“Give me liberty, or give me death!” is a quotation attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Virginia Convention in 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond.
He is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The text of this speech first appeared in print in “Life and Character of Patrick Henry” by William Wirt which was first published in 1816, seventeen years after Patrick Henry’s death. In 1815, Wirt wrote to a friend, “from 1763 to 1789… not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech”. Wirt corresponded with men who had heard the speech and others who were acquainted with people who were there at the time. All agreed that the speech had produced a profound impact, but it seems that only one tried to render an actual text. Judge St. George Tucker, who had been present for the speech, gave Wirt his recollections and Wirt wrote back stating that “I have taken almost entirely Mr. Henry’s speech in the Convention of ’75 from you, as well as your description of its effect on your verbatim.” The original letter with Tucker’s remembrances has been lost.
Tucker’s account was based upon recollections and not notes several decades after the speech. Tucker attempted a reconstruction of only the first two paragraphs of the speech. Tucker wrote, “In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech”. Scholars have argued whether the speech we know is primarily the work of Wirt or Tucker but the speech published by Wirt in 1816 ends with:
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!