There were many men crucial to the American cause in the War for Independence, and among the foremost was Patrick Henry, sometimes called the orator of the Revolution. He is best known for his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, but that is just one instance of his service to the country. In this paper we will examine three of Patrick Henry’s most important contributions to the American war effort – his opposition to the Stamp Act, his “Give Me Liberty” speech, and his opposition to the ratification of the U. S. Constitution.
After failing in several business endeavors, Henry became a lawyer. He soon gained renown for his great orator skills, and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765. Only nine days after joining the assembly, he would introduce a series of resolutions that would shift the course of the national political debates, and drastically effect his own political career. Earlier in 1765 the British Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, putting a tax on the American colonies to pay for the debts contracted in the French and Indian War. The colonists believed that this tax violated their rights of self government, but little real action had been taken. On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry introduced what would be called the Virginia Resolves. They declared that colonists had the traditional rights of Englishman, including a right to tax themselves through their representatives. After a long debate, including great eloquence on the part of Henry, the bill was passed. Inspired by Virginia’s actions, most of the other colonies would pass similar resolutions in the following months.1
Over the next decade the conflict between the king and his colonies would only deepen. Henry took leadership of the more radical portion of the House of Burgesses. British troops were sent to the colonies to enforce the new taxes. Debate raged throughout the country, and again Patrick Henry would rise to lead the nation. The House of Burgesses was dissolved by the king-appointed governor of the colony, but conventions were organized to take its place. It was on March 23, 1775, before the Second Virginia Convention that Patrick Henry would deliver the most famous speech of America’s founding. He rose to defend resolutions he had put forward to organize the colony’s militia for possible war against Great Britain. He concluded with these now world famous words:
Gentlemen may cry, 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 gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!2
This eloquent speech swayed the minds of the delegates. The resolution was adopted, and Henry’s speech went out to the rest of the nation. He was one of the first to argue that war with England was unavoidable.3 He proved to be correct, and before long the struggle with England was begun in earnest. This speech went on to become one of the most famous speeches in the English language, inspiring people around the world to this day.
One of the last of the great services Patrick Henry provided to the United States occurred many years later, ironically in his opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. After serving two terms in the Continental Congress he had turned his focus towards Virginia, serving for several years as governor. When a Constitutional Convention was called to address the problems of the Articles of Confederation, Patrick Henry was elected as a delegate. But he refused to go, saying he “smelled a rat.”4 He was afraid that too much power would be given to a central government. When the Constitution was returned, he saw his worst fears as realized. He took leadership of those fighting the ratification of the Constitution in Virginia. One of his major complaints was that the Constitution contained no bill of rights. The power of the Federal government was supposed to be strictly limited, so many argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary. Although Henry would ultimately fail in his mission, the protests from the ratification conventions were instrumental in the passage of the Bill of Rights, which remains a vital part of the Constitution to this day. As the Federal government had assumed more and more power, the Bill of Rights has proved very useful to preserve the freedom of the people of the United States.
Through his push for a bill of rights, his call of the country to arms, and his opposition to the Stamp Act through the Virginia Resolves, Patrick Henry served his country well. He inspired resistance to the British usurpation of power, gave teeth to that resistance by convincing the Virginians to organize the militia, and helped put restrictions in place to preserve the rights of the people. Without him, America today might well look very different.
1. Edmund Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 22.
2. George Morgan, The True Patrick Henry (Bridgewater, Virginia: American Foundation Publications, 2000), p. 191.
3. Moses Coit Tyler, Patrick Henry (Boston: Houghton Miffen Company, 1898), p. 138-139.
4. The Birth of the Republic, p. 131.