On This Day: Patrick Henry Delivers “Liberty or Death” Speech

Written By Kate Davey
Last updated: February 14, 2023

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry spoke at the second Virginia Convention urging his fellow delegates to join the revolution.

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”

Patrick Henry had established a reputation as a skilled orator and radical advocate for American independence while serving as a delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses and First Continental Congress. In 1765, he had advocated treason against King George III; now, as the American Colonies stood on the brink of war with Britain, Henry called for Virginia to take up arms in self-defense.

On March 23, 1775, at the Second Virginia Convention in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va., Henry addressed about 120 of his fellow delegates, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Richard Henry Lee. While some delegates favored reconciliation with Britain, Henry urged Virginians to prepare for war:

“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!”

Henry’s speech is credited for inspiring the delegates to take up arms. That same day, the Provincial Congress of Virginia passed a resolution creating a militia for self-defense.

Less than a month after Henry’s speech, on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired outside of Boston. Learn more about the war in the findingDulcinea Web Guide to the American Revolution.

Biography: Patrick Henry

Sources in this Story

  • Archiving Early America: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”
  • The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775
  • Yale University: The Avalon Project: Resolutions of the Provincial Congress of Virginia; March 23, 1775
  • Patrick Henry National Memorial: Patrick Henry Biography
  • The Library of Congress: Orator of Liberty
  • Archiving Early America: The Proclamation Against Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736, in Hanover County, Va. At the age of 18, he married 16-year-old Sarah Shelton, with whom he would have six children. After several failed business attempts, and with a young family to provide for, Henry studied to become a lawyer and established a successful practice.

His political career was launched in 1763 with a victory in the Parsons’ Cause, a controversy that grew out of Virginia’s tobacco-centered economy. He would go on to become a crucial figure in the colonists’ opposition to British authority, delivering fiery speeches that established him as an uncompromising crusader for independence.

After being elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765, Henry proposed the Virginia Stamp Act Resolves, which were considered treason at the time. He argued that the British should not be able to tax the colonists without direct representation in legislature.

The Library of Congress describes the legendary account of Henry’s speech before the House of Burgesses in support of the resolves: “He concluded his introduction of the Resolves with the fiery words ‘Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—’ when, it is reported, voices cried out, ‘Treason! treason!’ He continued, ‘—and George the Third may profit by their example! If this be treason make the most of it.’”

The Virginia Stamp Act Resolves eventually led to protest throughout the colonies, and to the creation of the slogan, “No Taxation without representation!” The resolves are considered to be one of the first steps toward the American Revolution.

Following his “Liberty or Death” speech, Henry came into conflict with Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, who responded to the speech by banning the election of delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Then, just two days after the start of the Revolutionary War, Dunmore sent royal soldiers to remove gunpowder from Williamsburg so that it could not be used by colonialists.

Henry gathered 150 men to march in Williamsburg and demand the return of the gunpowder, eventually receiving payment for the lost powder. Dunmore issued a proclamation condemning “a certain Patrick Henry … and a Number of his deluded Followers.” Colonists, however, supported Henry, and Dunmore was forced to flee the state.

Henry, who was elected colonel of the First Virginia Regiment and commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia in 1775, was elected governor of Virginia in 1776 and served five one-year terms in this office.

After the war, while serving in Virginia’s House of Delegates, Henry argued that the United States should be composed of strong state governments instead of a powerful central government. He became a vocal critic of the U.S. Constitution and an influential leader of the anti-Federalists. He voted against the ratification of the Constitution as delegate at the Virginia Convention of 1788.

Henry retired from politics in 1790 and turned down the opportunity to serve under Presidents Washington and Adams. He returned to politics in 1799 and won an election for state legislature, but before the he could be seated he died on June 6, 1799, at the age of 63.

Historical Context: American Revolution

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the American Revolution links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

American Revolution OTDs

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