Speech to the Virginia Convention Summary
“Speech to the Virginia Convention” is a 1775 speech that Patrick Henry delivered to the Second Virginia Convention. In it, he implores his countrymen to declare war against the British.
Henry points to the presence of British soldiers in the colonies, asserting that their presence is not for the protection of the colonists but rather for the enforcement of British colonial rule.
- He outlines several occasions on which the British have dismissed the colonists’ attempts at peaceful compromise.
He ends by insisting that the colonies have already been subjugated and that the only way to free themselves is to start a revolution.
On March 23, 1775, less than a month before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Patrick Henry addressed the House of Burgesses in Richmond, Virginia. He gave a speech that has been remembered popularly as the “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Although Henry’s discourse was not recorded at the time (partially because Henry delivered it extemporaneously), Henry’s biographer, William Wirt, later gathered testimony from people who had heard him speak. Through their accounts, Wirt reconstructed what Henry spoke that day. The motivation behind the speech was to incite the determination of the Virginia House members to raise a militia, or voluntary army, that would fight against the British army. It should be noted that more modern historians have challenged the authenticity of Wirt’s account of Henry’s speech. However, Henry’s rhetoric was very effective, and his speech has become one of the more famous in American history.
Henry begins by addressing the men who spoke before him that day in the House. These men had argued against staging a war against Britain; they are against the proposal Henry was about to make for the colony of Virginia to form a militia, as many of the northern colonies had already done. Henry compliments those who had spoken against the plan by calling them patriots, but he presents the idea that it is possible that different people could see the same subject in different ways. Henry then apologizes for speaking against these men’s ideas. He feels compelled to do so, he tells them, for he considers the subject a matter of choice between living in freedom or suffering as slaves. If he did not speak out on this topic, he says, he would consider himself guilty of treason.
Henry then warns the assembly against closing their eyes to the truth. Although it might be painful, he says, it is the duty of wise men to look unblinkingly at what is happening around them in their struggle for liberty. He then states that he has only his experience on which to base his recommendations. In the past ten years, he has observed the British and learned not to trust their promises. If the British promise peace and freedom, he questions why they have brought their troops, which can be seen all over the land as well as along the coastal waters. He asks if they think it is the role of armies and fleets of ships to administer love. He answers his question by saying it is not. The presence of the British troops is a sign of “war and subjugation.”
The British, Henry reminds the House, told them the colonists are too weak to stand on their own. Henry asks when and how they would ever become strong enough. He wants to know if inaction would make them stronger. He adds that victory is not given just to the strong: victory is also grasped by those who are brave and vigilant.
Henry closes his speech by telling the House members that the war, in essence, has already begun. He repeats the fact that there are already British troops on their land. There will be no peace, he says, until the colonists have been chained to the ground. Henry ends with this statement: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”