Study Guide

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Introduction

By Patrick Henry

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Introduction

Give Me What or What Now?

Inspirational phrase…or most inspirational phrase ever?

We're going with the latter. Because in our humble opinion, nothing is as stirring, spine-chilling, or blood-pumping as the phrase "Give me liberty or give me death." Not "Do…or do not. There is no try," not "I am the one who knocks," not even Mel Gibson wailing freeeeedooooom in Braveheart.

Once more, for effect: give me liberty or give me death. This ain't a negotiating tactic. This ain't a plea. This is one man out-and-out defying the powers that be and stating that he's willing to kick the bucket for his principles.

Patrick Henry: definitely the most metal of the Founding Fathers.

You might have heard of a little conflict we like to call the American Revolution. (It's the one with the tri-cornered hats and George Washington on a horse.)

But before that actually took place—although old G-Dubs was definitely already horseback riding—it was by no means inevitable that the United States of America would ever be a thing.

The British Invasion…But Not The Cute One That Brought Us The Beatles

In 1775, what we now know as the U.S. of A. was a disorganized group of thirteen very different colonies with very different concerns and very different relationships with the Mothership—er, Great Britain. This ragtag group of colonies was disgruntled over a whole slew of things (mainly taxes), but they didn't want to rock the boat by actually picking up weapons. After all, Great Britain was one of the most powerful countries in the world, with a correspondingly mighty military.

But Patrick Henry, like a certain internet-famous honey badger, didn't care…which brings us to his most noteworthy bit of speech-making.

In March 1775, the Second Virginia Convention met at Henrico Parish (now St. John's) Church in Richmond to talk about what was on everyone's minds: the fact that people were starting to really, really be resentful of the Brits.

The Second Virginia Convention was divided into two factions: those who wanted to keep the peace with Great Britain by working to solve their problems through the usual diplomatic channels, and those who said "We've been trying that for ten years, and it hasn't worked so far. Let's try something else."

Guess which side Patrick Henry was on?

On March 23rd, 1775, Patrick Henry stood up to encourage the Second Virginia Convention to approve raising and arming a militia for "self-defense." He argued that the colonies had sought redress of grievances (a fancy term for the king saying sorry and fixing things) peacefully for as long as possible. He argued that all those soldiers Great Britain had been sending were clearly not on a peacekeeping mission. He argued that the longer the colonies waited to start a war, the weaker their position would be. And he wound up with the most famous line of the speech—you know, where he says he's willing to die for liberty.

It worked.

  

Not Quite Word For Word

After Henry spoke, the Second Virginia Convention approved five of his resolutions, with the result that Virginia formed a militia. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts less than a month later, and within a few hours of those battles (and before he could have heard of them), Henry mobilized the Virginia militia to force Virginia governor Lord Dunmore to give back the gunpowder he had seized in response to Henry's speech.

But here's the thing about the speech we have today: it's not necessarily the one Henry gave. He didn't write his speech down, and no one else did either. So how do we have it? In 1808, nine years after Patrick Henry's death, William Wirt, who was three years old in 1775, began research for a Henry biography. He asked people who were there what Henry had said.

And, while most of the speech is a reconstruction based on other people's fuzzy, twenty-five-year-old memories, everyone seemed to recall the last line verbatim. That's probably because the last line of the speech is "Give me liberty or give me death," (we had to put it in one more time). And nobody—not after twenty-five years, not after two hundred and fifty—forgets a sentence that insanely inspirational.

What is Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death About and Why Should I Care?

Because of that kick-butt last line.

If you walk up to an average American Joe or Josephine—you know, someone who's not a Revolutionary War nerd and doesn't read Founding Father biographies for fun—and ask them about the Second Continental Congress, they'll probably look at you like you just asked them to state the GDP of Botswana circa 1972.

But if you ask them if they know who Patrick Henry is, their eyes will probably light up. And if you ask them, "Complete the sentence: give me liberty or…" they'll probably jump up onto the nearest table, shout "Give me death!" put on a tri-cornered hat, wave an American flag, and start weeping in a fit of patriotic fervor.

Everyone knows this line. It's seemingly programmed into the brains of all Americans along with a knowledge of the complete lyrics of Don McLeans "American Pie," the compulsion to eat candy corn at Halloween even though candy corn is kind of gross, and very strong opinions about the great Shake Shack/In-N-Out rivalry.

And there's a really good reason for this: if Thomas Paine was the written word of the Revolution, Patrick Henry was its spoken voice. The idea that liberty is more important than life—and is maybe the most important thing about the United States of America—entered the American imagination with Patrick Henry's words.

It's this idea that has defined most of the awesome things that America has done. (Yeah, we're going to get patriotic on you for a hot second.) Playing a major part in defeating Hitler and fascism? Fueled by the ideology of liberty or death. The right to practice your chosen religion? That's liberty in a nutshell. The fact that we're pretty amazing when it comes to social equality—you know, that whole "land of opportunity" thing? Liberty. Jazz? Jazz is basically distilled musical liberty, guys. Inventing airplanes? Um, you don't get much more liberated than when you're flying like a dang bird.

This isn't to say that America—or even Patrick Henry—is 100% freedom-fueled awesomeness. America has done some shameful things (like, say, slavery) and so did Patrick Henry (like, say, owning slaves).

But this is to say that both America and Henry's awesomeness is all about the liberty. What we've done that's great has been infused with the spirit of liberty or death. We're so amped up about getting our freedom on that we remember Patrick Henry's words two hundred and fifty years after he uttered them…and these words still give us the shivers.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Resources

Websites

All Roads Lead to Williamsburg
It's true. Check out Colonial Williamsburg's Patrick Henry page, and while you're there, learn more about other Founding Fathers at Virginia's colonial capital. You can't walk down Duke of Gloucester Street without running into a patriot.

So It's Not the Most Creative Name For a Plantation...
The official Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation is located at Red Hill, Henry's last home. We really hope there's an actual red hill.

Patrick Henry Spoke Here
Henrico Parish Church (now St. John's) is still standing and still promoting Henry's speech. Hey, when you've got a winner, you've got a winner.

Movie or TV Productions

Real Politicians of Virginia
Watch A&E's Biography episode on Patrick Henry—all the juicy goss on the most metal Founding Father.

In Case You Prefer your Patrick Henry As a Cartoon
The TV show Liberty's Kids did a Patrick Henry episode…because of course they did. It's called Liberty's Kids, after all, and Patrick Henry is the "Voice of Liberty."

Articles and Interviews

Debating the Speech
"The Speech: It May Not Be the One Patrick Henry So Famously Made" by Jim Cox discusses the construction of the text we recognize as the "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" speech. Doesn't it inspire you to write your own fake historical speech?

Scandal: 18th-Century Edition
"The Upstart, the Speaker, the Scandals, and Scotchtown: The Rustic Henry Rises" by Alan Pell Crawford describes how Henry's political career led to his famous speech. Newsflash: political double speak is nothing new.

Video

You Know You've Made It When...
...you're on the History Channel. Or at least you're good for a few Nielsen ratings. Check out their Patrick Henry videos.

Shmoop Gets In on the Action
Step aside, History Channel. We've got our own Henry video. Hulk smash!

Henry Puts His Hands on His Hips
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities presents this clip from a 1957 film about Henry, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot. Hands on hips is a classic rhetorical pose, and Henry nails it here.

"Give Me Liberty" in 1936
Here's a clip from the 1936 short film, Give Me Liberty. Henry sounds like he feels a bit "meh" about the whole thing.

Henry Has Some Awesome Hair in this One
A celebration of the 240th anniversary of Henry's speech, presented by Historic St. John's Church. Check out the ponytail on this guy.

Audio

Sorry, There's No Original Soundtrack
This is as close as we can get. Hear Richard Schumann, Patrick Henry interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg, perform the speech. Scroll to the bottom and download the MP3 so you can jam out to P-Hen whenever.

Images

Cool Kids Wear Their Glasses on Their Heads
Check out this contemporary painting of Patrick Henry looking like he's about to get down to business. You know it's getting real when the glasses go up.

Oh, the Irony
We wonder how Henry would have felt about this stamp. Would he have to resolve against his own face?

Where it All Went Down
Henrico Parish Church (Now St. John's), where Henry gave his famous speech. Now you've got visuals.

Oh, William, Where Wirt Thou?
Here's the guy who wrote Patrick Henry's first biography. Like Thomas Jefferson, we use the term "biography" loosely.

St. George "And the Dragon" Tucker
We wonder if he looked like this while he was pulling Henry's speech from memory.

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