Much had changed in the nearly nine years since Patrick Henry had delivered his widely noted “Treason" speech in May 1765 as a protest against the Stamp Act.
The Boston Tea Party in December 1773 had prompted a crackdown by British authorities, who singled out Massachusetts for especially tight royal supervision. Trade and local governmental activities were suppressed and British troop strength in Boston was increased. As a reaction to these events, the First Continental Congress convened in September 1774, giving expression to the belief that violation of rights in Massachusetts threatened liberties throughout the colonies. Congress urged resistance to the Coercive Acts, the formation of militias and the establishment of a boycott of British goods. Parliament reacted in February 1775 by declaring the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion.
Following this torrent of events, a second session of the Virginia Convention opened in March 1775 at St. John’s Church in Richmond. Among the delegates, there was the 39-year-old Henry, who introduced a series of resolutions designed to prepare the colony for military action. Adoption of these measures was in no way assured. Tories were well represented at the convention and in the general population as well. Henry spoke in support of his proposals and argued that a war had already begun, saying in part:
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 up 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 contest. 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 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!
These dramatic words were received in initial silence, but shouts of support soon rang out. By a narrow margin, the delegates voted to begin military preparations, joining Massachusetts, which had taken similar action earlier, in the forefront of Revolutionary activity.
These, at least, were the words as best recollected after the fact, since the speech was not written in advance and not taken down as delivered. The most popular version (cited above) was published in 1817 by William Wirt, Patrick Henry's biographer.
Less than a month later, fighting would break out at Lexington and Concord.
See timeline of the American Revolution .
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