All Americans should be familiar with the immortal words that did much to ignite the American Revolution back in 1775. Surprisingly, some Americans, victims of modernist/progressive “unteaching” of history, have no clue as to who said, “…Give me liberty or give me death”, and the circumstances leading to one of the most famous speeches of American history, nor when it was orated. Indeed, there are many Americans walking among us who have never heard of Patrick Henry, have barely heard of the American Revolution, haven’t a clue as to the years it was fought, or the country our Revolutionary patriots struggled against to attain their liberty. How very sad! How frightening! To forget or ignore the past is to condemn the future! If history teaches anything, it teaches that truth.
Every Sunday afternoon during the summer months, the historic Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia gives a re-enactment of a small portion of The Second Virginia Convention, originally held in that church (it has been enlarged over the years) from March 20-27, 1775. Back in 2003, on a July Sunday afternoon, my family, along with some friends, and I took part in the recreation of that historic event. We participated in “voting” for some resolutions by stomping our feet loudly on the floor, to “approve” them. We “met” Peyton Randolph, Tom Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, and other notable patriots who participated in that original historic meeting (well, we met their ‘re-enactors’, to be accurate). But they all were in authentic colonial clothing.
The event concluded with Delegate Patrick Henry’s stirring speech, originally delivered on March 23, 1775. According to the Docent from the church, we were sitting within 10 feet of where Henry stood while he delivered his historic “challenge” to the delegates. While there were no contemporary verbatim printings of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech (actually it was in the year 1817 before the “recollections” of three witnesses who had heard Henry’s speech originally were collated and published by William Wirt, one of Henry’s early biographers), the present day text is generally accepted as portraying Henry’s words fairly accurately.
Patrick Henry had a reputation as one of the original “firebrand” proponents of separating the American colonies from the heavy-handed threats to their liberty posed by “Mother England”. His agitating for this cause went back to a fiery “discussion” of the problems with the English Crown and Parliament that Henry engaged in back in 1765, in debates with his fellow members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. During the debate on several proposals that would surely have been displeasing to the King, Patrick Henry said, “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus—Charles the First , his Cromwell—and George the Third…”. At this point the Speaker and many other burgesses began to yell “treason, treason,” at Henry, who merely smiled and continued, “may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” (King George 111 was the British king on the throne at this time—the very king that the colonists revolted against 10 years later.)
Of course, there are modern historians who deny that Henry really said these words. But they were typical of his fiery character, so I don’t doubt that he really did say them. A failure as a shopkeeper and a planter, Henry became a successful Virginia lawyer and politician in the critical years leading up to the “first” American Revolution (the “second” American Revolution began in 1861). He opposed what he, and many others, considered acts of tyrants from Parliament (Stamp Act, Townshend Act, etc.), and was one of many early patriots who kept “the cauldron of discontent” well stirred. Although he initially opposed the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 as a threat to the liberties of the colonists and to the rights of the states, his (and others’) criticisms did eventually help to bring about, in 1791, the adoption of the first 10 Amendments to that very Constitution—our Bill of Rights (which really
were ‘natural rights’). In his later years he did reconcile himself to the wisdom of his co-Founding generation, and became a Federalist.
Henry was a unique man among many unique men of that age. Here are a few of his well known quotes that, in my opinion, present his character accurately:
- It is when a people forget God, that tyrants forge their chains.
- I have disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give to them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had that and I had not given them one cent, they would be rich. If they had not that, and I had given them the world, they would be poor.
- The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. (He believed in “transparency” in government affairs.)
- Amongst other strange things said of me, I hear it is said by the Deists that I am one of their number; and, indeed, that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me more pain than the appellation of Tory; because I think religion of infinitely higher importance than politics; and I find much cause to reproach myself that I have lived so long and have given no decided and public proofs of my being a Christian. But…this is a character which I prize far above all this world has, or can boast.
- Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that precious jewel.
- This great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’ve often pondered what Patrick Henry and the men of our Founding Generation would say about their modern descendants—US! Would they smile and affirm how well we had preserved the concepts of liberty that so many of them sacrificed so much to pass down the corridors of time to modern Americans, or would they be aghast at what we, the inheritors of the greatest liberties ever known to mankind, had squandered before the altar of big and ever bigger government? Our liberties as American citizens living under the protection of the oldest written constitution in the world are constantly at risk by the always inherent force of governments, especially our Federal government, which today would be virtually unrecognizable to our Founding Generation. Liberties are always threatened the most during times of war (or the inducements toward war), and this was the case before and during our Revolutionary War, when the British forces committed atrocities against British Americans.
Threats to liberty became quite obvious during our misnamed “Civil War” (which really wasn’t anything of the sort), when President Lincoln suspended the constitutional Writ of Habeas Corpus (the right of an accused person to be informed of what he is accused), closed down many NORTHERN newspapers and jailed many newspaper editors in those northern states for daring to disagree with him, and tried to imprison a Supreme Court Justice. He also authorized the military to arrest and jail THOUSANDS of people in the Union who dared to disagree with waging war against the Confederate States of America, which was a separate and independent country when it was invaded by Abe Lincoln. Old “Saint Abraham” was a confirmed tyrant at heart, much to the dismay of many of todays’ historical illiterates who virtually “worship” his memory and claim he could almost “walk” on water (of course, compared to some of the “radical Republicans” in his cabinet, Lincoln was almost “saintly”—but not quite).
During WW11, President Franklin Roosevelt unconstitutionally abrogated the freedom of THOUSANDS of Americans of Japanese descent, including naturalized Japanese Americans, by having them rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps for the duration of the war, just because they were of Japanese ancestry. The liberties of free Americans have also been threatened during the “War on Terrorism”, and by a “Patriot Act” enacted unwisely (and out of fear—or something worse) that denies basic liberties and constitutional protections to Americans merely upon the suspicion that they are “involved” in terror (or in anti-government activities).
I get uncomfortable contemplating what our Founders would think of our lack of concern for the preservation of the freedoms they “bequeathed” to us—freedoms that we, their political and spiritual “descendants”, seem to be “frittering away” all too lightly. I fear that they would be very upset with what we, their descendants, have allowed to happen to their “noble experiment” in human liberty and to their concepts of limited government. And they’d be right to be upset! Would our determined Founders look at US as their enemies, especially those who call themselves “progressives” or far-left liberals? Perhaps they would. And that should bother all of us!