick Henry's risk was tremendous - one that could easily bring him to the block."1
But Mr. Henry feared not man that can destroy only the body - he feared God who can destroy both body and soul. "Liberty" burned in his heart and flowed through his veins. "Death" was to be preferred before cowering in fear before the British leviathan. Mr. Henry was the archetype Southerner whose motto "Liberty or death, " exhibited a bravery and patriotism seldom seen today.
Here is his famous speech delivered 23 March 1775. Read it and may the words burn deep into your thoughts and meditations:
"Mr. President, 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 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 for a 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 number 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 to be 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 instruments 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 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 treaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. 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! (emphasis added, GC)
"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 has placed in our power. Three 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 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!" (emphasis added, GC)
Note: These last words echoed throughout the Colonies - yea, they have resounded through time and ring loudly in our ears at the present hour.
Let us hear commentary from some of the men who were attendant at that solemn assembly:
First Edmund Randolph from his history of Virginia:2 "A resolution was passed for immediately putting the colony into a posture of defence, and for preparing a plan of embodying and disciplining such a number of men as might be sufficient for that purpose. Henry moved and Richard Henry Lee seconded it. The fangs of European criticism might be challenged to spread themselves against the eloquence of that awful day. It was a proud one to a Virginian, feeling and acting with his country. Demosthenes invigorated the timid, and Cicero charmed the backward. The multitude, many of whom had travelled to the Convention from a distance, could not suppress their emotion. Henry was his pure self. Those who had toiled in the artifices of scholastic rhetoric, were involuntarily driven into an inquiry within themselves, whether rules and forms and niceties of elocution would not have choked his native fire. It blazed so as to warm the coldest heart. In the sacred place of meeting, the church, the imagination had no difficulty, to conceive when he launched forth in solemn tones, various causes of scruples against oppressors, that the British King was lying prostrate from the thunder of heaven. Henry was thought in his attitude to resemble St. Paul, while preaching at Athens, and to speak as man was never known to speak before. After every illusion had vanished, a prodigy yet remained. It was Pätrick Henry, born in obscurity, poor, and without advantages of literature, rousing the genius of his country, and binding a band of patriots together to hurl defiance at the tyranny of so formidable a nation as Great Britain. This enchantment was spontaneous obedience to the working of the soul. When he uttered what commanded respect for himself, he solicited no admiring look from those who surrounded him. If he had, he must have been abashed by meeting every eye fixed upon him. He paused, but he paused full of some rising eruption of eloquence. When he sat down, his sounds vibrated so loudly, if not in the ears, at least in the memory of his audience, that no other member, not even his friend who was to second him, was yet adventurous enough to interfere with that voice which had so recently subdued and captivated. After a few minutes, Richard Henry Lee fanned and refreshed with a gale of pleasure; but the vessel of the revolution was still under the impulse of the tempest, which Henry had created. Artificial oratory fell in copious streams from the mouth of Lee, and rules of persuasion accomplished everything, which rules could effect. If elegance had been personified, the person of Lee would have been chosen. But Henry trampled upon rules, and yet triumphed, at this time perhaps beyond his own expectation. Jefferson was not silent. He argued closely, profoundly and warmly on the same side. The post on this revolutionary debate, belonging to him, was that at which the theories of republicanism were deposited. Washington was prominent, though silent. His looks bespoke a mind absorbed in meditation on his country's fate: but a positive concert between him and Henry could not more effectually have exhibited him to view, than when Henry with indignation ridiculed the idea of peace 'when there was no peace' and enlarged on the duty of preparing for war.
"The generous and noble-minded Thomas Nelson, who now for the first time took a more than common part in a great discussion, convulsed the moderate by an ardent exclamation, in which he called God to witness, that if any British troops should be landed within the county of which he was the lieutenant, he would wait for no orders, and would obey none which should forbid him, to summon his militia and repel the invader at the waters edge. His temper, though it was sanguine, and had been manifested in less scenes of opposition, seemed to be more than ordinarily excited. His example told those who were happy in ease and wealth, that to shrink was to be dishonored."
Mr. William Wirt, Henry's first biographer, gives a condensed account from the recollections of Judge Tyler and Judge Tucker: 3 "He rose at this time with a majesty unusual to him in an exordium, and with all that self-possession by which he was so invariably distinguished. 'No man,' he said, 'thought more highly than he did of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who had just addressed the house. But different men often saw the same subject in different lights; and therefore, he hoped it would not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if, entertaining, as he did, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, he should speak forth his sentiments freely, and without reserve.' 'This,' he said, 'was no time for ceremony. The question before the house was one of awful moment to this country. For his own part, he considered 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 debate. It was only in this way that they could hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which they held to God and their country. Should he keep back his opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, he should consider himself guilty of treason toward his country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of Heaven, which he revered above all earthly kings...'"
Up to this point ("An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts, is all that is left us") the orator exhibited perfect self-restraint. Judge Tucker continues: "It was on that occasion that I first felt a full impression of Mr. Henry's powers. In vain should I attempt to give you any idea of his speech. He was calm and collected - touched upon the origin and progress of the dispute between Great Britain, and the colonies - the various conciliatory measures adopted by the latter, and the uniformly increasing tone of violence and arrogance on the part of former."
"Imagine to yourself this speech delivered with all the calm dignity of Cato of Utica; imagine to yourself the Roman Senate assembled in the capital when it was entered by the profane Gauls, who at first were awed by their presence as if they had entered an assembly of the gods. Imagine that you had heard that Cato addressing such a Senate. Imagine that you saw the handwriting on the wall of Belshazzar's palace. Imagine that you had heard a voice as from heaven uttering the words, 'We must fight,' as the doom of Fate, and you may have some idea of the speaker, the assembly to whom he addressed himself, and the auditory, of which I was one."
Now, from Randall's "Life of Jefferson," we read this account received from a Baptist clergyman who was one of the auditory: "Henry arose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye. He commenced somewhat calmly - but the smothered excitement began more and more to play upon his features and thrill in the tones of his voice. The tendons on his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations. Finally his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats with their heads strained froward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker's. His last exclamation 'Give me liberty or give me death' was like the shout of the leader which turns back the rout of battle! The old clergyman said, when Mr. Henry sat down, he (the auditor) felt sick with excitement. Every eye yet gazed entranced on Henry. It seemed as if a word from him would have led to any wild explosion of violence. Men looked beside themselves."
Lastly, we read this account from Tyler's Life of Pätrick Henry: "You remember, sir, the conclusion of the speech, so often declaimed in various ways by school-boys '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!' He gave each of these words a meaning which is not conveyed by the reading or delivery of them in the ordinary way. When he said, 'Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?' he stood in the attitude of a condemned galley slave, loaded with fetters, awaiting his doom. His form was bowed; his wrists were crossed; his manacles were almost visible as he stood like an embodiment of helplessness and agony. After a solemn pause, he raised his eyes and chained hands toward heaven, and prayed, in words and tones which trilled every heart. 'Forbid it, Almighty God!' He then turned toward the timid loyalists of the house, who were quaking with terror at the idea of the consequences of participating in proceedings which would be visited with the penalties of treason by the British crown; and he slowly bent his form yet nearer to the earth, and said, 'I know not what course others may take,' and he accompanied the words with his hands still crossed, while he seemed to be weighed down with additional chains. The man appeared transformed into an oppressed, heart-broken and hopeless felon. After remaining in this posture of humiliation long enough to impress the imagination with the condition of the colony under the iron heel of military despotism, he arose proudly, and exclaimed, 'but as for me' and the words hissed through his clenched teeth, while his body was thrown back, and every muscle and tendon was strained against the fetters which bound him, and with his countenance distorted by agony and rage, he looked for a moment like Laocoon in a death struggle with coiling serpents; then the loud, clear, triumphant notes, 'give me liberty' electrified the assembly. It was not a prayer, but a stern demand, which would submit to no refusal or delay. The sound of his voice, as he spoke these memorable words, was like that of a Spartan paean on the field of Platea; and, as each syllable of the word 'liberty' echoed through the building, his fetters were shivered; his arms were hurled apart; and the links of his chains were scattered to the winds. When he spoke the word 'liberty' with an emphasis never given it before, his hands were open, and his arms elevated and extended; his countenance was radiant; he stood erect and defiant; while the sound of his voice and the sublimnity of his attitude made him appear a magnificent incarnation of Freedom, and expressed all that can be acquired or enjoyed by nations and individuals invincible and free. After a momentary pause, only long enough to permit the echo of the word 'liberty' to cease, he let his left hand fall powerless to his side, and clenched his right hand firmly, as if holding a dagger with the point aimed at his breast. He stood like a Roman Senator defying Cæsar, while the unconquerable spirit of Cato of Utica flashed from every feature; and he closed the grand appeal with the solemn words "or give me death!' which sounded with the awful cadence of a hero's dirge, fearless of death, and victorious in death; and he suited the action to the word by a blow upon the left breast with the right hand which seemed to drive the dagger to the patriot's heart."
1 Norine Campbell-Pätrick Henry: Patriot & Statesman Back
2 MS. in possession of the Virginia Historical Society Back
3 William Wirt on Henry Back
Readers, this was a momentous event in American History. As the old Romish military leader put it - "One convinced Calvinist is worth 10,000 men." Indeed, this convinced Calvinist stirred up tens of thousands to take up the cause of liberty.
Pätrick Henry had the benefit of sitting under one of the greatest
orators and preachers of his time - the great Presbyterian minister Samuel
Davies. As a young man he was stirred by the preaching of Davies. And he
was present on 8 May 1758 when Davies delivered his most famous sermon,
"The Curse of Cowardice" to the Hanover County Militia.
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