Few knew the man’s private anguish as Patrick Henry rose to the floor at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. They perhaps knew that only four days prior he had said his final goodbye to his beloved wife Sarah, the mother of his six children, but what they didn’t know was the long battle that they had waged against her mental illness, or how he chose to care for her at home rather than subject her even to the harsh but progressive treatment of the newly opened Eastern State Hospital. Having seen the condition, having witness the deplorable, even cruel estate they would have left his wife in, the 38 year old Virginia lawyer would take on the care of her himself at their home at Scotchtown Plantation, watching over her to prevent her from hurting herself, bathing and clothing and feeding her.
Even as she passed, denied a Christian burial because of her illness, Henry would bury her not more than 30 feet from their home, planting a lilac bush to mark that place now so sacred to him.
No, how could they know the private anguish of the man who found now that “his soul was bowed and bleeding under the heaviest of sorrows and personal distress.”
Yet, for as much as it perhaps felt like his life had ended with Sarah’s, it hadn’t. His crusade, it persisted, and he had long stood as one of the most vocal opponents to the Crown. In one of his more famous speeches a decade prior he had even gone as far as to suggest that George III might soon find that, amidst his oppression and tyranny, he would suffer that fate once inflicted upon Julius Caesar. Now the House of Burgesses met at Richmond, inland of the Colonial Capital of Williamsburg, and out of the reach of the Lieutenant-Governor John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, who had recently dissolved the body. Without Governor and Council, there was but one reason for the body to meet: to discuss the cause and course that Virginia must follow as the sound of Revolution echoed in the air around them.
Roughly 120 men, including the then retired Colonel George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gathered as Speaker Peyton Randolph convened the body on March 23, 1775. It wasn’t long before Henry would rise to the floor with a resolution to raise a militia and to put it in a defensive position against the Crown. Opposition would quickly rise to the floor. Patience, his critics would argue, was what was needed. Though perhaps ignored in the past, there had not been a ample chance for the Court of Saint James to respond to the latest petitions sent, and reconciliation might still be possible.
Though historians still debate the words that would be uttered next, none deny that those present were the witness to a turning point in American history. Without notes Henry would raise to the floor. A member of the clergy watching would describe “an unearthly fire burning in his eye”. His voice would be low and hushed as he uttered those first words
“Mr. President: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”
Slowly his voice would become louder, his tone firmer as he met the eyes of the delegates in that room.
“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss…”
His gaze would turn to the slights of the Crown against the American people. He would look to the British Army and Fleets, as he looked at reconciliation as a but a dream from which every one of them would wake from to experience the nightmare of this tyranny imposed on them. “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock in its tremendous vibrations. Finally, his pale face and flaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men leaned forward in their seats with heads strained forward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker’s…”
“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”
Finally, he would draw to a close, his voice sure in its steady determination, strong and coarse in those words as he pushed his wrists together as if bound by chains, and then suddenly pulling them apart as they burst:
“It is in 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!”
There would be no applause, no ovation for Henry, the room would fall to a deathly hush. One delegate, Colonel Edward Carrington, would declare, “Let me be buried at this spot!”, a request his wife would honor when he did pass. The Virginia Gazette would declare, “The sword is now drawn, and God knows when it will be sheathed.” “Liberty or Death” would become a rallying cry of the Revolution as the die was cast and Virginia would rush headlong into open defiance of the Crown.
Though no transcript of the actual text of Henry’s Speech exists, and the first printing did not occur until over 40 years later, Henry would stand as an imposing figure in early American history. Jefferson himself would later confide in writing to Daniel Webster, “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry. He was far before all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution… He was our leader in the measures of the Revolution in Virginia and in that respect more is due to him than to any other person.” What still does exist is the lilac tree that he planted for Sarah but that short distance from their house.