Patrick Henry: “Liberty”
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience.”
As the British army tightened the noose around Boston, the Virginia Assembly met in an extralegal session to discuss what steps to take in the wake of what was happening up North. The British hoped that by isolating Boston, they could stamp out the revolution. As the speech below demonstrates, the effect was the opposite of what the British desired, for Virginians—and other colonists—realized that “If they can do it to Boston, they can do it to us.”
The words of the debate were later written from memory by William Wirt, and though they may not be the exact words spoken by Patrick Henry and others, the general consensus among historians is that they certainly contain the spirit of Henry's remarks and are consistent with what we know of his eloquence. He was, in many ways, the voice of the American Revolution. Likewise, the authenticity of the remarks by George Washington has been called into question, but again, they probably accurately reflect his feelings. Loyal almost to the last, he was now thoroughly fed up with the British.
The members address the president of the meeting to gain the floor. The President acknowledges each by the jurisdiction which he represents.
Mr. Pendleton: Mr. President.
The President: The gentleman from Caroline.
Mr. Pendleton: I hope this Convention will proceed slowly before rushing the country into war. Is this a moment to disgust our friends in England who are laboring for the repeal of the unjust taxes which afflict us, to extinguish all the conspiring sympathies which are working in our favor, to turn their friendship into hatred, their pity into revenge? Are we ready for war? Where are our stores—where our arms—where our soldiers—where our money, the sinews of war? They are nowhere to be found in sufficient force or abundance to give us reasonable hope of successful resistance. In truth, we are poor and defenseless, and should strike when it becomes absolutely necessary—not before. And yet the gentlemen in favor of this resolution talk of assuming the front of war, of assuming it, too, against a nation one of the most formidable in the world. A nation ready and armed at all points; her navy riding in triumph in every sea; her armies never marching but to certain victory. For God's sake, Mr. President, let us be patient—let us allow all reasonable delay, and then if the worse comes to the worst, we will have no feelings of blame. There is no man in this Convention more attached to the liberties of this country than is the man who addresses you. But think before we sacrifice perhaps everything to the spirit of indignation and revenge. Think of the strength and lustre which we derive from our connection with Great Britain—the domestic comforts which we have drawn from the same source—the ties of trade and business—the friends and relatives we have in England. The tyrannies from which we suffer are, after all, the tyrannies of a party in temporary possession of power. Give a little time, take no hostile action, and these tyrants will be overthrown in England and men in sympathy with America will assume authority. Our ills will pass away and the sunshine of the halcyon days of old will come back again. We must arm, you say; but gentlemen must remember that blows are apt to follow the arming, and blood will follow blows, and, sir, when this occurs the dogs of war will be loosed, friends will be converted into enemies, and this flourishing country will be swept with a tornado of death and destruction.
Mr. Nicholas: Mr. President.
The President: The gentleman from James City.
Mr. Nicholas: I agree heartily with the gentleman from Caroline. I consider the resolutions of the gentleman from Hanover as hasty, rash and unreasonable. But, more than that, I deem the militia upon which the gentleman depends as wholly insufficient. It will prove the bane of the war into which the gentleman from Hanover wishes to hurry us. Sir, I hope this resolution will be voted down but, sir, if the colony is to be armed, let us do it in the proper way. The late war with France proved the value of trained soldiers, and Virginia was envied by the other colonies for its two regiments of regular troops under the command of a distinguished gentleman present here. Let Virginia, if she means war, raise at once a force of 10,000 men to be trained and serve for the war. Short enlistments, such as this gentleman contemplates, will prove the bane of the war. But I speak for peace not war, till it is forced upon us.
Thomas Nelson: Mr. President.
The President: The gentleman from York county.
Mr. Nelson: I am a merchant of Yorktown, but I am a Virginian first. Let my trade perish. I call God to witness that if any British troops are landed in the County of York, of which I am lieutenant, I will wait for no orders, but will summon the militia and drive the invaders into the sea.
George Washington: Mr. President.
The President: The gentleman from Fairfax.
Mr. Washington. Mr. President, I am a soldier and believe in being prepared. For that and other reasons, I will give my vote for the resolutions of the gentleman from Hanover. Rather than submit to the present condition of things, I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head to the relief of Boston.
Patrick Henry: Mr. President.
The President: The gentleman from Hanover.
Mr. Henry: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the house. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if entertaining, as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery. And in proportion to the magnitude of the subject, ought to be the freedom of debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time through fear of giving offense I should consider myself guilty of treason toward my country and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of Heaven which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President it is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth—and listen to the song of the siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it might cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the house? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.
Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation—the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British Ministry have been so long forging.
And what have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned—we have remonstrated—we have supplicated—we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise tip friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the con—test. There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged, their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!! I repeat it, sir, let it come!!!
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!
[He took his seat. No murmur of applause was heard. The effect was too deep. After the trance of a moment, several members started from their seats. The cry, “To arms” seemed to quiver on every lip and gleam from every eye.]
The President: The question is on the adoption of the resolutions of the gentleman from Hanover. As many as are in favor will say aye—as many as are opposed will say no. The ayes have it and the resolutions are adopted.