March 23, 2010

Give me liberty or give me Death!

In a moment of patriotic passion, Patrick Henry shouted to the assembly at St. John's Church in Richmond, "Give me liberty or give me Death!" The speech was given on March 23, 1775 at a court hearing to decide if the commonwealth of Virginia would send its troops into the Revolutionary War. Or, so they say.

In fact, no one recorded Henry's speech that day, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both of whom were supposedly in attendance. The first time it appeared in print was 1816, a full seventeen years after Henry's death, in a biography by William Wirt.

Wirt struggled with his book, Life and Character of Patrick Henry. He complained to a friend, "not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech." Even Jefferson admitted he didn't remember it. "I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself, when he ceased, 'What the devil has he said?' and could never answer the inquiry."

So, for the March 23, 1775 speech, Wirt turned to a witness named St. George Tucker. Wirt let Tucker know the responsibility he wielded, admitting he was taking his testimony "verbatim." According to the reconstructed scene, Henry claimed that "our chains are forged" because of the British military's actions in Boston; war was inevitable and "there is no peace." Wirt's book goes on in the voice of Henry:

'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!"'

He took his seat. No murmur of applause was heard. The effect was too deep. After the trance of a moment, several members started from their seats. The cry, "to arms!" seemed to quiver on every lip, and gleam from every eye... That supernatural voice still sounded in their ears, and shivered along their arteries. They heard, in
every pause, the cry of liberty or death. They became impatient of speech — their souls were on fire for action.

Tucker must have had a fantastic memory to have recalled a 1200-word speech with such specificity... or Wirt just made it all up. Other than Tucker's claim, there is no evidence whatsoever that Patrick Henry said these words.

*The image above depicts an earlier speech by Patrick Henry  in which he spoke out against the Stamp Act of 1765, as painted by Peter F. Rothermel in 1851. In that speech, Henry said, "If this be treason, make the most of it!"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.