PATRICK Henry’s March 23 “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech helped spark revolution in Virginia. But the influence of “the Voice of the Revolution” was greater than that. Henry was the first to raise his voice against England against taxation without representation. He led the attack against the Stamp Act in 1765, as well as being a leader in every protest against British tyranny and every movement for colonists’ rights afterwards. He helped draft the Virginia Constitution and the May 1776 declaration favoring independence. He was the first governor of Virginia. He led in the fight for a bill of rights. He was offered posts as Chief Justice and Secretary of State, which he turned down because of failing health.
Most Americans today know little about Patrick Henry. But he was central to our heritage as an advocate of the principles that created America and an actor in making our nation a reality. It is worth honoring him by reflecting on his commitment to liberty.
[We are] engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty. We wish to be free … we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending.
[Do not] bind our posterity by an improvident relinquishment of our rights. 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.
Liberty is the greatest of all earthly blessings … the dearest rights of man … the time has been, when every pulse of my heart beat for American liberty;… [with] a counterpart in the breast of every true American.
Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.
Be extremely cautious, watchful, jealous of your liberty; for instead of securing your rights, you may lose them forever.
Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government. When the American spirit was in its youth … liberty, sir, was then the primary object … the foundation of everything. Nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power, and splendor … lost their freedom.… What can make an adequate satisfaction…[for] the loss of their liberty?
I address my most fervent prayer to prevent our adopting a system destructive to liberty. Grant power with a niggardly hand. In the language of freemen, stipulate that there are rights which no man under heaven can take from you. The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.
As long as we can preserve our inalienable rights, we are in safety. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by … frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
The first thing I have at heart is American liberty. 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 … to preserve their liberty.
We give little thought to whether our founding fathers would think our commitment to liberty worthy of the name Americans. But Patrick Henry would face us with that question. With liberty still contested daily, and often in retreat, his words bring us back to the core of what once made America a beacon of hope in the world.