‘Liberty or death’ rallied colonists to war

Re-enactments of Patrick Henry’s famous speech take place at St. John’s Church on Sundays during the summer, as well as in March, near the anniversary of the speech.

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.'"
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