Study Guide

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Historical Context

By Patrick Henry

Historical Context

What on earth could have happened to make Patrick Henry think he only had two options: liberty or getting X's for eyes?

The short answer? A whole lot.

The long(er) answer? Hoo-boy.

Colonialism: A 17th-Century Power Play

Let's rewind to the early 1600s (nearly two hundred years before Patrick Henry's speech), when England wasn't nearly the powerhouse it became later. In fact, England was just sitting there, being a jealous little island and sulking over the prominence of its Continental neighbors France and Spain. The world was coming out of the Renaissance and into what's known as the Modern World.

And England knew that the must-have accessory for any self-respecting country in the Modern World was a couple of shiny colonies. England, France, and Spain were all looking across the Atlantic Ocean at this "New World," all calling dibs, and all scrambling to establish colonies.

Quick Colonialism 101: the idea of a colony is that a home country (like England) finds some land they want somewhere, conquers its indigenous peoples, and establishes a little outpost using settlers from the home country called colonists. The job of those colonists is to produce raw materials for the home country, buy finished products from the home country, and pay taxes. It's a horrible deal for the indigenous peoples, but it's actually not such a hot deal for the colonists, either…which is probably why colonists tended to not come from the upper crust of society (the richie riches were doing just fine at home).

What happened is this: In 1607, England established its first permanent colony at Jamestown. For the next 150 years, England, France, and Spain fought over North America, a struggle that culminated in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). This was a huge deal, widely recognized by historians as the first global conflict. (Think of it as World War Zero.)

The North American theater of the Seven Years' War is known as the French and Indian War. (Psst: they're two different things; the terms aren't interchangeable). The British was on the winning team in the Seven Years' War, which left them sitting pretty, and with more power on the world stage than they'd ever had before.

Take that, France and Spain.

Money, So They Say, Is The Root of All Evil Today

But with great power comes great responsibility—and great credit card bills. Great Britain won the war, but they still hadn't paid for it. And guess who they think should foot the bill? You got it: the North American colonists. Great Britain argued that they fought the French and Indian War to protect the colonists from those big bad French and their big bad Native American allies, so naturally the colonists should pay their fair share.

This sounds reasonable…except that's not how the relationship between Mother Country and colony is supposed to work. It's the Mother Country's job to protect the colonies. And, oh yeah: the Mother Country is also supposed to pay. (They don't call her "Mom" for nothing.)

So from about 1765 on (that "decade" Henry talks about), there was a lot of squabbling about taxes. Things really heated up in 1770 after the Boston Massacre. Then in 1773, came the Boston Tea Party—which, again, involved taxes. (Check out a timeline of the events leading up to the American Revolution here.)

Also, keep in mind that Great Britain was treating the colonists like second-class citizens—and (no shocker here) this rubbed a lot of the colonists the wrong way.

While new colonists were still arriving, by 1775 many families had lived in the North American colonies for over a century. They were starting to feel less and less British—many of them had done well for themselves, and they wanted a little bit of respect and a lot bit of representation in Parliament. At the very least, they wanted political power in the colonies. But the most powerful government officials—including most of the Royal Governors of each colony—usually came straight from Great Britain.

We can talk details all day long, but the causes of the American Revolution ultimately came down to two things: money and respect. The colonists didn't want to pay the price of citizenship (taxes) unless they were being treated like full British subjects. And that was most definitely not happening.