I’m writing this post because I was personally curious about Patrick Henry. He’s famously known for saying “give me liberty or give me death”, but I know little else about him. Did he contribute in other ways to the founding? Was he involved in the politics? Is the only significant thing to know about him that he said a famous quote?
Patrick Henry: Lawyer
Henry was born in Virginia, in 1736, one of nine children. He tried out many different professions before finally becoming a lawyer. It’s during his legal career that he contributed to the country in one of the significant ways during a legal case now known as “Parson’s Cause”. In fact, some people see it as the single most important event leading up to the revolution.
In 1763, Virginia experienced a drought. The drought, among other problems, forced the Virginia House of Burgesses to change the way the Anglican ministers’ (Church of England) were paid. They were no longer paid with tobacco but with money. They’d been paid an annual salary in tobacco, but the drought caused a shortage of tobacco, causing the change. “Specifically, a clergyman could expect two pence for every pound of the crop that he normally brought home. Because the price of tobacco now exceeded two pence per pound, the new salary amounted to a pay cut.” (mentalfloss).
The Anglican clergy, perturbed at their pay cut, appealed to King George III in Great Britain. The King overturned the Virginia law and then encouraged the clergy to sue for pay back.
One such clergyman did sue and the lawyer representing the United States in the case was none other than Patrick Henry. In this case, Henry passionately argued that the King had violated American rights by overturning American law. The King had far overstepped his boundaries.
He said, “a King by annulling or disallowing acts of so salutary a nature, from being Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.”
He succeeded in convincing the jury and judge to award the disgruntled clergyman one penny and set the stage for Americans to internalize the realization that Britain was overstepping by nullifying American laws. So, yes, Henry did contribute to the country in more ways than a rousing, albeit important, speech.
Patrick Henry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death
So, there is no conclusive evidence that Henry ever said this phrase. He didn’t write down his speeches and it wasn’t until a biography of him was published in 1817 that he is quoted saying it. William Wirt, the author of his biography, claims to have interviewed many people who were in the church the day he spoke. Wirt claims he was able to compile an accurate rendition of Henry’s speech. No one knows for sure, but it is likely Henry did say something similar to what we are accustomed to hearing.
Here’s a little context for the speech. Henry, and many other American patriots, came together in 1775, in a church building, to discuss what was to be done about the growing British oppression. Henry is said to have responded with an impassioned plea. He concluded by saying the following:
“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 in 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!”
History says that Henry was known for his powerful and arousing speeches that connected with audiences both intellectually and emotionally. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were in that church the day Henry spoke. Who knows what they were planning to do before hearing him, but it is clear what they did after hearing him. I’d suggest reading his whole speech here; in many ways, it speaks to us today.
Patrick Henry: The Anti-Federalist
Henry went on to be governor of Virginia for many years. He helped write the Virginia Constitution and helped fight in the Revolutionary War. After the war was won, Henry fought hard against the adoption of the new Constitution. He felt that it gave the federal government far too much power and would end in a monarchy like Great Britain. He argued vehemently against its ratification by the Virginia legislature in 1788, but ultimately failed, as Virginia went on to ratify the new Constitution.
He, along with his fellow anti-federalists, did succeed in convincing the federalists to include a Bill of Rights. The balance that the anti-federalists brought to the federalists cannot be understated.
As time progressed however, Patrick Henry ended up siding with the federalists. He died in 1799 of stomach cancer, directly after running and winning a seat in the Virginia State Legislature, as a federalist. I don’t know all that caused this change, but for one of its most impassioned opponents to eventually come to its defense speaks to the importance and value of the Constitution.
I like to end these articles with quotes by the founders I am discussing. Sometimes, there’s no better way to learn than simply reading what these individuals actually said.
Henry, unashamed to speak his mind, said:
“Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason toward my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”
“Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty?”
“The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun.”
“It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.”
And last, and perhaps most important, he said:
“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
Yes friends, we must pick it up again and use it to restrain the government because government has come to dominate our lives and interests.
The Liberty Belle