On March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry rose in the Virginia House of Burgesses to speak in support of mobilizing the Militia to oppose British military moves. The speaker had a reputation as a firebrand. He was reported to have said, “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!” The cheering House, already ousted from meeting in Williamsburg by edict of the Royal Governor and meeting illegally, was moved to opt for mobilization.
Or so the story goes, as it was reconstructed by Henry’s biographer William Wirt in 1817. No official record of the meeting reported the contents of the speech. Only one contemporaneous written description survives. In it Henry was quoted as alluding to the failure of the Crown to protect the colony from Indians and slave uprisings and was quoted as using some very intemperate and probably profane descriptions of the Governor, but no mention of famous phrase.
Wirt claimed to have reconstructed the speech form the fading memories of the few surviving members. Whatever Henry said, however, if must have been a hell of a speech, for he was credited for calling Virginia to arms.
It was not Henry’s first famous speech, nor the first one whose exact wording is in doubt. Ten years earlier as a freshman in House, He had introduced a resolution in opposition to the Stamp Act in terms so incendiary it brought charges of treason. He was quoted as saying, “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!” In fact the only eye witness account claims that Henry apologized to the body if they mistook his words for treason and asserted that he was a loyal subject of the King.
Whatever he said worked, largely because he chose to introduce his resolution when a bare quorum of the House was present and the most ardent Crown loyalists were absent.
Henry was born to the middling level of Virginia planter society in 1736, the son of an educated Scottish emigrant. His early career was rocky. He twice failed as a planter before taking up the law. He made a name for himself by defending Louisa County, in a case about limiting the price of the tobacco paid in support of the Anglican Clergy. The British Parliament had overturned Virginia’s Two Penny Act and a local clergyman sued the county for back wages. Henry simply ignored the law in the case and attacked clergy as “enemies of the community,” accused the King of tyranny for annulling the law, and said such a tyrant, “forfeits all right of obedience from his subject.” The humiliated Padre was awarded 1 penny and Henry’s political career launched.
Although an early ally of Thomas Jefferson, their temperaments, and ambitions were quite different and they soon found themselves often bitter rivals. In 1776 Henry was elected the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia. The main theaters of the Revolution were far away in his term and he spent a lot of effort planning and executing an invasion of Cherokee lands, where he had land speculations.
In 1789 he was succeeded by Jefferson just as the war began to heat up. After the Revolution, Henry was again served as Governor in 1784-86. He refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.” Parting bitterly from his previous political ally and personal friend James Madison, Henry became one of the most vocal and extreme Anti-Federalists. He voted against ratification in the Virginia convention of 1788, but Madison carried the day.
Despite his views, George Washington, on the advice of Alexander Hamilton, first offered him the post of Secretary of State before turning to Jefferson.
Henry’s politics took a sharp turn in the 1790’s after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Over the years His personal fortunes had grown, thanks to a couple of fortuitous and strategic marriages, and he had become a wealthy large scale planter with hundreds of slaves. With significant property to protect, he developed a fear and loathing of the same “rabble” to which he had been a popular hero. With John Marshall he rallied Virginia Federalists and was elected to the House of Delegates.
Three months before he could take his seat he died of stomach cancer at his plantation Red Hill on June 6, 1799. Some biographers believe that the pain was so great that he poisoned himself.