On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry signaled the coming revolution when he spoke at a Virginia convention and allegedly implored: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Henry's speech on that day served to finalize support in Virginia to oppose any British military intervention in that colony; but what remains unknown is what Henry actually said in his speech.
Relations between the colonists and the government back in Great Britain had steadily deteriorated over the decade since the Stamp Act was passed in 1765. Violence related to the Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 led to the imposition of the Coercive or Intolerable Acts a year later.
On September 5, 1774, the first Congress in the United States met in Philadelphia to consider its reaction to the British government’s restraints on trade and representative government after the Boston Tea Party raid. In all, 56 delegates from 12 colonies came to Philadelphia including John Adams, his cousin Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman, John Jay, John Dickinson, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington.
During their session in Philadelphia, which ended after about seven weeks of debates, the group agreed to a boycott of British goods within the colonies as a sign of protest, spelled out in the Continental Association. The Association also called for an end of exports to Great Britain in the following year if the Intolerable Acts weren’t repealed.
Henry spoke to the second Virginia convention in March 1775, to discuss the events in Philadelphia and the need to form armed militias in Virginia in case British troops attempted to control the area. There was some opposition in Virginia to any form of organization against the crown, but the persuasive Henry, from accounts given by people at the meetings, ended the convention with an emotional plea.
What isn’t known is what Henry exactly said at the meeting’s end. Years later, biographer William Wirt in 1817 reconstructed the speech based on the recollections of Thomas Jefferson and others. Wirt’s account ends with the famous lines, “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!”
Some historians believe the words attributed to Henry were penned later by Wirt or St. George Tucker, a young attorney at the time of the convention. Loyalist businessman James Parker did write a brief account of the speech in April 1775, where he said Henry insulted King George. “You never heard anything more infamously insolent than P. Henry’s speech: he called the K—— a Tyrant, a fool, a puppet, and a tool to the ministry,” Parker wrote.
The convention passed the resolution offered by Henry to form militias to defend Virginia, and in the following month, fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord between British troops and the colonists, marking the official start of the Revolutionary War.