The words of Henry’s speech are well-worth considering today, 226 years after they were delivered. Henry began the speech to the Second Virginia Convention as follows:
The question 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; and in proportion 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 fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. 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.
It should not be ignored that Henry viewed the war of secession from England as “a question of freedom or slavery.” As Charles Adams has argued in Those Dirty Rotten Taxes, the slavery which concerned those, like Henry, who fought the Revolution was tax slavery, as opposed to chattel slavery.
Henry’s claim to revere the “Majesty of Heaven…above all earthly kings” should also not be forgotten in today’s rabidly secular age. Henry’s speech was delivered at St. John’s Church in Richmond.
Before the speech to the Second Virginia Convention, which was convened, among other reasons, to select delegates to the Continental Congress which would later declare American independence, Patrick Henry earned fame for his oratory as an attorney, as well as in the House of Burgesses (the Virginia Legislature), where, in 1765, he challenged a British tax (the Stamp Act), defying King George III with the words “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
After the colonies seceded from England, Patrick Henry served as the first governor of Virginia. He served five terms, retiring in 1794. After retiring from the governorship, he turned down an offer to become Secretary of State under George Washington, an offer from Washington to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a request to return as governor, and an offer from President Adams to serve on a mission to France. Patrick Henry died on June 6, 1799.
Of particular relevance to the present age, however, is Henry’s warning from the speech of March 23, 1775, that
it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. 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? 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 provide for it.
Today, Americans “indulge in the illusions of hope” by depending on the government, rather than their own hard work, to solve their problems.
Rather than hold onto liberty as a prized possession, many Americans are happy to simply give away their liberty in exchange for promises of protection and care; many Americans do not consider that the “war on drugs” has resulted in a tremendous increase in the powers of search and seizure, and a corresponding decrease in the rights of property owners.
As Patrick Henry continued, addressing the coming war with England,
Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. 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 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. 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!
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 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. 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. 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 desire 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.
Today, there is no inevitable war on the horizon for Americans. There is, however, the ongoing struggle to retain one’s liberty against the encroachments of the “alphabet soup” agencies of the federal government, states, and cities: HUD, OSHA, the IRS, the EPA, and other agencies too numerous to mention (see the works of James Bovard for a thorough cataloguing of the regulatory powers of the state gone mad). As Henry argued, the time for a principled resistance to the destruction of liberty is not some unknown, future time; the time is now, while there is liberty left to defend and before a people becomes entirely dependent upon government in its mentality.
Henry’s famous speech concluded as follows:
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!
His statement that “The war is actually begun!” is a reference to the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when British troops, occupying Boston to “keep order,” killed five colonists at the head of an angry mob.
Henry’s words were prophetic. The war had indeed begun.
The battles at Lexington and Concord took place less than a month after Henry’s speech, on April 19, 1775. At Lexington and Concord, American colonists took up arms against their own government, whose troops had come to seize colonial guns and gunpowder.
Less than three months after Henry’s speech, on June 17, 1775, the British and their colonial subjects clashed again at Bunker Hill (actually, Breed’s Hill). The war lasted another eight years, after which time, the American colonies stood as sovereign and independent states. Article One of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783, which ended the American War of Independence, states that
His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.
Henry, who fought to achieve independence for the colonies, later fought against the adoption of the Constitution — the replacement for the Articles of Confederation — on the grounds that the Constitution would create a tyrannical federal government destructive of the liberties which had come at such a heavy price. As Henry stated in the speech to the Virginia Convention on June 5, 1788,
We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire. If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together.
As it turns out, Henry was correct: the federal government lacked the energy to keep the American nation together peacefully, instead resorting to force of arms to compel the preservation of the union.
Henry continued his attack on the Constitution, arguing that
Such a government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government. What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances?…It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs should they be bad men; and, sir, would not all the world blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad? Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.
It should be noted that the British, during the American War of Independence, thought about the Americans much as the North later thought about the South during the War for Southern Independence.
When news of Lexington and Concord reached London, the British press screamed for blood and vengeance, as related by Michael Pearson in Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as Seen Through British Eyes:
“A country two thousand miles long,” asserted “Crito” in the Morning Post, “intersected by rivers, passes, mountains, forests and marshes, where the conquest is…over the people, their affections, their hearts and their prejudices…If conquest gives us the command of America we cannot keep it by force; the only possible plan is to burn and destroy it from one end to the other.”
“The sword alone,” insisted a Tory in the Morning Chronicle, “can decide this dispute…to prevent the ruin of the British Empire, which will inevitably take place if we are defeated.” (p 107)
When the British man-in-the-street sympathized with the American rebels, the British government reacted swiftly and sternly. As Pearson continues,
In Lloyd’s and Garraway’s, the city coffeehouses, the news dominated all discussion and created a mood of caution. Prices on the stock market dropped.
The City of London, whose merchants had been badly savaged by the loss of American trade, was a focal point of resistance to the government. Within days, members of the Constitutional Society meeting at the Kings Arms Tavern on Cornhill launched a subscription [fund-raiser] for the “relief of widows and orphans…of our beloved American fellow subjects…unhumanely murdered by the King’s Troops at or near Lexington and Concord.” (p 108)
Criticism of the administration in the press was well tolerated, but this was going too far. When the appeal was advertised in the press, the government mounted a prosecution for seditious libel.
A mere 86 years after British calls for the blood of American rebels, as recounted in When In the Course of Human Events by Charles Adams, Northern politicians and newspapers called for the blood of Southern rebels:
The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens, was willing that the South “be laid waste, and made a desert, in order to save this Union from destruction.” Before a Republican state convention in September 1862, he urged the government to “slay every traitor — burn every Rebel Mansion…unless we do this, we cannot conquer them.” The New York Times wrote in March 1861 that the North should “destroy its commerce, and bring utter ruin on the Confederate states,” and this was before the bombardment at Fort Sumter.
Congressman Zachariah Chandler expressed the spirit of so many in the Congress: “A rebel has sacrificed all his rights. He has no right to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness…”
On 5 May 1861, this genocidal passion against the South found analysis in the New York Herald. It quoted the views of the abolitionists: “When the rebellious traitors are overwhelmed in the field, and scattered like leaves before an angry wind, it must not be to return to peaceful and contented homes. They must find poverty at their firesides, and see privation in the anxious eyes of mothers, and the rags of children.”
On 24 May 1861, the Daily Herald in Newburyport, Massachusetts, said that “if it were necessary, we could clear off the thousand millions of square miles so that not a city or cultivated field would remain; we could exterminate nine millions of white people and re-settle — re-people the lands. There is no want of ability; and if such a work is demanded, there would be no want of a will.” (pp 55-56)
Eighty-six years is not a long time; it was only 84 years ago that America entered World War One. The Southerners whom the North so wanted to exterminate saw themselves as following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers — the men who had fought the revolution against England 86 years before the Southern states fought a revolution against Washington, DC.
The Northerners followed in the footsteps of the Tories of 1775, while the Southern rebels emulated their revolutionary forefathers. Robert E. Lee, for example, was the son of “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, a general in the Revolutionary War. The great seal of the Confederate States of America, meanwhile, features George Washington on horseback.
It is frequently reported of Robert E. Lee that, after the war, Lee wanted to heal the wounds of division and “be a good citizen.” Omitted from the usual stories about Lee, however, is one story related by Charles Adams:
Lee’s final words of wisdom came shortly before his death in 1870. Under the yoke of Reconstruction and its military dictatorship, Lee was invited by the commanding Union general to arrange a meeting with a number of leading ex-Confederates. The general asked Lee to make a statement, supposedly to indicate how happy he was to be back in the Union with the stars and stripes. Lee said no. He had seen what defeat had brought and the ugliness of Northern occupation. He did, however, set up a meeting for many ex-Confederates to have a say. The last to leave the meeting was the former Confederate governor of Texas, Fletcher Stockdale. Lee took him aside and said, “Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people [Yankees] designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand."
A month later Lee suffered a stroke and died on 12 October 1870. (pp 219-220)
Robert E. Lee and Patrick Henry, then, were very much alike in their love of liberty. Henry famously declared “give me liberty, or give me death,” and Lee, before his own death, came to have the same preference. The time for such a stand, however, was past. (Lee, by the way, had reason to complain. His family’s ancestral home had been taken by Abraham Lincoln and converted into a cemetery. It is known to this day as Arlington National Cemetery).
In closing, consider again Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention on June 5, 1788:
The voice of tradition, I trust, will inform posterity of our struggles for freedom. If our descendants be worthy of the name of Americans they will preserve and hand down to their latest posterity the transactions of the present times; and tho I confess my exclamations are not worth the hearing, they will see that I have done my utmost to preserve their liberty…The first thing I have at heart is American liberty; the second thing is American union; and I hope the people of Virginia will endeavor to preserve that union.
Patrick Henry indeed did his utmost to preserve American liberty. Those alive today, who enjoy their freedom in no small part as the result of the sacrifices of men such as Patrick Henry, should do no less.
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman