Did Patrick Henry utter this staple of American patriotism?
Patrick Henry is one of the great early American heroes. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry convinced their fellow Virginians to join with the other colonies in opposing British rule. The most famous thing he did, however, and the thing which has passed down through generations of American history books, is give a speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses, showing his level of dedication to the cause of the colonies. On 23 March 1775, the Burgesses were debating whether to mobilize the colonial militia against the British forces. Henry stood up in that assembly and said:
“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?”
Then came his crowning statement:
“Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The House of Burgesses erupted into cheers and passed the mobilization resolution overwhelmingly. Ever since, Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” line has been a staple of American patriotism, memorized by schoolchildren and quoted endlessly by politicians.
But, you guessed it, Buzzkillers, there’s no evidence that Patrick Henry ever said “give me liberty or give me death.” In fact, there’s no direct and reliable record of his speech at all. In 1817, 42 years after the speech was given, a prominent Virginia politician, William Wirt, published a biography of Patrick Henry. He wrote the speech, based on, he said, the recollection of St. George Tucker, another old Virginia politician and judge, who had been there in 1775. Tucker said later that, “In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech.” Meaning that he could not remember it verbatim, nor could he remember the gist of what Patrick Henry said. All he could remember was that it was exciting.
Historians to this day debate whether the speech was mostly the work of St. George Tucker or William Wirt. But Wirt was writing at a time (the early 1800s) when the founding fathers were being celebrated and deified by all kinds of biographers. The founding father generation was starting to die off, the country was starting to expand, and its first histories were being written. Many of those histories and biographies were exaggerated or based on very slender evidence, if any at all. So most scholars think the speech is more a product of early 19th-century patriotism rather than the real thing.