Give me liberty, or give me death!

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"Give me liberty, or give me death!" is a quotation attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Virginia Convention in 1775, at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, he is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

History[edit]

The text of this speech first appeared in print in "Life and Character of Patrick Henry" by William Wirt which was first published in 1816, seventeen years after Patrick Henry's death. In 1815, Wirt wrote to a friend, "from 1763 to 1789... 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".[1] 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 tried 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. [2]

Tucker's account was based upon recollections and not notes several decades after the speech. Tucker attempted a reconstruction of only the first two paragraphs of the speech. Tucker wrote, "In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech".[3] Scholars have argued whether the speech we know is primarily the work of Wirt or Tucker [4] but the speech published by Wirt in 1816 ends with:

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!

Ear-witnesses to Henry's hypnotic orations remarked that while they always seemed to be convincing in the moment, they had a difficult time remembering exactly what he had said immediately afterwards: according to Thomas Jefferson, "Although it was difficult, when [Henry] had spoken, to tell what he had said, yet, while speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and 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."[5]

A more contemporary account is found in a letter of James Parker of Norfolk, written to his friend Charles Steuart on April 6, 1775: "You never heard anything more famously insolent than P Henrys speech. He called the King a Tyrant, a fool, a puppet & tool to the Ministry, Said there was now no Englishmen, no Scots no Britons, but a Set of Wretches Sunk in luxury..."[6]

The text of the speech as presented by Wirt contains many biblical allusions and radical pronouncements, and ends by asserting that war has already begun, the only question being whether to fight. In Henry's delivery of the speech, Wirt compared Henry with the Roman statesman Cato, a proponent of Republicanism in opposition to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. A leading proponent of the Stoicism philosophy in which it was believed that death was a guarantee of personal freedom, Cato chose suicide over living in a tyranny. Some scholars believe that this line was inspired by Cato.[7] There is, however, some doubt as to whether Henry actually wrote the speech. Anecdotal evidence indicates that it was written by Lemuel Riddick, an associate of Henry's who fell ill and could not deliver the speech himself, and requested that Henry deliver it in his place.

Legacy[edit]

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. Thomas Marshall told his son John Marshall, who later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, that the speech was “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.”[8] Edward Carrington, who was listening outside a window of the church, asked to be buried at this spot. In 1810, he got his wish. And the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason, said: “Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention,” said George Mason on hearing Henry speak, “and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.”[8] More immediately, Henry’s resolution, declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the British Empire, 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.[8] Whatever the exact words of Henry were, “[s]cholars, 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.”[8]

There have been similar phrases used before Henry's speech. The play, Cato, a Tragedy, was popular in the Colonies and well known by the Founding Fathers, who would quote from the play. George Washington had this play performed for the Continental Army at Valley Forge.[9] It contains the line, "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death" (Act II, Scene 4). The phrase "Liberty or Death" also appears on the Culpeper Minutemen flag of 1775.[citation needed]

The phrase is seen translated in several nationalist contexts. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation uses the Armenian translation of "Liberty or Death!" («Ազատութիւն Կամ Մահ:») as an unwritten motto.[citation needed] The national anthem of Uruguay, Orientales, la Patria o la Tumba, contains the line ¡Libertad o con gloria morir! (Liberty or with glory we die). During the Siege of Barcelona (25 August 1713 – 11 September 1714) the Barcelona defenders and the Maulets used black flags with the motto "Live free or die", in Catalan: "Viurem lliures o morirem", which is now used as a symbol of Catalan independentism.[citation needed] The motto of Greece is "Liberty or Death" (Eleftheria i thanatos). A popular (and possibly concocted) story in Brazil relates that in 1822, the emperor Dom Pedro I uttered the famous Cry from [the river] Ipiranga, "Independence or Death" (Independência ou Morte), when Brazil was still a colony of Portugal. In March 1941 the motto of the public demonstrations in Kingdom of Yugoslavia against signing the treaty with Nazi Germany was Better grave than slave (bolje grob nego rob). More recently, in China, Ren Jianyu, a 25-year-old former college student "village official" (大学生村官) was given a two-year re-education through labor sentence for an online anti-CPC speech. A T-shirt of Ren's saying "Give me liberty or give me death!" (in Chinese) has been taken as evidence of his anti-social guilt.[10][11]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Raphael, p. 147.
  2. ^ Raphael, p. 148.
  3. ^ Raphael, p. 149.
  4. ^ Raphael, p. 148.
  5. ^ Cohen.
  6. ^ Charles Steuart Papers, cited in Ivor Noel Hume, 1775: Another Part of the Field p. 119.
  7. ^ Nelson.
  8. ^ a b c d "Patrick Henry and His Famous Speech - Excerpt from We Hold These Truths, co-published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers i.e. Aron, Paul. "John Adams." We Hold These Truths. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008. 86-88.". Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, in association with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. iCitizenForum. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Randall, p. 43.
  10. ^ Yu Jincui (2012-10-12). "Punishing criticisms outdated in today’s China". Global Times. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  11. ^ "重庆村官“不自由毋宁死”T恤被作劳教物证". 大河报. 2012-10-11. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 

References[edit]

  • Cohen, Charles (1981). "The ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech: A Note on Religion and Revolutionary Rhetoric". The William and Mary Quarterly 38 (4): 702–717. doi:10.2307/1918911. JSTOR 1918911. 
  • Nelson, Craig (2006). Thomas Paine, Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-03788-5. 
  • Randall, William (1997). George Washington: A Life. New York: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0-8050-2779-3. 
  • Raphael, Ray (2004). Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past. New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-921-3. 
  • Wirt, William (1816). Sketches of the life and character of Patrick Henry. Philadelphia: Webster.