“Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!”
- Sir Patrick Henry
A Turning Point In America
This quote given in a church during a speech on March 23, 1775 in Virginia by Sir Patrick Henry is possibly one the best summations of the prevailing ideology and political will in the history of the world.
American discontent with British rule is well documented in the annals of history. Two future US presidents along with a delegation consisting of colonial leaders, known as the Virginia House of Burgesses, attended the speech are the only ones to hear the original text as no transcription exist nor a copy kept by Henry.
The intent for the speech was to influence the Virginia House of Burgesses to send troops for the American Revolution and was largely successful as Henry’s resolutions passed afterwards. Further, the previous tact of colonist placating British authority to avoid bloodshed was quickly diminishing.
The Impact of His Speech
Interestingly enough, speeches were the primary means of disseminating information during the period, as majority of the population could not read or write. Henry was a notable lawyer of the time and regarded as a great orator. His distaste for British rule was evident before he gave this famous quote given his comments and actions during the previous ten years including Aaron Burr’s treason trial.
According to historians the speech stoked the delegation by referring to failed attempts to keep peace and the resulting erosion of liberties. Taxation without representation was a common theme preceding the American Revolution and tension with Britain was increasing, evidenced by the Boston Tea Party resulting in political skirmishes. The Stamp Act contributed to this climate as well.
A Call to Arms!
The speech, as documented, was a call to arms to fight against unfair taxes and British rule. The sentiment, no doubt, influenced the patrons of the speech as the first battle for independence occurred a month later, aptly named the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Thomas Jefferson credits Henry as the force behind the movement in Virginia. It’s obvious the speech incited and provoked a strong emotional response that prompted a previously conciliatory ideology to change.
The basic principal behind the speech and quote is clear. Henry would rather die fighting than live under British rule any longer and his passion influenced the delegation that March day.
The context reverberates not just in American political ideology but has taken root as the basis of democracy and human rights around the world. Liberty along with taxes is one of, if not the most, valued and discussed governing principle in western democracies today.