Patrick Henry's Great Speech, and the Questions That Dog It

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Monday was a notable one on the 2016 campaign trail. Hillary Clinton charmed the media as the keynoter for the Toner Prize, an annual award in honor of sterling New York Times reporter Robin Toner, who died too young in 2008.

Earlier in the day, Ted Cruz became the first Republican to declare himself in the Obama succession sweepstakes. The Texas senator mentioned, not approvingly, that he was speaking on fifth anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act into law. Making his announcement at Liberty University, Cruz also made a point of mentioning that Monday was the 240th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s fiery “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech.

Although this is one of the most famous lines in American politics, here’s today’s historical question: Did Patrick Henry really say it?

One might expect that Virginians awoke on March 24, 1775 to stories in the commonwealth’s newspapers about the galvanizing, not to mention seditious, speech Patrick Henry had given the day before in Richmond. But such coverage cannot be found.

One explanation is that the circumstances of the speech were so fraught that writing about it was unsafe. The delegates to the Second Virginia Convention were meeting inland in Richmond, instead of in the commonwealth’s capital of Williamsburg, to put distance between themselves and the territorial governor, Lord Dunmore, and his Royal Marines.

There was “revolution in the air” (to borrow from a Bob Dylan song that would come two centuries later), which invariably implied Patrick Henry’s presence. Eight years earlier, while arguing a legal case in Hanover County, the young lawyer had declared that a king who would veto a locally enacted law was not a “father to his people,” but instead a “tyrant [who] forfeits the allegiance of his subjects.

On May 30, 1765, while railing against the Stamp Act in the House of Burgesses, Henry compared King George III to Julius Caesar and Charles I, prompting cries of “treason” from the floor. But his proposals carried the day and from that day onward Henry was at the forefront of a movement that would produce a new nation.

His most famous speech came in defense of his own motion that Virginia mobilize militarily in its own defense against the Crown. That speech, we are told, ended with these stirring words:

“Gentlemen may cry peace, peace -- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field. ... I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

This is galvanizing oratory, all right, and it’s how Henry spoke and what he believed in. But why didn’t the contemporary newspapers print any of it? Why wasn’t it reproduced as a pamphlet? Why wasn’t it found in Patrick Henry’s personal papers? Why didn’t any of the delegates, who included Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler, ever include quotations from it in their diaries or private correspondence? Why do some of the words sound like they were lifted from a famous play, “Cato,” written in 1713 by Joseph Addison?

Finally, how do we even know that these were Patrick Henry’s words?

The answer to all those questions leads to a now-forgotten American lawyer named William Wirt.

Born in 1772 in Bladensburg, Md., Wirt moved to Culpeper, Va., at age 20. He passed the bar, married the daughter of Jefferson friend George Gilmer and became something of a Jefferson protégé. Jefferson evidently admired Wirt’s legal skills, or at least his discretion, and retained him as an attorney. The first occasion was a minor case in which Jefferson was sued over two lost shipments of tobacco. The second was the historic sedition trial of James Callender.

Wirt lost that case, just as he lost the Aaron Burr trial, but he served as U.S. attorney general for a year under James Monroe and ran for president in 1832 as a third-party candidate, carrying only the state of Vermont, with its seven electoral votes.

Besides practicing law and politics, Wirt took up writing of history, and he dedicated himself to being Patrick Henry’s biographer. He was 3 years old in 1775, when the famous speech was delivered at Richmond’s St. John’s Church, so he couldn’t have heard it, and he didn’t begin his research until 1808, nine years after Henry’s death.

He cited John Tyler and George Tucker as his sources for Henry’s famous speech, which they apparently reconstructed from memory, sourcing which seems dubious on its face. On the other hand, none of the participants took issue with this reconstruction, though the great prose stylist Jefferson gave Wirt’s biography a lousy review. (“A poor book, written in bad taste, and gives an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry,” he panned.)

A “perfect” idea of Henry and his famous speech is not possible to come by. But it must be said that even if his exact words are unknowable, even many years after the fact, those present that day remembered it vividly, and testified to its power. Edmund Randolph describes an audience too moved to say or do anything for several minutes’ duration. Thomas Marshall described the speech to his son John, destined to become a chief justice of the Supreme Court, as “one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that has ever been delivered.”

George Mason paid him perhaps the supreme compliment an orator can receive—he put into words what others were already feeling.  “Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention,” Mason said, “and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.”

In this case, words were transformed into deeds. Patrick Henry’s resolution was adopted, and he was named chairman of the committee designated to construct a militia. His worst fears realized, Lord Dunmore removed the gunpowder from the Williamsburg armory, a portent of what would happen the following month in Lexington and Concord.

In the end, there’s no question that Patrick Henry was a patriot who inspired Virginians to join their Massachusetts brethren in the cause of liberty. What is hard to know at this remove is where Patrick Henry left off and where William Wirt began.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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