This man was my kind of fighter; he used words as weapons. His “Give me liberty or give me death” speech may be the most well known, but he has countless others proving his oratory skills and no-holds-barred approach. Henry was a lawyer and also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he delivered some of his most stirring speeches. Legend has it his words were those that lit a fire under Thomas Jefferson as a boy, and it is undeniable Henry’s oratory skills made their mark centuries ago and today.
He was an adamant supporter of gun rights; in fact, his famous speech mentioned above was delivered to address the fact that he believed Virginians needed to arm themselves for self-defense. It was on 20 March, 1775, the Second Virginia Convention met and Patrick Henry presented his resolutions regarding the imperative need to raise a militia. Henry believed Virginians needed the ability to defend themselves, which was something they were sorely lacking at the time. By the 23rd of March, he was proposing every county in Virginia form a cavalry or infantry comprised of volunteers. As was tradition, Henry addressed the president of the convention, a Peyton Randolph of Williamsburg. And as was Henry’s personal tradition, his impassioned speech was not transcribed. No, Henry did not need to rely on the written word; his off-the-cuff talents as a rhetorician are practically unparalleled to this day, and his most famous speech provides ample proof:
“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. 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!” Patrick Henry, 23 March 1775 (for the full text of this famous speech, visit http://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm)
Our badass orator played an active role in the opening salvo of the American Revolution in more ways than one. In what was to become known as The Gunpowder Incident, Lord Dunmore, who was the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, learned firsthand Henry wasn’t vehement in speech only. Historians say the incident took place within hours of the battles of Lexington and Concord, days before word of the fighting could reach Virginia. Dunmore took it upon himself to remove gunpowder from the magazine – which was a building where gunpowder was stored in wooden barrels – in Williamsburg, Virginia, and have it transported to a Royal Navy ship. The seizing of the gunpowder caused immediate unrest, and Henry had no problem mustering a militia to take action. Because when Patrick Henry said he knew what course he would take, he meant it.
It went down like this: Dunmore’s men had taken 15 barrels of gunpowder, filled up a wagon with them, and made a break for it. But the townspeople noticed what was going on and raised the alarm, and it was on. At first, Peyton Randolph – yes, the same man Henry gave his “give me liberty or give me death” speech to – was able to calm a gathering crowd and send them on their way. But two days later, a second angry crowd had to be dispersed, and Dunmore lost his cool. He threatened to “reduce the city of Williamsburg to ashes” and told an alderman that even though he’d previously “fought for” Virginians, “by God, I would let them see that I could fight against them.”
Interestingly, both the aforementioned Peyton Randolph and the obviously well-known George Washington advised against violence and convinced a 700-strong militia not to march against Dunmore. But Patrick Henry disagreed, and he and his Hanover County militia put it to a vote: yes, they would march to Williamsburg. First, Henry sent men to the home of the Deputy Collector of the Royal Revenue in Virginia, requesting he pay for the stolen gunpowder out of the Crown’s money. The rest of the militia, which was approximately 150 men, headed for Williamsburg. On 3 May, 1775, the militia was about 15 miles away when Dunmore’s family turned tail and ran. From Williamsburg they ran to Dunmore’s hunting lodge on the York River and then they ran for the HMS Fowey, which was anchored in the river.
At that point, frustrations had to be running rather high, but long story short, Patrick Henry managed to obtain his payment thanks to the son-in-law of the Deputy Collector. Henry was given a bill of exchange in the amount of 330 pounds that had been signed for by a rich plantation owner. Why a plantation owner? Because Henry refused to take payment from any Crown-related account. That’s right, Patrick Henry didn’t want any filthy Crown pounds; he wanted trustworthy American money. Next, our fight-with-words badass declared he would deliver the payment to the Virginia delegates at the General Congress, which would make sense, but nothing is ever that simple.
In retaliation for the payment, Dunmore, who had remained behind when his family took off, charged Patrick Henry with extortion and started threatening everyone within an inch of their lives if they dared help him. Of course, Dunmore should’ve known better than to tell a bunch of Americans they weren’t allowed to do something, because as a result, Henry had plenty of protection. Multiple counties offered their sincere and dedicated protection along the way and Henry was also guarded by numerous militias. And he went on his merry way, money in hand. Still think Patrick Henry isn’t a badass and an American Hero?
In the end, The Gunpowder Incident did irreparable damage to Dunmore’s popularity. After some back-and-forth with the House of Burgesses – of which Patrick Henry was a part – Dunmore and his family ran away yet again. This time, they vacated the governor’s mansion in the dark of night and moved onto the Fowey. Dunmore kept fighting for control of the colony, and Patrick Henry kept retaliating and protecting the rights of Americans everywhere. After being reduced to nothing better than raiding the colony’s operations for awhile, Dunmore realized resistance was futile, and he left for good in August of 1776. Yes, it took him time to know when he was whooped. And in July of 1776, immediately prior to Dunmore finally getting smart and abandoning Virginia, Patrick Henry became the independent state of Virginia’s first governor.
Not to say Henry always had the support of his fellow burgesses. Henry was often so fiery in his words he upset the other burgesses. While giving a speech outlining why he was against the Stamp Act, he became caught up with his usual passion, and when he reached the part of the speech saying “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…” all hell broke loose. His fellow burgesses were shocked by his fervor, and cries of treason began to ring out from both sides of the aisle. Ever the orator, Henry shot back, “If this be treason, then make the most of it!”
Patrick Henry fought for this country’s freedom and the rights of each and every citizen with the best weapon in his personal arsenal: words. And in doing so he not only made a difference but influenced history in ways we continue to benefit from today. Patrick Henry was a different breed of American Hero; he was a badass of speech, and if we had more men like him today, we’d be better off.
There’s simply no better way to close this than with a Patrick Henry off-the-cuff quote that was true in the 1770’s and continues to ring true today:
“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 now what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry
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