Study Guide

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Main Idea

By Patrick Henry

  • Main Idea

    The most famous line is the last one: "Give me liberty or give me death!" (75). But why does Patrick Henry feel he's come to that point? (If you ask us, we'd rather have life and liberty. It's the best of both worlds, you know?)

    Henry's main point, though, is that if the colonies want liberty from Great Britain, they're going to have to fight for it. They've tried and failed at every other means of gaining liberty, and British boots are on the ground. At this point, the only way out is through…which means Henry and his buddies could die fighting.

    Oh, and if they survive a war but don't win it, they'll probably be executed as traitors. Yeesh.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Patrick Henry talks about liberty, freedom, and slavery a lot in this speech. How do you think he would define each of those terms?
    2. If you were at the Second Virginia Convention and you were opposed to Henry's position, how would you refute his arguments?
    3. How strong is Henry's argument that armed conflict is the only way? Explain.
    4. On a scale of 1-10, with George Washington as a 10 (obviously), how would you rate Patrick Henry as a Founding Father, and why?

    Chew on This

    Patrick Henry makes a compelling, logical argument for why the colonists must go to war.

    Patrick Henry's argument for war is based in appeals to emotion and pride.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    On March 23rd, 1775, at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John's Church in Richmond, Patrick Henry argued that a volunteer militia should be organized and armed in every county of Virginia to prepare to defend themselves from Great Britain.

    Yeah; Henry wasn't big on tiptoeing around issues.

      

    The Text

    Henry opens with an acknowledgement of the men who disagree with him. He says he has mad respect for them, but that they're still wrong. The American colonies are facing some big challenges and if he didn't speak his mind, he'd feel like he was in the wrong.

    Now we get into Henry's main point. Hoping for peace is great. Working for peace is great. Trying every diplomatic channel there is to achieve peace is great. However, the colonies have been trying all that for ten years, and it hasn't worked. Fighting for peace is the only way we're going to get it.

    Sure, Henry says, the odds are against us. But the odds aren't going to get better if we sit around waiting. In fact, they're going to get worse.

    Anyhow, we don't have a choice. If we want liberty, we're going to have to fight for it, and if we fight, we might die. But life without liberty is no way to live, so... give me liberty or give me death.

    TL;DR

    Patrick Henry lays out the hard truth: Great Britain isn't going to hand out liberty and respect until they have to. The colonists need to be willing to fight and die for it.

  • Questions

    1. How does the fact that this speech was compiled from memories of listeners over thirty years after the fact affect how we read it? Does it matter that it's not the exact speech Patrick Henry gave?
    2. What's up with Patrick Henry's references to slavery? How might his original listeners have responded differently to the use of that term than we do today?
    3. If this were a political speech given today, where would the "clap breaks" be—you know, the spots where the speaker has to stop so everyone can clap?
    4. How does Henry pile on the evidence for the threat from Great Britain? What are his main arguments for war?
    5. Given the realities of the time, was it a good idea for Henry to encourage Virginians to create militias to pick a fight with Great Britain?
    6. How do you think the average Virginian would have reacted to Henry's ideas about forming militias to fight British regular soldiers?
    7. This is a classically structured speech by a classically educated orator, and yet it somehow gained Henry a reputation for representing the concerns of the common man. How do you think that happened?
    8. How does this speech fit in with the other events of 1775, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord? Is it significant that the first shots of the war were fired only a month after Henry's speech? Are the two events related at all?