Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

Today marks the 246th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s famous speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Henry did not desire the battlefield. He did not wish for conflict. He was speaking in light of what he saw as the inevitable hostility that was going to land on the doorstep of the colonists whether they liked it or not. At the time of his delivery there was a growing sense of resignation amongst the colonists. Britain was the reigning world superpower. Many believed that resistance to British tyranny was futile. What, after all, could common people do against such military might? Henry addresses this in his speech.

They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary... Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.

Henry was also very concerned that his countrymen were wanting to stick their heads in the sand and hope the threat would blow over. People valued their comfort and security over liberty. Henry’s fellow founding father Benjamin Franklin addressed such an attitude when he said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” History has proven that forfeiting liberty for security always leads to loss of both. The pattern of trying to appease tyranny, whether in 1920’s Russia, 1930’s Germany, 1950’s China, 1960’s Cuba (we can go on an on), results in the extermination of liberty and with it, millions of lives. 

"Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Liberty is under severe attack in our time. Some are resigned to our fate. Some are hoping things just magically reverse course. Some feel helpless to turn the tide. It would be good to revisit Henry’s words and consider the implications for this generation. Here’s the close of his speech that includes the most famous line.

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

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!”

Do we value security over liberty? Or can we say that liberty is a higher value than even our lives, since a life under tyranny is no life at all. 

Full text of the speech. 

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