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 unblinking at what is happening around them in their struggle for liberty. He...
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