Liberty's Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry's Words Were His Most Potent Weapons. Americans Sacrificing for Their Country Today Still Echo His Thunderous Cry, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!"

By Eddlem, Thomas R. | The New American, November 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Liberty's Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry's Words Were His Most Potent Weapons. Americans Sacrificing for Their Country Today Still Echo His Thunderous Cry, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!"


Eddlem, Thomas R., The New American


Patrick Henry arrived in Richmond in March 1775 as one of the few patriots aware of the dire need for his state to prepare for the coming War for Independence. Several days later, on March 20, Virginia's second revolutionary assembly convened at St. John's Church in Richmond. The general mood of the assembly at the time could at best be termed "wait and see." In fact, Edmund Pendleton offered a conciliatory measure pleading with King George III to intervene on the colony's behalf.

Henry introduced an amendment to Pendleton's resolution on March 23 "that this colony be immediately put in a posture of defense; and ... [there] be a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying, arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose." The resolution to arm Virginia against the crown shocked some of the delegates. Many of them remained loyal to the British crown and hoped the colony could patch up differences with England.

To pass the amendment, Henry arose and delivered his now-famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. He began in soft tones, gradually increasing in volume as he explained the hopelessness of reconciling with the crown and the disastrous impact of inaction. "Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction?" he asked. "Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?"

By the conclusion of his speech, according to the fragmentary historical record, Henry had raised his voice to a thunderous volume and to tremendous impact, declaring: "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!"

When Henry concluded, the whole audience was momentarily silent and stunned, as if shaking off the shock of a bomb exploding in their midst. One man who had listened to the speech from outside the church through an open window, Edward Carrington, was so impressed with the oratory that he exclaimed: "Let me be buried on this spot." Carrington later became a colonel in the militia, and his request was granted upon his death in 1810. After the silent pause, a general outcry of "To arms!" arose in the chamber, and Richard Henry Lee arose to support Henry's amendment, which eventually passed by the narrow margin of 65-60.

"After every illusion had vanished," Edmund Randolph later wrote of the speech, "a prodigy yet remained. It was Patrick Henry, born in obscurity, poor, and without the advantage of literature, rousing the genius of his country, and binding a band of patriots together to hurl defiance at the tyranny of so formidable a nation as Great Britain."

Early Life

Patrick Henry was indeed born to a family of modest means that offered no hint of future greatness. His father, John Henry, had emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, and had set up a small farm on the South Anna River in Hanover County, Virginia.

Patrick was born in 1736. During his early life, he displayed a notable lack of interest in learning. Though taught the basics of English and Latin by his father, and further schooled by his uncle Rev. Patrick Henry of nearby St. Paul's Parish, young Patrick Henry was more interested in hunting and fishing than in his Latin and Greek studies.

By age 15, Patrick had become a clerk in a local store. Within a year he and his older brother William opened up their own shop. But Patrick Henry would be a total failure as a shopkeeper. The Henry brothers closed up their shop within a year, having lost all of their initial capital.

Patrick Henry soon married Sarah Sheldon and was given a dowry of a half-dozen slaves and a 300-acre farm. Henry proved to be just as bad a farmer as a shopkeeper, and his financial condition worsened when his house burned down in a fire. …

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