transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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What does the phrase "give me liberty or give me death" mean?

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"Give me liberty or give me death" means that Patrick Henry would rather die than live without liberty. He believed that the liberty the Americans cherished so much was under threat from the British, and that they must therefore be prepared to fight for it.

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The most famous expression from Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention—“Give me liberty or give me death”—perfectly encapsulates the importance that he and many other Americans at the time gave to liberty. The American colonists believed themselves to be blessed with the same liberties of freeborn Englishmen, and they were therefore outraged at what they saw as the tyrannical behavior of successive British governments, which they regarded as a threat to the liberties they so deeply venerated and cherished.

It is one thing, however, to show anger at an assault on one's liberties; it is quite another to be prepared to fight for them. And in his famous speech, Patrick Henry wants to convey to his audience that the American colonists are now left with no choice but to fight for their liberties, even if it means death. Far better to die on your feet than live on your knees, as the saying goes. If the British are not prepared to give the Americans their natural rights and liberties, then the colonists must rise up in armed rebellion to ensure that they and future generations will enjoy what is rightfully theirs.

By confronting his audience with a stark choice—live in liberty or die in slavery—Henry is attempting to convey the urgency of the situation as he sees it. The time is now, and there is no longer any time to waste. The Americans must fight for their liberty.

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What does the speaker mean when he asserts, "give me liberty or give me death"?

In his 1775 speech to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry, a statesman and lawyer, tried to convince his fellow Americans to declare war against Great Britain. At this time, America was ruled as a colony by the British, but Americans were growing increasingly restless for independence.

At the end of his speech, Henry asked his audience, "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains?" This is of course a rhetorical question, and the implied answer was that peace was not worth the lack of freedom and subservience with which it must be bought. Henry encouraged his audience to cast off their metaphorical "chains" and fight for their freedom and independence.

Henry concluded the speech by declaring, "give me liberty or give me death!" The implication of this line is that Henry was willing to die for his freedom. The line also implies that, faced with a choice between death or continued enslavement to British colonial rule, Henry would have taken death. His point was perhaps that British colonial rule was a fate worse than death, especially should that death be given for the cause of freedom.

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