Patrick Henry’s Words Still Ring of Freedom’s Promise

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BY KATHY E. READ – Richmond, Va. — From Arlington National Cemetery to Appomattox Court House, Virginia is a veritable history lesson that illuminates how America became what it is today.

And millions of Americans flock here each summer to visit Mt. Vernon and Monticello, and Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and Yorktown and hopefully reflect on what it means to live in the world’s oldest and most energetic democracy.


If you’re traveling to the Old Dominion State this vacation season — and especially, if you’re bringing your children — there’s one slightly off-the-beaten tourist path site that you shouldn’t miss.  It could well be the one of the most poignant experiences you’ll ever have.

At St. John’s Henrico Parish Church each Sunday afternoon through the Labor Day weekend you can sit in spaces once occupied by such revolutionary notables as Washington, Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee and witness a stirring reenactment of Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech.

Henry, a Hanover County lawyer, gave the speech on Sunday, March 23, 1775 when 120 delegates from Virginia’s far-flung counties gathered at St. John’s to debate what action to take as British troops in Boston prepared to snuff out the last flame of freedom in rebellious Massachusetts.

Would Virginians actually take up arms to support their besieged fellow colonists in New England or would they bow to the far easier option and remain loyal to King George the 3rd?  On their decision rested the fate of our nation — and, as it turned out, liberty-loving people everywhere.

St. John’s Church, a white-frame building was 34 years old when the Second Virginia Convention elected to meet there.  It stood on what is now Church Hill —the highest spot in Richmond, then a tiny village of about 600 people.

Besides being the only spot in Richmond that could accommodate the delegates, the panoramic view from St. Johns’ heights allowed them to flee if the loyalist Royal Governor Lord Dunmore decided to send troops from the capital of Williamsburg, about 54 miles to the east.

The debate over whether to form and arm a Virginia militia was a nip-and-tick affair until Henry rose and delivered his impassioned speech.  It closed with a passage that resounded around the world and, indeed, does so to this day: “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!”

Even with the power of Henry’s oratory, the motion to arm a militia passed only by a small margin — perhaps, as few as five votes.

Henry’s words inspired not just Virginians but Americans in the other 12 colonies to take on the mightiest army and navy the world had yet seen.  When the British troops under Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown some six years later they filed to their ships with the regimental band playing an old ballad “The World Turned Upside Down.”

And so it had!   The American Revolution gave heart to the down-trodden French peasants who opted for the “rights of men” and threw off an oppressive monarchy — one that had shackled freedom for so long that it was referred to as the “ancient regime.”  It forced the British Parliament to concede more rights to the King’s subjects and significantly strengthened the House of Commons.  The great liberators of South America — Bolivar, San Martin and O’Higgins — all marched to its drumbeat.

And Henry’s words — once disseminated to all Americans — set off the inevitable chain reaction that abolished slavery in most of the North, set in motion the abolitionist movement and eventually — although belatedly to be sure — triggered the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation.

And they continual to echo throughout our nation’s history — in the feminist movement that began in 1840 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in London; in the bloody strikes that gave workers the right to organize; in the civil rights movement of 1960’s which further advanced the rights of African-Americans, and in the current continuing expansion of minority freedoms.

At a time when a growing number of dictators are striving to snuff out once vibrant democracies, a visit to St. John’s Church this summer or next is a good way to instill a continuing love of liberty in future generations of Americans.

Kathy E. Read is the former publisher of the Wilson Quarterly, the scholarly journal of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Her commentaries have appeared in leading U.S. newspapers.  Readers may write her at 4835 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814.