Lessons We Need from the Speech of Patrick Henry

The impassioned plea of Patrick Henry can teach us about dealing with the rise of tyranny.

Patrick Henry

A couple of years back I took one of those Facebook quizzes “Which Founding Father Are You?” (Remember when those were all the rage?) The answer came back: Patrick Henry. I could hardly have been more humbled or pleased (admitting how corny and imprecise such exercises often turned out to be!).

This reflection upon the most famous speech of Patrick Henry is, I think, very good. It is posted at the Daily Signal: “What We Can Learn From Patrick Henry’s ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ Speech.”

No written record was made of the speech at the time it was made, and it fell to Henry’s biographer, William Wirt, to try to reconstruct it many years later from the reminiscences of men who were present when it was delivered, especially St. George Tucker.

It might seem imprudent for Wirt to have produced such a reconstruction, since—relying on the memories of others, after a lapse of so many years—he could have had no clear idea of the exact phrases that Henry had used, except perhaps in the case of especially striking ones like the famous concluding sentence.

Nevertheless, we should be grateful that he did it. Wirt’s version eventually became as important to Americans generally as Henry’s original speech was to the Virginians of 1775. Wirt’s reconstruction has appeared in collections of American literature and has been read by countless American students over the years (and probably memorized by more than a few). Wirt’s version of the speech therefore helped to secure Henry’s honored place in American memory, and at the same time placed on the record an expression—“give me liberty or give me death”—that captures part of the spirit of the revolutionary generation.

Moreover, we can learn things of lasting value from Wirt’s reconstruction of Henry’s famous speech.

Here are the three main points on which the author believes we need to meditate:

  • Candid Civility—the ability to freely and passionately speak one’s mind, while demonstrating respect for sincere individuals on the opposite side of a debate.
  • Prudence—the wisdom to recognize when an opponent has no interest in sincerity or fair dealing, and intends to win by whatever oppression or skullduggery necessary.
  • Courage—a demonstrated commitment to do what is right, no matter what it costs. A belief that there are virtues worth sacrificing everything–including our very lives–to uphold and defend.

240 years later, we need to re-embrace the passion and wisdom of Patrick Henry and the American founders. If not, the freedoms they won for us at such great cost, and with such difficulty, may perish from the earth. I urge you to click through and thoughtfully contemplate the author’s brilliant final two paragraphs.

[See also, “Does Taking an Oath on the Constitution Count for Anything?]

The tyrants who threaten us are no longer an ocean away, but reside in our very neighborhoods—individuals who find nothing morally wrong with using the power of the State to oppress and plunder others for their own benefit. We must answer afresh, in our day: Do we love liberty more than this life itself? Or will we purchase a fleeting measure of comfort at the cost of chains for ourselves, and our children?

I urge you to utilize candid civility, prudence, and courage as you ponder your reply.