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Give me liberty or give me death! Patrick Henry
Give me liberty or give me death!  Patrick Henry

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In March of 1775, roughly a month before shots would be fired on Lexington green, several men had gathered together in Richmond for the second meeting of the newly-formed Virginia Convention. It was a hastily organized affair, for their traditional forum (and America’s most famous governing body), the House of Burgesses, had just been dissolved in 1774 by the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore. Dunmore, who would soon be fleeing Virginian soil to take refuge on a British warship, ought to have known it couldn’t be so easy to squash the revolutionary spirit of these men.

On this particular day, a hot-headed and passionate orator named Patrick Henry took the podium, and gave one of the most famous speeches in all of American history. "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!"

Patrick Henry was probably invoking a theme from a popular contemporary play, Cato: A Tragedy, which includes the line “It is not now time to talk of aught… But chains or conquest, liberty or death” (Act II, Scene 4). The play depicted the life of Roman statesman Cato, a proponent of republicanism who renounced the tyranny of Caesar’s dictatorship. Nathan Hale, in his famous last words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” was also quoting from the play. Whatever Patrick Henry’s inspiration may have been, it proved more than effective that day in Richmond. Reportedly, the delegates (which included Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, among others) broke into lusty cheers and called “To arms! To arms!” His stirring words are credited with having swung the balance in convincing the Convention to send Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War. Celebrate his free spirit by pasting his words on your car.