Sunday, March 28, 2010

Give Me Liberty

Title: Give Me Liberty
Speech By: Patrick Henry
Date: March 23, 1775
Location: St. John’s Church - Richmond, Virginia
Occasion: Resolution to arm the militia

One of the problems with this, like Socrates’ Apology, is that they were actually recorded long after the speaker’s demise. Plato is the actual author of Apology. There was no court reporter to take it all down verbatim. One can easily imagine Plato and a group of fellow philosophers musing after all was over, goblets of wine in hand, “Boy, that Socrates sure gave one hell of a last speech. We ought to write that down. Do you remember what he said exactly?”

This, Henry’s most famous speech, was reconstructed from listeners’ memories 15 years after his death - and 40 years after he gave it!

That could well explain such seemingly prescient phrases as: “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!” With the battle of Lexington and Concord still a month away, it’s either a remarkably accurate prediction, or, perhaps, a case of convenient memory.

Still, there is no doubt Henry was one of the most powerful speakers of his time. There is also little doubt this speech was memorable enough to make a lasting impression on those who heard it.

It is a speech rich in classical allusions - “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.” Can you see Henry as the successor to Diogenes? This time, not seeking an honest man, but the lessons of experience, and meeting with far greater success.

It is equally rich in Biblical allusions - “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.” In so doing, he was addressing his audience in terms with which they were intimately familiar. In other words, he was establishing that vital element by which to capture the attention of his listeners, audience identification.

He also resorts to one of the other elements that make an effective speech - repetition of one word to help his audience follow the points he wants to make. In this case “We” is the operative word. “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.

Later, he resorts to the same device using a different word - “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 has placed in our power.

Finally, he concludes with a stirring call to action - “Forbid it, Almighty God! -- I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

It is a rallying cry virtually every American schoolchild can recite. That stirring conclusion alone makes this speech worthy of inclusion in the Top Ten speeches of all time.

Text Posted: National Center for Public Policy Research
Words: 1018

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. It is a wonderful speech, and an even better encapsulation of American Exceptionalism. For the latter reason I cannot help but think of our current President when reminded of Patrick Henry's call to arms.

    I fear today that this speech would be trivialized by the legacy media and derided by government spokesman as "dangerous." It is not difficult to imagine a folksy version of "give me liberty or give me death" coming from Sarah Palin at some tea party event, only to have the ever smug Robert Gibbs brush it aside as extremist rhetoric.

    To me, that is where this speech stands in 2010, as a dividing line between those who still find it vibrant, eloquent and persuasive, and those who deem it "quaint" - at best.

    Juxtapose Patrick Henry's words with President Carter's much mocked "malaise" speech and that divide yet stands. Despite being so very different both share one common trait - neither could be spoken by our (I am told) eloquent President Obama. Put differently, take "give me liberty" and "malaise" as two ends of the continuum of American Exceptionalism. From that point it is easy to see that the truly historic aspect of the Obama presidency is that represents the first time our nation is lead (rhetorically or politically) by someone who does not except our national exceptionalism, and thus stands out of the flow of our national history.

  2. Jason - Thanks for you comment. As for being trivialized by the "legacy media," I have to point out that it is one of Time Magazine's Top Ten speeches of all time, which is how we wound up reviewing it this week.

    It may just be, that these incisive words still possess the power to stir even the jaded sensibilities of at least some in the legacy media. I would not be so bold as to include all among that number, but at least some still feel it's passion and logic.

    Until such time as even this kind of greatness can no longer be admitted - when it is replaced by the politically-correct blatherings of Abbie Hoffman or Eldridge Cleaver on the roster of great speeches, I can maintain hope.

    Ultimately, I do believe American exceptionalism is real, and will prevail. It is far more substantial than mere ethnocentric self-congratulation, as some would have us believe.

    Thanks again for taking time to comment on The Bully Pulpit.

  3. Hey Tom

    In reading what Patrick said that day I appears he though long and hard on these words. We must all remember that this was Treason and if Washington lost Patrick would have been hanging from a tree. He would have got his wish...

  4. Anonymous - You're absolutely correct. When he said "Give me liberty or give me death," he was speaking quite literally.

    The founders were acutely aware of this. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin noted - "We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

    Franklin's comment was a great play on words. The penalty for treason at the time, was for the condemned to be hung by the neck until almost dead, then taken down and drawn and quartered while still alive. The four pieces of the body were then sent to the four points of the Kingdom - North, South, East and West, as a warning to all others.

    So, Franklin was engaging in a little black humor when he said "hang separately." It was a grim method of execution they would have faced.

    Thanks for your observation!