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Give me Liberty or Give me Death!

"GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH!"

"GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH!" concluded Patrick Henry's rousing speech delivered to the Virginia Convention on 23 May 1775. In the days leading up to Henry's speech, the colonies' breach with Britain had become critical. To many Virginians, war seemed imminent. However, false rumors of the British ministry's willingness to back away from unpopular policies such as the Coercive Acts had spread, causing some to consider reconciliation again. The immediate occasion of the speech was the convention's proposed positive response to the Jamaica assembly's 1774 petition to the king, which asserted colonial rights but also emphasized the colony's loyalty and its desire for harmonious relations with Britain. Henry retorted that Britain would never reconcile with the colonies on terms that would ensure colonial rights and insisted war was the only realistic option. Rather than have the convention place false hope in compromise, Henry offered a resolution to prepare the colony's defenses for the inevitable clash with Britain. He rose to defend his motion and enjoyed one of his finest moments as an orator, giving a speech that was long and clearly remembered by those in attendance. In concluding, Henry asked, "Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" His answer: "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" The speech rallied the convention's spirit of resistance, the resolution passed, and Virginia took a major step toward independence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Henry, William Wirt. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches. 3 vols. New York: Scribners, 1891.

Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

McCants, David A. Patrick Henry, the Orator. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Meade, Robert Douthat. Patrick Henry. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 19571969.

Aaron J. Palmer

See also Coercive Acts ; Colonial Policy, British ; Revolution, American: Political History ; Virginia ; Virginia Resolves .

Henry arose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye. He commenced somewhat calmlybut the smothered excitement began more and more to play upon his features and thrill in the tones of his voice. 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 in its tremendous vibrations. Finally his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats with their heads strained forward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker's. His last exclamation"Give me liberty or give me death"was like the shout of a leader which turns back the rout of battle!

SOURCE: Report of Henry's speech by a witness, "an old Baptist clergyman," reprinted in Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, vol. 1, pp. 267268.

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