“Give me liberty, or give me death!”
– Patrick Henry
These seven words, spoken by the “Voice of the Revolution”, have been immortalized in the memories of generations of Americans. Every July 4th, millions of patriotic citizens recall this declaration and the man who made it.
Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736 – the second son of John and Sarah Henry. Named after his uncle, Reverend Patrick Henry, this future leader lived an unpretentious and ordinary childhood on his father’s tobacco plantation.
After finishing school, Patrick Henry, who was unable to attend college because of the cost, successively managed a country store, a small tobacco farm, and then another country store. Unfortunately, events seemed to conspire against him, and, in 1759, he found himself penniless and out of work – with a family to support.
Not daunted by his failures, Patrick Henry boldly set to work studying law. After studying for only six weeks, he took the examination… and barely passed.
While Henry worked as a lawyer, his skills and his popularity grew quickly. In 1765, he was elected as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. In this position, Patrick Henry continued to eloquently defended liberty while he watched the situation between the American Colonies and Great Britain slowly deteriorate. In 1775, recognizing the necessity of war, Patrick Henry gave his most famous speech. He ended:
“It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! 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! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
This stirring speech carried the day, and Virginia soon broke all connections with the British.
Soon after Virginia’s cessation, Patrick Henry’s fellow citizens showed their approval by electing him to five consecutive terms as governor. Rather than serving a sixth term, Henry retired to private life and his law practice.
After the Constitution was approved, however, he re-entered politics to fight for the Bill of Rights. Once more, Patrick Henry won his case, and, in 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to our Constitution. Freedom was preserved.
When, in 1799, the “Firebrand of the Revolution” died, he left us a valuable example.
Although Patrick Henry is more often remembered today as a fiery patriotic orator, he valued his reputation as a Christian vastly more than his reputation as a patriot. In fact, he wrote in a letter to his daughter:
“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 much more pain than the appellation of Tory [British supporter]; 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, indeed, my dear child, this is a character which I prize far above all this world has, or can boast.”
Without the slightest doubt, Patrick Henry was a true Christian.
As a Christian, Patrick Henry placed a high value on freedom. Indeed, he valued the liberty of the people more than popularity or even life. That is certainly more than can be said for most politicians today.
Even before the United States had declared its independence, Patrick Henry was not afraid to speak out against unjust laws… even if they were supported by the king of England. For instance, during his first major case, the Parson’s Cause, Patrick Henry boldly declared that the king should not veto good laws passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses. Even worse, he asked how King George in faraway England could make better laws than the elected assemblymen in Virginia. The opposing lawyer angrily accused Patrick Henry of treason, but Henry refused to recant. He had spoken the truth and he would stand by it.
Patrick Henry once told a friend that “adversity toughens manhood”, and, through his life, he proved the truth of that statement. Patrick Henry consistently refused to bow to the idols of popularity or politically correctness. Instead, like a true patriot, he carefully based his decisions on the best interests of the citizens of the United States and stood unwaveringly on his convictions.
The “Voice of the Revolution”, as Patrick Henry was called, certainly had a way with words… to say the least. Throughout his life, Patrick Henry, both as a lawyer and statesman, spoke many thousands of times. He was a natural-born speaker who, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not write out his speeches beforehand. Rather, Patrick Henry’s magnificent orations were mostly extemporaneous, spoken without written text or notes.
This spontaneity gave Henry’s lectures a fervor and zeal that set him apart from his colleagues. Indeed, his addresses were so stirring that listeners once said that Henry “made their blood run cold, and their hair stand on end.”
Another man recalled, “Patrick, when he speaks, stirs the boys so that I’ve seen them jump up and crack their heels together, and slam their caps on the ground and stamp them.”
Few men have ever attained an oral proficiency even close to that of Patrick Henry.
In a time of great men, Patrick Henry stood out. His steadfast devotion to Christianity produced a firm belief in freedom and justice. His extraordinary skill in oration enabled him to accomplish much as a statesman. Patrick Henry set us a noble example of a true Christian gentleman: patriotic, resolute, humble, kind, and loyal. Let us determine to be like him.