The Lion of Liberty

By David L. Kelly
16 February 2011

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!

Nearly all of us, who have even a limited knowledge of the American Revolution, know the above lines, the last few lines of Patrick Henry’s famous speech. Those words ended a speech that only a fire-eater orator such as Henry could deliver, with passion and force, gripping the minds and hearts of those at the House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775.Patrick Henry

It is rarely shared, unless you seek out what preceded those closing lines; whose impact that day spoke volumes to all Americans who wanted to live free. Patrick Henry had every intention to light up the room in front of his fellow Virginian representatives that day in the Saint John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Henry knew that the time had arrived to say his piece, even if some considered his views as a bit radical, as evidenced early on into his speech:

I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery….

Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

With this Patrick had set the stage and spoke freely as he believed it was his God-given unalienable right to do so and his right as well to prepare his colleagues to hear nothing but the whole truth.

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?…For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

The truth was the British were showing force and would do all they could to quell the rebellion beginning in the American colonies. Henry knew that, and made sure that his fellow Virginians understood what lurked behind the smiles of the British ministry who had heard their previous petitions. He continued:

Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.

Patrick went on and tallied up all that had built up to this day, a day of reckoning. He passionately sold his views and tore at his comrades hearts to hear the ugly truth and know that they had but one truthful option if they wanted to be freemen.

There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight!

I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

Knowing that the colonies were not prepared for a war with the mighty British Empire’s seasoned military; Henry readied his listeners for his powerful and famous closing lines by first painting an image of that shining light of liberty that would guide the Americans to victory.

The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us….The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave….There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!

From here Patrick soon closes his now famous speech with the words, give me liberty or give me death!

What a great and inspiring speech. Don’t you wish men like Patrick Henry represented you as we find ourselves today with a government full of selfish hubris-infected politicians?

Where are the Patrick Henry’s of today?


More on Patrick Henry:

  • Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: F. Watts, 1986.
  • Meade, Robert D. Patrick Henry. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1957–1969.
  • Sabin, Louis. Patrick Henry: Voice of the American Revolution. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1982.
  • Tyler, Moses Coit. Patrick Henry. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887. Reprint, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
  • Vaughan, David J. Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Pub., 1997.
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