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  • Timeline

  • 1775 Detail

    March 23, 1775 - Patrick Henry addresses the Virginia House of Burgesses in St. John’s Church in Richmond, where he decreed, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” His speech is often credited with convincing Virginia to permit Virginia troops to enter the Revolutionary War. The crowd reacted to Henry’s speech with fervent cries, “To Arms! To Arms!”

    Patrick Henry's Speech

    From the beginning of his time in the House of Burgesses in 1765, Patrick Henry had become a very vocal member and critic of the English crown. It stemmed partly from his opposal to the Stamp Act. In the legislation against the act, Henry included a codicil that would irk the British governors to no end; he stated that the right of taxation was not with the crown, but with the General Assembly of the Virginia Legislature. That resolution was eventually expunged by the remainder of the Burgesses.

    Patrick Henry was admitted to practice in front of the General Court of Virginia in Williamsburg in 1769. He was thought skilled at trial practice due to his oratory, but lacking in his understanding of the law. However, by 1773, Henry was finding himself in additional conflict against the Royal Governor of of Virginia, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore. Dunmore had begun to bypass the legal practice of local trials, bringing those captured directly to the General Court in Williamsburg. They saw this as an increase in British power similar to that used in the Gaspee Affair in Rhode Island where the defendents were sent back to Britain itself for trial. Although they penned a mild letter to the Governor for that transgression, at the same time, they formed the Committee of Correspondence, with Henry a member, which would begin the alliance with the other colonies.

    Patrick Henry thought that independence from Great Britain was inevitable, but there was no cohesive plan in 1773 to start it. When the Tea Act and Boston Tea Party occurred in late 1773, causing the British Parliament to close the port the next year, Henry and George Mason wrote through the House of Burgesses that the day of closing should be one of fasting and prayer. It passed. Lord Dunmore disbanded the House of Burgesses. This did not stop the members, now meeting at Raleigh Tavern as the first of the five Virginia Conventions. It debated whether to call for accomodation as British subjects or full independence, and voted to send seven delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia; Patrick Henry, George Washington, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendelton, and Peyton Randolph. Henry and Pendleton met George Washington at Mount Vernon and rode to Philadelphia together.

    The session began in Carpenter's Hall on September 5, 1774, and it did not take long for Henry to make an impression on the delegates from other states who had never met him. But in his loose cannon style, there was distrust that he should be put on the most important committee or write the petition to the King. Henry's first two drafts did not pass. On October 26, the Continental Congress approved a draft by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. He had consulted with Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry. The petition, however, was rejected by the English authorities.

    Now back in Virginia, Henry was elected to the Second Virginia Convention, which intended to meet at St. John's Church in England on March 20, 1775. Many of the delegates wanted to remain British subjects, agreeing to let the royal authorities to veto legislation, and seek reconciliation. Henry's amendments would have none of that. He wanted an independent militia unattached from royal authority, predicting future conflict. His famous speech defended the amendments and his conviction toward independence.

    Minute Walk in History
    Patrick Henry

    Take a walk around Patrick Henry's only standing home, the home from which he made his famous, "Give Me Liberty ... " speech at the meeting of the Virginia Convention in Richmond in 1775. Listen to the speech in its entirety, or read it below, as we spend time witnessing Scotchtown, as well as pictures from Henry's past.

    Liberty or Death Speech, March 23, 1775, House of Burgesses, St. John's Church, Richmond

    No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

    Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it. I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free– if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained–we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

    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 those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The 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. 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.


    The Scotchtown plantation in Beavertown, Virginia, north of Richmond, was home to Patrick Henry, his wife Sarah Shelton Henry, whose family home was the site of the Civil War battle of Totopotomy Creek during the Overland Campaign north of Richmond, and their six children from 1771 to 1778. Her dowry to Henry was eight slaves. Henry was generally against the practice, but thought it impracticable to eradicate it at that time due to their reliance on it; by his death, he owned seventy-nine.

    Scotchtown is one of the largest 18th century homes (93 feet long by 35 feet wide) remaining in the United States, with a first floor, including a central hall and eight rooms. There is a complete attic, as well as a full basement with windows. Henry could afford this home due to his success in speculative land deals for Native American lands in the western part of Virginia and Kentucky. The home was originally a land grant to John Chiswell in 1717, who built a small house, then expanded it to its current size. It was also used as a tobacco store.

    Scotchtown is the only standing home of Patrick Henry, and is open for visiting by Preservation Virginia. It is located at 16120 Chiswell Lane, Beaverdam, Virginia 23015. There is a Visitor Center, house tours, exterior kitchen, and covered picnic area.

    By the time Scotchtown was bought by Patrick Henry, he had gone through many incarnations. Born in the town and plantation known as Studley, on May 29, 1736, Henry would be home-taught, ran a store unsuccessfully, and assisted with his father-in-law, John Shelton, at Hanover Tavern. While working at the tavern, which was located across the street from Hanover County Courthouse, Patrick Henry became colleagues with some of the lawyers who practiced there. He would self teach himself the law, and became a counselor in April 1760. His victory in the case of the Parsons Cause against the Anglican Church brought him notoriety, which he parlayed into a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1765. Only nine days into his tenure, Henry, with a quick wit and great oratorical skills, introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolves, railing against the recently passed Stamp Act. His rise to colonial national fame would continue over the next ten years.

    Image above: Engraving of Patrick Henry giving his "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech to the House of Burgesses at St. John's Church, 1876, Currier and Ives. Courtesy Library of Congress. Image below: Scotchtown, Home of Patrick Henry and his family during time of famous speech. Courtesy America's Best History. Info Source: Scotchtown; Virginia Preservation Society; St. John's Church History; Library of Congress; Wikipedia Commons; "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," Patrick Henry; Encyclopediavirginia.org.

    Scotchtown, Home of Patrick Henry

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