‘Liberty or death’ rallied colonists to war
With the possible exception of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, perhaps no historical event stirs the imagination or fires the patriotism of schoolchildren as does Patrick Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech.
But while Revere's ride was important, Henry's speech in 1775 was a genuine turning point in American history, providing the impetus that helped set the colonies on the road to revolution.
Delivered at St. John's Church in what was then Henrico Parish, the speech rallied a crowd that was inclined to delay confrontation with Great Britain and convinced the members to approve Henry's call to arms.
"Henry combined an actor's flair with a preacher's fervor," writes Henry Mayer in his biography of Henry, A Son of Thunder. "[A]nd he evoked a rapport with ordinary folks that changed the face of Virginia's – and later, America's – politics."
Less than a month after the speech, the "shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington, Mass. Thanks in no small part to Henry, the Virginians had a militia organized and stood ready to lead the colonies in the fight for independence.
Because of Henry's speech, St. John's Church (now located within the City of Richmond) is today a National Historic Landmark and a treasured symbol of the birth of American liberty. And as Henrico Parish – like Henrico County – marks its 400th anniversary this year, St. John's will welcome an estimated 40,000 visitors into the church to view the hallowed site of Henry's address to the Second Virginia Convention.
Guests who are fortunate enough to visit during one of the popular re-enactment programs will have the opportunity to hear the immortal words spoken as Patrick Henry might have spoken them, and to experience for themselves the electrifying effect that Henry had on the crowd in 1775 – an effect that ranks the "Liberty or Death" speech No. 3 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant events in Henrico's 400-year history.
Preaching to the choir
Patrick Henry developed his oratorical skills at a young age, and in an unlikely venue: atop the driver's seat of a carriage.
As a teenager, Henry drove his mother and sisters in the carriage to Polegreen Church, where they heard the preaching of the gifted orator Samuel Davies.
On the long carriage rides back from Polegreen, Henry's mother – a devout follower of Reverend Davies – would demand that young Patrick repeat the substance of his sermons. Henry studied Davies' rhetoric intently and adopted much of his style; years later, he told his biographer that Davies was the greatest speaker he had ever heard and
that Davies had taught him what it was to be an orator.
After he became a lawyer, Henry began earning a reputation not only for oratory, but also for his resistance to British rule. Elected to the House of Burgesses in 1765, he led the opposition to the Stamp Act and proposed Virginia's Stamp Act Resolutions.
Author and scholar Jon Kukla, who is working on a book about Henry and the revolution, points out that Patrick Henry was denouncing the king as a tyrant at least a decade before the likes of Adams, Jefferson or even Thomas Paine had spoken out publicly.
"Without Henry’s leadership in Virginia," says Kukla, "the American colonies would not have united in opposition to the Stamp Act."
‘Let me be buried’
As preparations for the Second Virginia Convention got underway in 1775, tensions between Virginia and Great Britain were worsening, and delegates decided to move the meeting from Williamsburg to the Henrico Parish Church to avoid interference from Governor Dunmore.
Henry presented resolutions to mobilize for military action, but the more cautious House members preferred a wait-and-see attitude. After listening to a number of arguments for delay, Henry took the floor seeking to dispel any notion that the colonists could still achieve peace through submission to the crown.
The war had already begun, Henry told his audience, which included such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee.
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” he concluded. "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
According to accounts of the event, the speech initially met with stunned silence. But William Wirt, who wrote the first biography of Henry, notes that the speech was also followed by cries of, "To arms! To arms!"
It was Wirt who collected oral testimony from convention eyewitnesses and reconstructed the speech as we know it today. But because Wirt's biography was published in 1817, some historians have expressed doubt about the speech's accuracy.
While Kukla acknowledges that there was no stenographer present to transcribe the speech, he points out that the ideas expressed are clearly in line with thoughts and opinions that Henry had voiced before.
What's more, says Kukla, "People in that time had a much better capacity to memorize and retain speeches like that." Listeners were deeply affected by the speech as well, and therefore more likely to take the words to heart or commit them to memory.
"On the whole," says Kukla, "I'm one of the historians inclined to regard it as a good approximation. That's as close as you're going to get in an era that didn't have tape recorders."
Among the deeply affected listeners was a young delegate named Edward Carrington, who was unable to get a seat inside the church due to the multitudes that flocked to St. John's and surrounded the building hoping to hear the debate. Carrington maneuvered his way to an open window, however, and was able to hear Henry's declaration.
As the closing words rang out, Carrington was so overcome with emotion that he exclaimed, "Let me be buried at this spot!"
After his death in 1810, Carrington's family adhered to his wish.
"That tells us," Kukla says, "how much impact the speech had."
The first American?
Centuries before the advent of television, "liberty or death" quickly became the sound bite of its era. The phrase was immensely popular, says Kukla, and even was adopted as a motto by militiamen in Culpeper, who inscribed it on their flag along with the "Don't Tread on Me" rattlesnake.
In modern times, the phrase has served as a mantra for revolutionary movements in countries around the globe; in 1989, for example, it was displayed by Chinese students on a bed sheet in Tiananmen Square.
In the immediate aftermath of the speech, Henry's remarks predicting that the "next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms" turned out to be remarkably prescient. Within the month, Great Britain moved to disarm the rebellious colonists, conducting raids on powder magazines in Massachusetts and, three days later, in Virginia.
Kukla does not find it at all surprising that Henry predicted the conflict in Lexington. "He very frequently, at these critical times, had his finger on the pulse of events," says Kukla, citing the Stamp Act speech and Henry's earlier Parson's Cause speech.
When Henry responded to Lord Dunmore's raid on the Williamsburg magazine by leading a force of 500 militia to reclaim the powder, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation declaring that “Patrick Henry . . . and his deluded Followers” were outlaws and rebels.
While Patrick Henry enjoyed many distinctions, Kukla likes to point out that Dunmore's proclamation conferred an honor that often goes unrecognized: Henry was the first American formally accused of rebellion. In other words, says Kukla, we can in one sense consider Henry the first American.
It would be another year, notes Kukla, before the Second Continental Congress would reach a unanimous vote for independence. But the war actually began that summer of 1775, with the uprisings at Bunker Hill. And the resistance, says Kukla, had begun well before that – with Patrick Henry and Virginia at the thrust of it.
If not for the support of leaders such as Henry, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765, the northern colonies could not have held on during the pre-revolution decade, says Kukla. The British could have easily isolated New England, he believes, and stopped the revolution in its tracks.
"Patrick Henry stood at the heart of the American resistance to king and parliament that gave birth to the American Revolution," says Kukla.
And Henry's speech, which Kukla calls "a pivotal moment in the transition from peaceful resistance to the Revolutionary War," did not merely inspire a single revolution or war for independence. As indicated on the St. John's Church Foundation website, the "liberty or death" legacy continues to inspire revolutionary movements in far-flung places and modern times.
"[Henry's] phrase," the website notes, "remains as recognizable today as 'I have a dream' or 'Four score and seven years ago.'"
Holman Middle School student Victoria Nguyen recently was named Miss Virginia American Coed Junior Teen after competing in the Miss Virginia American Coed pageant in Williamsburg. She was the youngest competitor in her division. Nguyen now will advance to represent Virginia at the 2015 Miss American Junior Teen Pageant at Walt Disney World in Florida in November. > Read more.
Companion Extraordinaire Home Care and Skilled Services will be honoring veterans and current military members May 14 at 11 a.m. The event will take place at 5311 Lakeside Avenue.
Companion Extraordinaire dedicated a hall in its new Lakeside office as a “Wall of Honor” and will be presenting 13 military service men and women with certificates as well as placing their service photos on the wall.
> Read more.
Public vote open through Friday to select winner
Citizen Staff Reports
Henrico resident Haley Malloy is one of three national finalists for a $10,000 scholarship, whose winner will be determined by the vote of the public.
Malloy is a finalist for The Goddard School Anthony A. Martino Scholarship, which is open annually to any high school junior or senior who graduated from a Goddard School pre-kindergarten or kindergarten program. Applicants are evaluated based upon the work ethic and perseverance they have demonstrated – two key characteristics of Martino, the founder of the Goddard School franchise system. > Read more.
Relax this holiday weekend with Fridays Uncorked at Southern Season – taste wines from the Roman Empire! Or at James River Cellars who is hosting “Experience Virginia” – sample Virginia wine, beer, cider and mead. And what goes better with wine than strawberries – an annual tradition in Varina, the Gallmeyer Farms’ Strawberry Fields Festival is tomorrow. Other fun happenings this weekend include: “A Little Princess” at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen; weekly dance at American Legion Post 125; and National Theatre Live’s “Man and Superman” at the University of Richmond. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Final performance of 2015 season – ‘Quartet’ – starts this week
CAT Theatre’s final show of its 51st season – Quartet by Ronald Harwood – will open May 22 and run through June 6. It will be the show’s Richmond-area premiere.
The theatre also announced its four-show schedule for its 52nd season, which will begin in October and continue into June 2016, and announced a new partnership with The Bifocals Theatre Project, an outreach program into senior communities in the Richmond region. > Read more.
It’s a beautiful weekend to spend outdoors and Henrico has many options to choose from! The 31st annual Lebanese Food Festival begins today on the grounds of St. Anthony’s Maronite Catholic Church. The MISS Foundation’s Kindness Walk is tomorrow, as well as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Great Strides Walk. Take a Sunday Stroll at Dorey Park with the Pocahontas Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society or raise money for the March of Dimes at the March for Babies in Innsbrook. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
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