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‘Liberty or death’ lives on, 240 years later

April 20, 2015

By Sean CW Korsgaard

It was the birthing cry of a nation, and 240 years later, Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech still resonates.

In fact, if you know where to look in Richmond, you can still hear it.

A re-enactment was held at St. John’s Church on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the speech that Henry delivered at the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775. More re-enactments will be conducted for schoolchildren during April. And from May until September, the speech will be re-enacted for the general public every Sunday afternoon.

If George Washington was the sword of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson its pen, Patrick Henry was its voice – the Hanover lawyer having had a reputation as a firebrand since his election to the House of Burgesses in 1765.

After Royal Gov. Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1774, the members agreed to gather illegally in a series of meetings that would come to be known as the Virginia Conventions. There, Henry emerged as the leading voice calling for revolution.

“Virginia was very much on the fence leading up to the Revolution,” said Sarah Whiting, executive director of the St. John’s Church Foundation. “Patrick Henry was one of the leading voices in Virginia who pointed to events in Boston and said, ‘If it can happen there, it can happen here, and we need to prepare.’”

The Virginia Convention held its second meeting on March 23, 1775. At the time, Richmond was a small town in Henrico County. The meeting was conducted in St. John’s Episcopal Church (then known as Henrico Parish), the only building in Richmond that could seat the roughly 120 delegates in attendance.

They came to vote on whether to raise a militia to defend Virginia against the British – an issue that had the members bitterly divided.

A heated debate went on for nearly an hour, with even many of the more hawkish delegates urging restraint or caution. Then Patrick Henry took the floor.

With what one witness described as “an unearthly fire burning in his eyes,” Henry spoke without any notes, delivering a 10-minute speech noted for its masterful use of rhetoric and immortalized by its conclusion:

“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!”

The resolution to support a militia passed by a handful of votes; the “Liberty or Death” speech was credited with tipping the scales in favor of approval. A month later, shots would be fired between American militiamen and British troops at Lexington and Concord, marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

“Records tell us his resolution passed by at most four or five votes,” Whiting said. “Many historians point to the ‘Liberty or Death’ speech as what shifted public opinion in Virginia in favor of the Revolution. Were it not for the speech, it might have remained a regional conflict in New England.”

It is perhaps for that reason that the “Liberty or Death” speech occupies such an esteemed place in the American national mythos – and why St. John’s Church has made a point of doing full re-enactments since the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976.

This year, for the 240th anniversary of the speech, St. John’s Church is adding some special touches.

“In addition to the anniversary re-enactments we typically hold each March, we will be hosting additional re-enactments all summer long – each Sunday until Sept. 6,” Whiting said. “In addition, we will be putting the finishing touches on some of the restorations on site fairly soon.”

Michael Wells, one of the actors officially “cast” as Patrick Henry, urges people to take the opportunity to see what he calls “a patriotic passion play.”

“The ‘Liberty or Death’ speech has always been one of the great masterpieces of American oratory,” Wells said. “Having the chance to hear it in context, though, as part of a larger conversation, as part of a debate – it’s really only then that you begin to grasp its importance.”

Whiting said many lessons can be drawn from the speech.

“If there is anything we want people to take away from attending one of our reenactments, it’s that history is messy,” she said.

“People think of history as a timeline, but it’s really collective emotions, personal struggles, fights and debates. History isn’t a bunch of names and dates. It’s people struggling to find their way or do what they feel right, just like we do today.”

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To attend the re-enactments

Re-enactments of the “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech will be held at St. John’s Church, 2401 E. Broad St., on Sundays from May 24 through Sept. 6. Doors open at 1:15 p.m., and seating is first-come, first-served. The re-enactment will begin at 1:45 p.m.

The event is free, with a suggested donation of $5. Reserved tickets can be obtained online for $5. For more information, visit http://historicstjohnschurch.org