On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a memorable speech to the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, closing with the often-quoted demand, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Born on May 29, 1736, Patrick Henry was an American attorney, planter, and orator. A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786. Henry’s speech is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The speech was not published until the Port Folio printed a version of it in 1816. The version of the speech that is known today first appeared in print in Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a biography written by William Wirt in 1817. There is debate among historians as to whether, and to what extent, Henry or Wirt should be credited with authorship of the speech and its famous closing words.
Henry was born on the family farm, Studley, in Hanover County in the Colony of Virginia, on May 29, 1736. His father was John Henry, an immigrant from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, who had attended King’s College there before emigrating to Virginia in the 1720s. Settling in Hanover County in about 1732, John Henry married Sarah Winston Syme, a wealthy widow from a prominent local family of English ancestry.
Patrick Henry shared his name with his uncle, an Anglican minister, and until the elder Patrick’s death in 1777 often went as Patrick Henry Jr. Henry attended a local school until about the age of 10. There was then no academy in Hanover County, and he was tutored at home by his father. The young Henry engaged in the typical recreations of the times, such as music and dancing, and was particularly fond of hunting. Since the family’s lands and slaves would for the most part pass to his older half-brother John Syme Jr., Henry needed to make his own way in the world. At the age of 15, he became a clerk for a local merchant, and a year later opened a store with his older brother William. The store was not successful.
The religious revival known as the Great Awakening reached Virginia when Henry was a child. His father was staunchly Anglican, but his mother often took him to hear Presbyterian preachers. Although Henry remained a lifelong Anglican communicant, ministers such as Samuel Davies taught him that it is not enough to save one’s own soul, but one should help to save society. He also learned that oratory should reach the heart, not just persuade based on reason. His oratorical technique would follow that of these preachers, seeking to reach the people by speaking to them in their own language.
Religion would play a key part in Henry’s life; his father and namesake uncle were both devout and were both major influences in his life. Nevertheless, he was uncomfortable with the role of the Anglican Church as the established religion in Virginia, and fought for religious liberty throughout his career. Henry wrote to a group of Baptists who had sent a letter of congratulations following Henry’s 1776 election as governor, “My earnest wish is, that Christian charity, forbearance and love may unite all different persuasions as brethren.” He criticized his state of Virginia, feeling that slavery and lack of religious toleration had retarded its development. He told the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, “That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”
In 1754, Henry married Sarah Shelton, reportedly in the parlor of her family house, Rural Plains (also known as Shelton House.) As a wedding gift, her father gave the couple six slaves and the 300-acre (1.2 km²) Pine Slash Farm near Mechanicsville. Pine Slash was exhausted from earlier cultivations, and Henry worked with the slaves to clear fresh fields. The latter half of the 1750s were years of drought in Virginia, and after the main house burned down, Henry gave up and moved to the Hanover Tavern, owned by Sarah’s father.
Henry often served as host at Hanover Tavern as part of his duties, and entertained the guests by playing the fiddle. Among those who stayed there during this time was the young Thomas Jefferson, aged 17, en route to his studies at the College of William and Mary, and who later wrote that he became well acquainted with Henry then, despite their age difference of six years. Jefferson in 1824 told Daniel Webster, “Patrick Henry was originally a bar-keeper”, a characterization that Henry’s biographers have found to be unfair; that his position was more general than that, and that the main business of Hanover Tavern was serving travelers, not alcohol. William Wirt, Henry’s earliest biographer, rejected Jefferson’s suggestion that Henry’s profession then was a bartender, but noted it would have been “very natural in Mr. Henry’s situation” to do what was necessary to ensure that guests were properly seen to.
While at Hanover Tavern, Henry found time to study the law. How long he did so is unclear; he later stated that it was as little as a month. On the advice of a local lawyer, Henry in 1760 applied for a lawyer’s license, appearing before the examiners—prominent attorneys in the colonial capital of Williamsburg. The examiners were impressed by Henry’s mind even though his knowledge of legal procedures was scant. He passed in April 1760, and he thereafter opened a practice, appearing in the courts of Hanover and nearby counties.
The droughts of the 1750s had led to a rise in the price of tobacco. Hard currency was scarce in Virginia, and salaries in the colony were often expressed in terms of pounds of tobacco. Prior to the drought, the price of tobacco had long been twopence per pound (0.45 kilograms) and in 1755 and 1758, the Virginia House of Burgesses, the elected lower house of the colonial legislature, passed Two Penny Acts, allowing debts expressed in tobacco to be paid at the rate of twopence per pound for a limited period. These payees included public officials, including Anglican clergy — Anglicanism was then Virginia’s established church, and several ministers petitioned the Board of Trade in London to overrule the Burgesses, which it did. Five clergymen then brought suit for back pay, cases known as the Parson’s Cause; of them, only the Reverend James Maury was successful, and a jury was to be empaneled in Hanover County on December 1, 1763 to fix damages. Henry was engaged as counsel by Maury’s parish vestry for this hearing. Patrick Henry’s father, Colonel John Henry, was the presiding judge.
After the evidence was presented proving the facts at issue, Maury’s counsel gave a speech in praise of the clergy, many of whom were in attendance. Henry responded with a one-hour speech, ignoring the question of damages, but which focused on the unconstitutionality of the veto of the Two Penny Act by the king’s government. Henry deemed any king who annulled good laws, such as the Two Penny Act, as a “tyrant” who “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience”, and the clergy, by challenging an impartial law designed to bring economic relief, had shown themselves to be “enemies of the community”. The opposing counsel accused Henry of treason, and some took up that cry, but Henry continued, and the judge did nothing to stop him. Henry urged the jury to make an example of Maury, for the benefit of any who might seek to imitate him, and suggested the jury return damages of one farthing. The jury was out for only moments, and fixed damages at one penny. Henry was hailed as a hero. According to biographer Henry Mayer, Henry had “defined the prerogatives of the local elite by the unorthodox means of mobilizing the emotions of the lower ranks of religious and political outsiders.” Henry’s popularity greatly increased, and he added 164 new clients in the year after the Parson’s Cause.
In the wake of the Parson’s Cause, Henry began to gain a following in backwoods Virginia, because of his oratory defending the liberties of the common people, and thanks to his friendly manner. He boosted his standing further in 1764 by representing Nathaniel West Dandridge, elected for Hanover County, in an election contest before the Burgesses. Dandridge was alleged to have bribed voters with drink, a practice common but illegal. Henry is said to have made a brilliant speech in defense of the rights of voters, but the text does not survive. Henry lost the case, but met influential members on the Committee of Privileges and Elections, such as Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph and George Wythe. In 1765, William Johnson, the brother of Thomas Johnson (who had been one of Henry’s clients in the Parson’s Cause), resigned as burgess for Louisa County. As Henry owned land in the county (acquired from his father to settle a loan), he was eligible to be a candidate, and he won the seat in May 1765. He left immediately for Williamsburg as the session had already begun.
The expense of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) had nearly doubled Britain’s national debt, and as much of the war had taken place in and around North America, the British government looked for ways of directly taxing the American colonies. The 1765 Stamp Act was both a means of raising revenue and one of asserting authority over the colonies. The Burgesses instructed their agent in London, Edward Montague, to oppose the measure, and other colonial legislatures similarly instructed their representatives. Considerable debate began over the proposed measure, and in Virginia pamphleteers developed arguments Henry had made in the Parson’s Cause.
Patrick Henry was sworn into a sleepy session of the legislature on May 20; many of the members had left town. On about May 28, a ship arrived with an urgent letter from Montague: the Stamp Act had passed. On May 29, Henry introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolves. The first two resolutions affirmed that the colonists had the same rights and privileges as Britons; the next two stated that taxation should be exacted only by one’s representatives. The fifth was the most provocative, as it named the Virginia legislature, the General Assembly, as the representatives of Virginia empowered to tax. Two other resolutions were offered, though their authorship is uncertain. Edmund and Helen Morgan, in their account of the Stamp Act crisis, suggested that Henry acted as he saw the Stamp Act as both a threat to Virginians’ rights, and an opportunity to advance himself politically.
There are no verbatim transcriptions of Henry’s speech in opposition to the Stamp Act. Texts are reconstructions, for the most part based on recollections decades later by which time both the speech and Henry had become famous. For example, Jefferson, still in his studies at the nearby College of William and Mary, recalled the splendor of Henry’s oratory. No attempt was made to reconstruct Henry’s words until 1790, when James Madison wrote to former burgess Edmund Pendleton, but Madison learned that Pendleton had not been present; a second attempt did not occur until Wirt began work on his biography of Henry in 1805. A French traveler, whose name is not known, and whose journal was discovered in 1921, recorded at the time of Henry’s speech that “one of the members stood up and said that he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up, in favour of his country”. As Henry had seemingly called for the killing of King George III, there were cries of “Treason!” in the chamber, including by the Speaker, John Robinson. John Tyler Sr. (father of the future president), who was standing with Jefferson as they watched the session, called this one of “the trying moments which is decisive of character”, and both recalled that Henry did not waver: “If this be treason, make the most of it!”.
The Burgesses adopted the first five resolutions — the two others, which denied the right of any other body but the General Assembly to tax Virginians, and which branded anyone who stated that Parliament had that right an enemy of the colony, were not passed. According to the Morgans, the passed resolutions differed little from language in petitions sent by the Burgesses to London in 1764, and the opposition to Henry may have been in part because he was an upstart in Virginia politics. On May 31, with Henry absent and likely returning home, the Burgesses expunged the fifth resolution, and the Royal Governor, Francis Fauquier, refused to allow any of them to be printed in the official newspaper, the Virginia Gazette. With the official texts of the passed resolutions denied them, newspapers in the colonies and in Britain printed all seven resolutions, all of them presented as the resolves of the influential Colony of Virginia. The resolutions, more radical as a group than what was actually passed, reached Britain by mid-August, the first American reaction to the passage of the Stamp Act. In North America, they galvanized opposition to the Stamp Act, and made Virginia the leader in opposition to Parliament’s action. According to Thad Tate in Henry’s American National Biography article, “Not only in Virginia but across the mainland British colonies, Henry quickly established his reputation as an uncompromising opponent of imperial policy.” The Morgans noted, “In Virginia the Stamp Act provided the opportunity for Patrick Henry’s spectacular entry into politics”.
Fauquier dissolved the Burgesses on June 1, 1765, hoping new elections would purge the radicals, but this proved not to be the case, as conservative leaders were instead voted out. The governor did not call the Burgesses into session until November 1766, by which time the Stamp Act had been repealed by Parliament, preventing Virginia from sending delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York. Henry’s role in the active resistance that took place in Virginia against the Stamp Act is uncertain. Although the lack of a legislative session sidelined Henry during the crisis, it also undermined the established leaders of the chamber, who remained scattered through the colony with little opportunity to confer, as the public rage for change grew hotter.
When the Burgesses eventually convened, Henry sometimes opposed the colonial leaders, but united with them against British policies. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Henry spent more time concentrating on his personal affairs, though he advanced in standing within the Burgesses, serving on powerful committees. The Henry family moved to a new house on his Louisa County property, probably in late 1765, and lived there until 1769, when he returned to Hanover County. His law practice remained strong until the courts under royal authority closed in 1774. Jefferson later complained that Henry was lazy and ignorant in the practice of the law, his sole talent trying cases before juries, and accused Henry of charging criminal defendants high fees to get them acquitted. Norine Dickson Campbell, in her biography of Henry, found Jefferson’s comments unfounded; that Henry’s rates were moderate for the time, and cited earlier historians as to Henry’s competence. Jefferson’s comments came years after the two, once friends, quarreled. In 1769, Henry was admitted to practice before the General Court of Virginia in Williamsburg, a venue more prestigious than the county courts.
Henry invested some of his earnings in frontier lands, in what is now the western part of Virginia, as well as in present-day West Virginia and Kentucky. He claimed ownership though many of them were controlled by the Native Americans, and sought to get the colonial (and, later, state) government to recognize his claims. This was common among Virginia’s leading citizens, such as George Washington. Henry foresaw the potential of the Ohio Valley and was involved in schemes to found settlements. Income from land deals in 1771 enabled him to buy Scotchtown, a large plantation in Hanover County, which he purchased from John Payne, the father of Dolley Madison—she lived there for a brief time as a child. Scotchtown, with 16 rooms, was one of the largest mansions in Virginia.
Owning estates such as Henry’s meant owning slaves; Henry was a slaveholder from the time of his marriage at the age of 18. Despite this, Henry believed that slavery was wrong, and hoped for its abolition, but had no plan for doing so, nor for the multiracial society that would result, for he did not believe schemes to settle freed slaves in Africa were realistic, “to re-export them is now impracticable, and sorry I am for it.” He wrote in 1773, “I am the master of slaves of my own purchase. I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it.” The number of slaves he owned increased over time, and as a result of his second marriage in 1777, so that at his death in 1799, he owned 67 slaves. Henry and others sought to end their importation to Virginia, and succeeded in 1778. They assumed that in so doing, they were fighting slavery, but in the generation after independence, slave births greatly exceeded deaths, and Virginia became a source of slaves sold south in the coastwise slave trade.
In 1773, Henry came into conflict with the royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore. The governor, appointed in 1771, had sent British soldiers to Pittsylvania County to aid in apprehending a gang of counterfeiters. Once captured, they were immediately taken to Williamsburg for trial before the General Court, ignoring precedent that judicial proceedings should begin in the county where the offense took place, or where the suspect was captured. This was a sensitive matter especially because of the recent Gaspee affair in Rhode Island, in which the British sought to capture and transport overseas for trial those who had burned a British ship. The Burgesses wanted to rebuke Dunmore for his actions, and Henry was part of a committee of eight members, that drafted a resolution thanking the governor for the capture of the gang, but affirming that using the “usual mode” of criminal procedure protected both the guilty and the innocent. They also penned a plan, adopted by the Burgesses, for a committee of correspondence to communicate with leaders in other colonies, to inform and coordinate with each other. The members included Henry.
Although Henry had by this time come to believe that conflict with Great Britain, and independence, was inevitable, he had no strategy for advancing this. The Burgesses were sitting when in 1774, word came that Parliament had voted to close the port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, and several burgesses, including Henry, convened at the Raleigh Tavern to formulate a response. According to George Mason, a former burgess from Fairfax County, who joined the committee in the work, Henry took the lead. Mason and Henry would form a close political relationship that would last until Mason’s death in 1792. The resolution that Henry’s committee produced set June 1, 1774, the date upon which the Port of Boston was to be closed, as a day of fasting and prayer. It passed the Burgesses, but Dunmore dissolved the body. Undeterred, the former legislators met at the Raleigh Tavern, and reconstituted themselves as a convention, to meet again in August, after there was time for county meetings to show local sentiment. They also called for a boycott of tea and other products.
The five Virginia Conventions (1774–1776) would guide the Old Dominion to independence as royal authority came to an end. Their work was advanced by many resolutions of county meetings, denying the authority of Parliament over the colonies, and calling for a boycott of imports. The first convention met in Williamsburg in the chamber of the Burgesses beginning on August 1; Dunmore was absent from the capital fighting the Native Americans and could not interfere. Divided between those who wanted separation from Britain and those who still hoped for some accommodation, it met for a week; one major decision was the election of delegates to a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Henry was chosen as one of seven delegates, tying for second place with Washington, burgess for Fairfax County, both receiving three votes less than Randolph.
As Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, lay on the way from Scotchtown to Philadelphia, he invited Henry to stop there and to ride to Philadelphia with him, and Henry did, also accompanied by Pendleton, another Virginia delegate to the Congress and a political rival of Henry’s. Delegates and prominent Philadelphians took an intense interest in the Virginians, who had taken the lead in resistance to Britain, but whom few in the other colonies had met. This was Henry’s first stay in the North, excepting a brief business trip to New York in 1770 but he found that his actions were well known. The sessions began on September 5, 1774, at Carpenter’s Hall. Silas Deane of Connecticut described Henry as “the compleatest speaker I ever heard … but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his Voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his Stile, or Manner”. The secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, wrote that when Henry rose, he had expected little from a man dressed as plainly as a rural minister. “But as he proceeded, [he] evinced such [an] unusual force of argument, and such novel and impassioned eloquence as soon electrified the whole house. Then the excited inquiry passed from man to man … ‘Who is it? Who is it?’ The answer from the few who knew him was, it is Patrick Henry.”
Henry was involved in the first dispute within the Congress, on whether each colony should have an equal vote, taking the position that there should be proportionate representation, with the larger colonies to have a greater voice. He argued that colonial borders must be swept away in the need for Americans to unify and create a government to fill the void left with the end of British authority, “Fleets and armies and the present state of things shew that Government is dissolved. Where are your landmarks? your boundaries of colonies? The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Henry lost the argument, and his theatrics made Congress’s leaders afraid he would be unpredictable if placed on the lead committee, that charged with composing a statement regarding colonial rights. Instead, he was put on the next most important committee, one inquiring into commercial regulation. In the end, though, neither committee produced much of importance. Henry believed the purpose of the Congress should be to mobilize public opinion towards war. In this, he found common cause with John Adams and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, but not all were of that opinion. According to Tate, Henry “turned out not to be an especially influential member of the body”. The Congress decided on a petition to the King; Henry prepared two drafts but neither proved satisfactory. When Congress on October 26 approved a draft prepared by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who had consulted with Henry and also Richard Henry Lee, Henry had already departed for home, and Lee signed on his behalf. The petition was rejected in London.
After the birth of their sixth child in 1771, Patrick’s wife Sarah Henry began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness, and one reason for the move from Louisa County to Scotchtown was so they could be near family members. Henry’s biographer, Jon Kukla believed her to be the victim of postpartum psychosis, for which there was then no treatment. At times, she was restrained in a form of straitjacket. Although Virginia had opened the first public mental facility in North America in 1773, Henry decided that she was better off at Scotchtown, and prepared a large apartment for her there. She died in 1775, after which Henry avoided all objects that reminded him of her, and sold Scotchtown in 1777.
Hanover County elected Henry as a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention, which convened at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the town of Richmond on March 20, 1775. Richmond was selected as better protected from royal authority. The convention debated whether Virginia should adopt language from a petition by the planters of the Colony of Jamaica. This document contained complaints about British actions, but admitted the King could veto colonial legislation, and it urged reconciliation. Henry offered amendments to raise a militia independent of royal authority in terms that recognized that conflict with Britain was inevitable, sparking the opposition of moderates. He defended his amendments, concluding with the statement he is best known for:
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!
As he concluded, Henry plunged an ivory letter opener towards his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato the Younger. Henry’s speech carried the day, and the convention adopted his amendments. Still, they passed only narrowly, as many delegates were uncertain where the resistance urged by Henry and other radicals would lead, and few counties formed independent militia companies at the urging of the convention.
The text of Henry’s speech first appeared in print in Wirt’s 1817 biography, published 18 years after Patrick Henry’s death. Wirt corresponded with men who had heard the speech and others who were acquainted with people who were there at the time. All agreed that the speech had produced a profound effect, but it seems that only one person attempted to render an actual text. Judge St. George Tucker, who had been present for the speech, gave Wirt his recollections and Wirt wrote back stating that “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 your verbatim.” The original letter with Tucker’s remembrances has been lost.
For 160 years Wirt’s account was taken at face value. In the 1970s, historians began to question the authenticity of Wirt’s reconstruction. Contemporary historians observe that Henry was known to have used fear of Indian and slave revolts in promoting military action against the British and that, according to the only written first-hand account of the speech, Henry used some graphic name-calling that Wirt did not include in his heroic rendition. Tucker’s account was based upon recollections and not notes several decades after the speech; he wrote, “In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech”. Scholars have argued to what extent the speech we know is the work of Wirt or Tucker.
Whatever the exact words of Henry were, there can be no doubt of their impact. According to Edmund Randolph, the convention sat in silence for several minutes afterwards. Thomas Marshall told his son John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, that the speech was “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.” Edward Carrington, who was listening outside a window of the church, requested that he be buried on that spot. In 1810, he got his wish. The drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason, said, “Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention, and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.” More immediately, the resolution, declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain, passed, and Henry was named chairman of the committee assigned to build a militia. Britain’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, reacted by seizing the gunpowder in the public magazine at Williamsburg—Virginia’s equivalent of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Whatever the exact words of Henry were, “scholars, understandably, are troubled by the way Wirt brought into print Henry’s classic Liberty or Death speech,” wrote historian Bernard Mayo. “Yet . . . its expressions. . . seemed to have burned themselves into men’s memories. Certainly its spirit is that of the fiery orator who in 1775 so powerfully influenced Virginians and events leading to American independence.”
The American Credo (from the Latin for ‘”I believe. . .”) stamp series of 1960-1961, issued to underscore the ideals upon which the nation stands, features quotations from six heroes of the Republic. A poll of one hundred distinguished Americans, including leaders in public life, historians, and presidents of state universities, helped determine the included quotations. The featured individuals include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Frances Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln, and Patrick Henry.
The 4-cent Patrick Henry American Credo stamp (Scott #1144) was issued on January 11, 1961, in Richmond, Virginia. Printed in green and brown on the Giori press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the stamp features Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death!” quote along with a facsimile of his signature. Perforated at a gauge of 11, a total of 113,075,000 copies of the stamp were released.