Revolution was in the air in early 1775. Only a few months earlier, delegates from the American colonies had held the first Continental Congress and sent Britain’s King George III a petition for redress of grievances, among them the repeal of the so-called “Intolerable Acts.” A mass boycott of British goods was underway, and Boston Harbor still languished under a British blockade as punishment for 1773’s Boston Tea Party. In a speech to Parliament in late-1774, King George had denounced the “daring spirit of resistance and disobedience to the law” which seemed to be spreading like wildfire across the American continent.
Amid these mounting tensions, the Second Virginia Convention convened to discuss the Old Dominion’s strategy in negotiating with the Crown. The roughly 120 delegates who filed into Richmond’s St. John’s Church were a veritable “who’s who” of Virginia’s colonial leaders. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both in attendance, as were five of the six other Virginians who would later sign the Declaration of Independence. Prominent among the bewigged statesmen was Patrick Henry, a well-respected lawyer from Hanover County. Blessed with an unfailing wit and mellifluous speaking voice, Henry had long held a reputation as one of Virginia’s most vociferous opponents of British taxation schemes. During the Stamp Act controversy in 1765, he had even flirted with treason in a speech in which he hinted that King George risked suffering the same fate as Julius Caesar if he maintained his oppressive policies. As a recent delegate to the Continental Congress, he had sounded the call for colonial solidarity by proclaiming, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian; I am an American.”
Henry was convinced that war was around the corner, and he arrived at the Virginia Convention determined to persuade his fellow delegates to adopt a defensive stance against Great Britain. On March 23, he put forward a resolution proposing that Virginia’s counties raise militiamen “to secure our inestimable rights and liberties, from those further violations with which they are threatened.” The suggestion of forming a militia was not shocking in itself. Other colonies had passed similar resolutions, and Henry had already taken it upon himself to raise a volunteer outfit in Hanover County. Nevertheless, many in the audience balked at approving any measure that might be viewed as combative. Word that King George had rejected the Continental Congress’s petition for redress of grievances was yet to reach the colonies, and some still held out hope for a peaceful reconciliation with Britain.
After several delegates had spoken on the issue, Patrick Henry rose from his seat in the third pew and took the floor. A Baptist minister who was watching the proceedings would later describe him as having “an unearthly fire burning in his eye.” Just what happened next has long been a subject of debate. Henry spoke without notes, and no transcripts of his exact words have survived to today. The only known version of his remarks was reconstructed in the early 1800s by William Wirt, a biographer who corresponded with several men that attended the Convention. According to this version, Henry began by stating his intention to “speak forth my sentiments freely” before launching into an eloquent warning against appeasing the Crown.
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided,” he said, “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?”
Henry then turned his attention to the British troops mobilizing across the colonies. “Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?” he asked. “Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? …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.”
As he continued speaking, Henry’s dulcet tones began to darken with anger. “Excitement began to play more and more upon his features,” the minister later said. “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords.”
“Our petitions have been slighted,” Henry said, “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…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!”
Henry stood silent for a moment, letting his defiant words hang in the air. When he finally began speaking again, it was in a thunderous bellow that seemed to shake “the walls of the building and all within them.” His fellow delegates leaned forward in their seats as he reached his crescendo.
“The war is actually begun!” Henry cried. “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?” As he spoke, Henry held his wrists together as though they were manacled and raised them toward the heavens. “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty”—Henry burst from his imaginary chains and grasped an ivory letter opener—“or give me death!” As he uttered these final words, he plunged the letter opener toward his chest, mimicking a knife blow to the heart.
For several moments after Henry sat back down, the assembled delegates seemed at a loss for words. “No other member…was yet adventurous enough to interfere with that voice which had so recently subdued and captivated,” delegate Edmund Randolph later said. A hushed silence descended on the room. “Every eye yet gazed entranced on Henry,” said the Baptist minister. “Men were beside themselves.” Colonel Edward Carrington, one of the many people watching the proceedings through the church windows, was so moved that he stood and proclaimed to his fellow spectators, “Let me be buried at this spot!” When he died decades later, his widow honored his request.
While some of the Convention’s delegates clung to their loyalist stance—one even called Henry’s words “infamously insolent”—the “Liberty or Death” speech tipped the scales in favor of defensive action. After Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson both lent their support, the resolution passed by only a few votes. Henry was appointed the head of a new committee charged with readying the Virginia militia for combat.
Henry’s call to arms came at a pivotal moment. Less than a month later, skirmishes between British troops and colonial minutemen at Lexington and Concord resulted in “the shot heard round the world” and the first casualties of the Revolutionary War. In Virginia, scores of colonials—many of whom had embroidered the words “Liberty or Death” onto their shirts—flocked to join local militias. “The sword is now drawn,” wrote the Virginia Gazette, “and God knows when it will be sheathed.”
Patrick Henry would go on to serve as both a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and as Virginia’s governor. He played a crucial role in securing men and arms for George Washington’s Continental Army, but many would credit his silver tongue as having been his most indispensable contribution to American independence. “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry,” Thomas Jefferson later wrote. “He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”