Saturday, March 23, 2013

It was on this day . . .

It was on this day in 1775 that Patrick Henry gave a famous speech which probably included the line, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention, a meeting of American colonial leaders held at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. There were 120 delegates, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. The 39 year old Henry was representing Hanover County, Virginia. The four-day meeting turned into a fierce debate about whether or not to raise a militia and arm Virginia in the fight against the British.

Henry was an attorney with a knack for turning a phrase and a commitment to American independence. Twelve years earlier, he had stood up in court and called King George a tyrant, and he had been fighting against English laws and rule in the courts ever since.

There was a problem with Henry's speeches. They were wonderful and charismatic and everyone was entranced by them, but afterward, no one could remember what he had said. Thomas Jefferson said of Henry: "His eloquence was peculiar, if indeed it should be called eloquence; for it was impressive and sublime, beyond what can be imagined. Although it was difficult when he had spoken to tell what he had said, yet, while he was 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?' I could never answer the inquiry."

So although Henry's speech at the Second Virginia Convention is so famous, no one is sure what he said. It wasn't written down until 1816, by Henry's biographer, William Wirt. Wirt talked to people who had been present at the speech and had them reconstruct it from memory.

According to one of Wirt's sources, in what has become the accepted text of Henry's speech, he ended with these famous words: "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!"

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