Study Guide

William Wirt in Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

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William Wirt

William Wirt was the Tom Brokaw to the Founding Fathers' Greatest Generation. If he'd thought of it, he would have written a book called The Greatest Generation, and it would have featured Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and all the guys he lionized.

Born in 1772, Wirt was just a kid while the American Revolution was going on, and like any kid, he had his superheroes. When he grew up, he wrote books and speeches about them.

Wirt was an accomplished lawyer, politician, writer, and speaker, so it's no surprise that all these skills led him to write a biography of Patrick Henry. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry was published in 1817, and it gave us the image of Henry as a self-taught, common man who just wanted his God-given rights.

But people who knew Henry thought it was more "sketchy" than "Sketches," and Thomas Jefferson, while he admired Wirt greatly, kept his copy shelved with the fiction.

So why is this book so important to us, if it wasn't all that accurate? It's where we get the "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech.

See, Henry didn't write his speeches down, and neither did anyone else, so when Wirt went looking for source material, he had to either make it up or ask someone who was there to write it down for him.

Wirt did more than write sketchy Sketches, though. Though he's not remembered for it today, Wirt has a place in the history of American literature. He wrote several other books, collections of humorous essays attempting the style of Joseph Addison, which greatly influenced Washington Irving.

He's also considered one of the more important Attorneys General the United States has ever had. In office from 1817 to 1829, he's the longest serving Attorney General in history, and he really defined the role of the office.

Fun fact: In 1807, Wirt was one of the prosecutors at Aaron Burr's trial for treason. We figured that's something all you Hamilton-heads can appreciate. (Source)

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