Remembering Patrick Henry’s Call for Liberty
The famous second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence opens by announcing this earth-shattering first principle: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Our nation is obsessing over what that exactly means. Today’s culture wars are hampering our ability to focus on much of anything else other than sharp divisions over equity, inclusion, diversity, BLM, CRT, pronouns, and similar raging fronts. Likewise, a parallel fight about the meaning of the unalienable right of life is gripping the nation in our abortion wars.
In the background of these heated debates lurks another of the Declaration’s critical first principles that gets somewhat less attention today: that men are “endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights,” among them being “Liberty.” As Americans, we too often take for granted the blessings of liberty. We too often presume that because we are free, we will always remain so.
We hold this conceited presumption at our peril. Without understanding how our present is anchored to the past, we can easily go adrift and be wrecked in today’s storms. Patrick Henry reflected, “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 of the future but by the past.” It’s time to heed this counsel.
There are many points of reflection we can choose, but on the anniversary of Henry’s most famous oration – “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” – calling upon his speech and its lessons is most fitting.
In 1774, the Virginia legislature declared its support for Boston’s resistance to English repression; the British governor responded by dissolving it. Undeterred, the delegates reconstituted themselves as the Virginia Convention at the Raleigh Tavern. The Second Virginia Convention met in 1775, moving from a tavern to a church – perhaps foregoing the counsel of liquor for that of the Creator. Henry demanded that the Virginians put themselves on a war footing to defend against British oppression, which met strong opposition. On March 23, 1775, he rose at St. John’s Church and exclaimed:
If we wish to be free…if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have so long engaged…we must fight!…Why stand we here idle?…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 for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
A violent thunderstorm swept in at the speech’s climax, perhaps showing divine approbation.
Henry’s proposal was decisively approved. The speech, combined with Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” swept through the colonies, forging a hardened resistance to the British. Although the Declaration of Independence was more than a year away, declaring independence had become a mere formality. Thomas Jefferson himself gave Henry credit for setting “the ball of the revolution” in motion.
Henry’s words were not idle chatter. The American Revolution cost many lives on both sides. Families were torn asunder. Homes and cities were devastated. And the economy collapsed. These were dire times. But we who live in this land of the free know that the fight was just and worth the cost.
In the course of the speech, Henry derided pleas that the Americans were too weak to fight: “But when shall we be stronger?…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?” Indeed not.
He also trusted that the Supreme Power would aid the revolutionaries: “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.”
What does Henry’s speech teach us today? Phantom hopes are delusional, immediate action is vital, reliance on God essential, and the protection of liberty is indispensable.
This is why my then-10-year-old daughter Leah and I included Patrick Henry as an invaluable part of Patriot Week, a non-partisan foundation that works to renew America’s spirit by celebrating our nation’s first principles, America’s Founding Fathers and other patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history.
“The battle,” Henry explained, “is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Be vigilant, active, and brave, and we may yet remain free.
The Honorable Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court judge and co-founder, with his daughter Leah, of Patriot Week. He is also the author of “America’s Survival Guide” and a former member of the State Board of Education.
This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs and made available via RealClearWire.