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of liberty. Matters had been going from bad to worse in the weeks that had passed since the Congress at Philadelphia. There seemed now no possibility of peace, and Patrick Henry boldly declared his desire to fight for the principle of liberty. Everywhere in the colonies the militia was in training, and war was expected; even Pennsylvania, that Quaker, peace-loving colony, had boldly proclaimed that if the administration should determine by force to effect a submission to the late arbitrary acts of the British Parliament, it would resist such force; and at every hazard defend the rights and liberties of America.
Then it was, in the midst of such uprising, that Patrick Henry took the floor of this Virginia convention and presented his famous resolutions:
“Resolved” - and his strong, clear voice rang out “That a wellregulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would forever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us, for the purpose of our defence, any standing army of mercenary forces, always subversive of the quiet and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.
“Resolved, That the establishment of such a militia is at this time peculiarly necessary, by the state of our laws for the protection and defence of the country, some of which have already expired, and others will shortly do so; and that the known remissness of government in calling us together in a legislative capacity, renders it too insecure, in this time of danger and distress, to rely that opportunity will be given of renewing them in general assembly, or making any provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those further violations with which they are threatened.
“Resolved, therefore, That this colony be immediately put into a posture of defence; and that
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.
These resolutions were resisted by the convention with vigor. Not that the men were not in sympathy with Patrick Henry in this matter, but no public man had before spoken openly of war with Great Britain. In every colony men were saying, “If this, that, or the other is not done, war will come.”
But Patrick Henry, as he introduced his resolutions, said, “Why talk of things being done which can avert this war? Such things will not be done. The war is coming. It has come already.” The feeling in the convention was that to adopt the resolutions — innocent enough in themselves - would be to declare war; and for that the men of Virginia were not ready.
Patrick Henry, however, was not to be put down. Again he rose; and then followed that speech which every patriotic American boy loves to recite.
PATRICK HENRY'S SPEECH
NOTE A clergyman in describing this scene in the convention said, “Henry rose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye. He commenced somewhat calmly, but the smothered excitement began more and more to play upon his features and thrill in the tones of his voice. The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building, and all within them, seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations. Finally, his pale face and glaring eye became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats, with their heads strained forward, their faces pale, and their eyes glaring like the speaker's. His last exclamation, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” was like the shout of the leader which turns back the rout of battle.” The old man from whom this tradition was derived added that, when the orator sat down, he himself ‘felt sick with excitement.' Every eye yet gazed entranced on Henry. It seemed as if a word from him would have led to any wild explosion of violence. Men looked beside themselves.”
Another man describing this same scene said, “The orator's voice, countenance, and gestures gave an irresistible force to his words, which no description could make intelligible to one who had never seen him, nor heard him speak”; but, in order to convey some notion of the orator's manner, this man described the delivery of the closing sentences of the speech: “You remember, sir, the conclusion of the speech, so often declaimed in various ways by school boys, '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!' He gave each of these words a meaning which is not conveyed by the reading or delivery of them in the ordinary way. When he said, 'Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?' he stood in the attitude of a condemned galley slave, loaded with fetters, awaiting his doom. His form was bowed; his wrists were crossed; his manacles were almost visible as he stood like an embodiment of helplessness and agony. After a solemn pause, he raised his eyes and chained hands towards heaven, and prayed, in words and tones which thrilled every heart, 'Forbid it, Almighty God!' He then turned towards the timid loyalists of the House, who were quaking with terror at the idea of the consequences of participating in proceedings which would be visited with the penalties of treason by the British crown; and he slowly bent his form yet nearer to the earth, and said, 'I know not what course others may take,' and he accompanied the words with his hands still crossed, while he seemed to be weighed down with additional chains. The man appeared transformed into an oppressed, heart-broken and hopeless felon. After remaining in this posture of humiliation long enough to impress the imagination with the condition of the colony under the iron heel of military depotism, he arose proudly, and exclaimed, ‘but as for me'- and the words hissed through his clenched teeth, while his body was thrown back, and every muscle and tendon was strained against the fetters which bound him, and, with his countenance distorted with agony and rage, he looked for a moment like Laocoon in a death struggle with coiling serpents; then the loud, clear, triumphant notes, ‘give me liberty,' electrified the assembly. It was not a prayer, but a stern demand, which would submit to no refusal or delay. The sound of his voice, as he spoke these memorable words, was like that of a Spartan pæan on the field of Platæa; and, as each syllable of the word 'liberty' echoed through the building, his fetters were shivered; his arms were hurled apart; and the links of his chain were scattered to the winds. When he spoke the word
liberty' with an emphasis never given it before, his hands were open, and his arms elevated and extended; his countenance was radiant; he stood erect and defiant; while the sound of his voice and the sublimity of his attitude made him appear a magnificent incarnation of Freedom, and expressed all that can be acquired or enjoyed by nations and individuals invincible and free. After a momentary pause, only long enough to permit the echo of the word 'liberty' to cease, he let his left hand fall powerless to his side, and clenched his right hand firmly, as if holding a dagger with the point aimed at his breast. He stood like a Roman senator defyirig Cæsar, while the unconquerable spirit of Cato of Utica flashed from every feature; and he closed the grand appeal with the solemn words, ‘or give me death!' which sounded with the awful cadence of a hero's dirge, fearless of death, and victorious in death; and he suited the action to the word by a blow upon the left breast with the right hand, which seemed to drive the dagger to the patriot's heart.”
No man, Mr. President, thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as the abilities, of the very honorable gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it
not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining, as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I should speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of
awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as Io nothing less than a question of freedoń or slavery. And in pro
portion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we owe to God
and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, 15 through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of
treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, 20 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? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation ?
For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to pro5 vide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And, judging by the past, I wish to know what
there has been in the conduct of the British ministry, for the last Io ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been
pleased to solace themselves and the house. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received ? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves
to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious 15 reception of our petition comports with those warlike prepara
tions 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, 20 sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation - the last arguments to which kings resort.
I ask, gentlemen, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can the gentlemen assign any
other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in 25 this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies
and armies ? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging
And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject ? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been
all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty, and humble supplication ? 35 What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted ?
Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated;
we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the 40 throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical
hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence
and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.
In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. 5 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 ob10 tained 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.
They tell us, sir, that we are weak unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will
it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are 15 totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in
every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? 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?
Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three 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. 25 Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a
just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise
up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone: it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.
Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to de30 sire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest.
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! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry 35 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 the gentlemen wish ?
What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be 40 purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Al
? mighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!