The Speech: It May Not Be the One That Patrick Henry So Famously Made
by Jim Cox
In ’76 the sky was red,
Thunder rumbling overhead;
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn—
Old Uncle Sam was born.
Old Sam put on his three-cornered hat
And in a Richmond church he sat,
And Patrick Henry told him that
While America drew breath—
It was liberty or death!
“Ballad for Americans”
Earl Robinson and John LaTouche, 1939
Robinson and LaTouche were songwriters, not historians, so it’s understandable that they mistakenly place Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech in the wrong year. After all, ’76 and the American Revolution go together like composer and lyricist. The man called the “Voice of the Revolution” delivered what many think was our greatest political speech on March 23, 1775, a raw, wintry day, when the Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond’s Henrico Parish Church.
Patrick Henry, interpreted by Colonial Williamsburg’s Richard Schumann, thunders defiance in Richmond’s St. John’s Church. From left, interpreters Bill Aird, Jim Ebert, David Neilsen, and David Pondolfino.
Later called St. John’s, it is a spare, wooden frame building, with a pitched roof and a squat belfry, perched on a steep hill above Shockoe Creek. Into that undersized edifice, jamming every pew and alcove, riding its windowsills and blocking its doorway, squeezed 120 delegates and a couple of dozen spectators. They were gathered under the gavel of Peyton Randolph, speaker of the House of Burgesses and a prominent member of Virginia’s Tidewater aristocracy, to listen to Henry and other delegates debate such issues as the imposition of the Intolerable Acts and the arrival in the colonies of more British ships of war carrying more redcoats to enforce the king’s will. And what to do about it all.
Richmond was a sleepy village of about 600 souls, with tobacco warehouses, a smallish courthouse, and taverns to go around, but no building big enough to conduct the convention—and that included the Henrico Parish Church. So why Richmond instead of Williamsburg, the colony’s capital, with its spacious House of Burgesses? Why the crowd of delegates and spectators sloshing across the creek and climbing the hill to crowd into the too-small church? Because the village and its church were miles away from Williamsburg and the heavy-handed John Murray, earl of Dunmore and the governor of Virginia.
Patrick Henry, son of a prosperous Scottish immigrant turned land speculator, was born on May 29, 1736, at Studley, in Hanover County, about ten miles from Richmond. One of nine children, he had a meager formal education, but passed the interviews necessary to becoming a member of the bar and made his mark as an up-and-coming young barrister. More than that, the young attorney slid gracefully into politics and began applying his growing eloquence as a speaker with such effect that, by common consent, the founding fathers who heard him, many of them accomplished speakers, too, would refer to him as the foremost orator of the period.
Now, after two days spent approving the work of the recent Continental Congress in Philadelphia and discussing the latest news from Boston, where General Gage was expected to strike a blow against the provincials at any moment, the delegates to the Virginia Convention stirred expectantly as Henry, tall and angular, with a riveting gaze, rose to introduce three resolutions. The wonder is that he was there at all.
His first wife, Sarah Shelton—he called her Sallie—had had a nervous breakdown and died a few weeks before, leaving Henry, as he described himself to the family physician, “a distraught old man.” But he had been preparing for the convention, and he met the moment head-on. Virginia, his resolutions said, must be put into a posture of defense, with a plan for developing and arming a “well-regulated militia.”
Why so urgent a need for a militia? Because, he said, “a well-regulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would forever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us for the purpose of our defense any standing army of mercenary forces, always subversive of the quiet and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.” Besides, Governor Dunmore’s refusal to assemble the House of Burgesses had left Virginia “too insecure in this time of danger and distress.”
Henry, the “Voice of the Revolution,” strikes at his heart with a paper cutter as he demands liberty or death. The reconstructed speech didn’t appear until 1817 in William Wirt’s biography.
Richard Henry Lee seconded Henry’s motion, and Thomas Jefferson rose in support. But Peyton Randolph, elderly Richard Bland, and others from the cautious corner resisted it, repeating arguments polished at the Philadelphia convention that the time to arm and act had not yet arrived. Jurist Edmund Pendleton said that Britain, instead of repealing the Intolerable Acts or attempting to execute them by force, would test the endurance of the colonies in a long, drawn-out commercial struggle. He and the other conservatives said that Henry’s motion pushed too far and that “fortitude would be our best defense.”
But “fortitude” suggests “patience,” and Henry’s had run out. He rose to defend his motion by delivering a sermon on “the illusions of hope.” As was his custom, he spoke without notes—none have been found—and gave perhaps the most masterful political speech in American history.
There are no videotapes or films of that day, no audio recordings, not even a stenographer’s record of Henry’s words. We have nothing to guide us but the memories, years removed from the time, of those who were there. As a result, there is a debate in scholarly circles over whether Henry uttered the words attributed him. We can take up that matter later. For now, let us revisit the scene of Henry’s great triumph through those memories. Here is a fair reconstruction of the scene that day in the Henrico Parish Church, as borrowed or adapted from accepted accounts.
His voice was calm when he started. He reasoned with his colleagues, telling them, “It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren until she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?”
Calmly, he reviewed the course of the dispute with Great Britain and condemned the rising tone of violence and arrogance with which the colonial petitions and remonstrances had been greeted. Now a “martial array” was dispatched to force them into submission. He railed against the British military buildup, “those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?
“Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation . . . sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.”
A pause as he looked around. “Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable. Let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come! . . . If we wish to be free, 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.”
Calm again, Henry sneered at the idea that the colonies were too weak to face the power of Great Britain. “When shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction . . . lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?”
Now his voice crackled.
“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 the gentlemen wish? What would they have?”
To one listener, the words sounded “as the doom of Fate.” A Baptist parson who was there recalled the speech’s beginning in a smolder and ending in a blaze: “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock. . . . Finally his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men . . . strained forward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker’s. . . . When he sat down, I felt sick with excitement.”
Memorable oratory is much more than words. Watch Henry now as he slumps into an attitude of helplessness, head bowed and wrists crossed as if they were manacled.
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He pauses, then flings his arms with an anguished prayer heavenward: “Forbid it, Almighty God!”
Slowly, he lets his straining arms drop to his side. His gaze glides over the taut faces of his listeners, and in a soft voice that cuts like steel, he says, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me—” He stands as still as a statue as his right hand curls around the handle of a paper cutter—“but as for me, give me liberty—or give me death!”
With the word “death,” the paper cutter plunges toward his breast—in imagination, into the heart of a patriot; in emotional response, into the consciousness of a dumbstruck audience; and, ultimately, in historical memory, into the annals of a nation.
The convention sat in stunned silence. Henry had not whipped them into a military frenzy but, with evangelical ardor, had presented them with “a question of awful moment.” Many of them, educated in the classics, thought of Cato, the embodiment of Roman virtue, who accepted martyrdom rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar. Others, like Edmund Randolph, said Henry had spoken “as man was never known to speak before.” In the hush that followed the dagger’s plunge, Colonel Edward Carrington, an ardent young Cumberland County delegate, slid to the ground from his ringside seat on the sill of the church’s east window and said, “Let me be buried at this spot.” In 1810, his wife saw to it that he was.
It was all exquisitely dramatic, a wonderfully satisfying moment in American history. Henry’s motion passed by five votes, and Virginia prepared to defend itself.
But are those the words Henry really said?
The speech first appeared in print in 1817 with the publication of the first biography of the “Forest-born Demosthenes,” Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, by William Wirt, a Richmond lawyer and writer, soon to become attorney general of the United States. The book was immensely popular, but it was a romanticized, exaggerated, one-sided story. Wirt’s report of Henry’s speech has been tarred with pretty much the same brush. No one accused Wirt of fashioning it from whole cloth, but there was, and perhaps still is, a feeling that the fabric had been stretched.
In Wirt’s defense, it must be said that getting factual information on a speech that by its nature dissipated when it hit the air and left behind no physical trace was no easy assignment. In the custom of the day, only sermons were published. Williamsburg’s St. George Tucker, a federal judge, told Wirt that no stenographer attended the Virginia Assembly. Still, Wirt did what he could.
For twelve years he collected materials for his Sketches, and still he could not document significant parts of it. He tapped the recollections of those who had known the orator, some of whom had heard the speech, and reported their recollections in the third person. Or, as historian Richard Beale Davis put it, Wirt molded his memoir “from bits and pieces of myths and memories.”
In the Tucker House, Colonial Williamsburg’s Bill Weldon portrays St. George Tucker. Among Wirt’s many sources, Tucker’s recollection of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech was central.
Jefferson was a big help, but Wirt struck gold with his friend Judge Tucker. The greater part of the speech as Wirt reported it came from Tucker. The judge’s memory of the oration was contained in a letter to Wirt of eleven foolscap pages, which was in the possession of the judge’s grandson, Henry St. George Tucker, in 1905, when it was lost. After finishing ninety-six pages of the manuscript, Wirt told Tucker in a letter of August 16, 1815, “I can tell you I have made free use of you in this work. . . . I have taken almost entirely, Mr. Henry’s speech in the convention of ’75 from you, as well as your description of its effect on you verbatim.”
Computer analysis corroborates Tucker’s authorship. A doctoral dissertation on the work by Steven Taylor Olsen compares fifteen linguistic-stylistic features of the “Liberty or Death” speech with writings by Henry, Wirt, and Tucker and finds Tucker the hands-down winner.
All this insulates Wirt from serious suspicion that he manufactured the speech. It does not, of course, prove that what Patrick Henry said had been tucked away in Tucker’s memory. But that memory does seem to have come fairly close to the mark, for Wirt saw to it that several dignitaries who had been at the church—Jefferson, for one—had a shot at the judge’s rendering, and they did not quibble with it. Furthermore, as David A. McCants, professor of communication at Indiana University–Purdue University at Fort Wayne, said in the Virginia Magazine of October 1979, “Wirt was justified in placing great confidence in Tucker’s reliability as a reporter. Tucker heard the speech as an impressionable youth who was without partisan political commitments . . . and his personal opinions towards Henry as a public leader and orator indicate that his judgments were not quick, nor static, nor the result of hero-worship.” Wirt testified that his confidence in Tucker’s report was bolstered by the similarities of Edmund Randolph’s less detailed account in the introduction to his History of Virginia.
McCants notes that publications of the speech in biographies and anthologies have recast the report in direct voice, dropping the quotation marks and references to Wirt’s sources that appear in the original. As a result, he said, “generations have been deceived into believing in the literalness” of the speech. “Efforts to authenticate the ‘Liberty or Death’ speech, then, are efforts to authenticate a speech report, not a speech text.”
At this point, the reader could be forgiven for wondering whose speech we’re talking about. The last word of a sort could come from William Safire in his Lend Me Your Ears, a collection of speeches that includes “Liberty or Death”—without quotation marks. “My own judgment,” Safire writes, “is that Patrick Henry made a rousing speech that day . . . and that a generation later . . . Judge Tucker recalled what he could and made up the rest. If that is so, Judge Tucker belongs among the ranks of history’s best ghostwriters.”
Pennsylvania-based Jim Cox contributed “The Man Who Moved Independence,” a story about Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, to the autumn 2002 journal.
“Their souls were on fire for action”
A portion of William Wirt’s report of Henry’s speech, as Wirt got it from St. George Tucker:
“Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we any thing new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find, which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done every thing that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned—we have remonstrated—we have supplicated—we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; 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. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon, until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—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!
“They tell us, sir,” continued Mr. Henry, “that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed; and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our back, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us, hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. 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,” cried he, with both his arms extended aloft, his brows knit, every feature marked with the resolute purpose of his soul, and his voice swelled to its boldest note of exclamation—“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! Richard H. Lee arose and supported Mr. Henry, with his usual spirit and elegance. But his melody was lost amidst the agitations of that ocean, which the master spirit of the storm had lifted up on high. 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.
Richard Schuman interprets the character of Patrick Henry for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Listen to his re-creation of Patrick Henry's powerful speech.