Patrick Henry is still regarded as the ‘Homer of Orators’ within the American literary canon. He is most renowned for his words ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death’ which he uttered to his followers on the eve of the Declaration of Independence. A recently taken public opinion poll by Gallup found that nearly one in two American associate Patrick Henry with his heroic oratory. According to the poll results, he stands alongside Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as one of the most inspiring public speakers in American history. This history speech first appeared in William Wirt’s biography in the year 1817 (Mayo, 1959). This essay will examine the factors that motivated Patrick Henry to give this historic speech.
One of the reasons for popularity the speech and the folk hero status of its speaker emerges from his firebrand persona – he was not so much an intellectual as he was an impassioned leader of men. For example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – prominent founding fathers – were both prolific writers. A compilation of their work brings up a tally of close to hundred volumes. While Washington and Jefferson were also known for their engaging public addresses, it was their writing prowess that would remain as lasting legacy. Patrick Henry, on the other hand, was not part of the pre-independence political establishment in America. He was one among the masses. The popular appeal of the person and his words is attributable to this heritage of Patrick Henry. It is in this context that poet Lord Byron referred to Henry as ‘the forest-born Demosthenes’ (Eddlem, 1990). Henry Stephens Randall, a clergyman, was present during Patrick Henry’s speech. He gives a first-hand account of the atmosphere during the speech. His account is consistent with the widely held view of Patrick Henry being a firebrand orator and an inspirational public speaker. According to Randall,
“Henry rose with an unearthly fire burning in his eye. He commenced somewhat calmly, but the smothered excitement began more and more to play upon his features and thrill in the tones of his voice. The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whip cords. 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. His last exclamation, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ was like the shout of the leader which turns back the rout of battle. It seemed as if a word from him would have led to any wild explosion of violence. Men looked beside themselves.” (Mayo, 1959)
Another historical fact that spurred Patrick Henry to deliver those memorable words was the refusal of the loyalists to abdicate their privileges under the British crown. Patrick Henry implored to the loyalists that the present state of American colonies is one of “humiliation under the iron heel of military despotism” (Tyler, 1898). Toward the last decades of the eighteenth century, the British Empire was under a period of distress. As a measure of setting right trade deficits, the King decreed an increase in taxes for all subjects, which included the colonials in America. The American settlers felt indignant by this decree. They felt that they were being treated like second-class people of the empire. Apart from this key trigger, the first signs of a revolutionary movement were already underway. A culmination of these factors propelled the course of history to its inevitable result, namely the Declaration of Independence of America and its subsequent fruition. (Tyler, 1898)