March 23, 1775 | Richmond, Virginia. I crossed the threshold of Henrico Parish Church and seated myself in one of its pews. Even with a hundred or more men in attendance, the air in the sanctuary was chilly. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson nodded at one another from across the aisle, but few of the delegates were in the mood for conversation. It had been deemed expedient for this Second Virginia Convention to convene outside the capitol to avoid interference from our esteemed governor, Lord Dunmore, and his Royal Marines; but it was not that minor, immediate threat that was uppermost in our minds.
Official news of how the First Continental Congress’s last petition to the King had fared with Parliament was still snailing back to us from across the Atlantic. The petition had been delivered to the House of Commons on January 19th and presented to the House of Lords on the following day. On February 5th, Benjamin Franklin, William Bollan, and Arthur Lee had sent a circular letter to the Speakers of the Colonial Assemblies. It began:
Our last letter informed you that the King had declared his intention of laying the petition before his two Houses of Parliament. It has accordingly been laid before each House, but undistinguished among a variety of letters and other papers from America.
A motion made by Lord Chatham to withdraw the troops from Boston, as the first step towards a conciliating plan, was rejected; and the ministry have declared in both Houses the determination to enforce obedience to all the late laws. For this purpose, we understand that three regiments of foot, one of dragoons, seven hundred marines, six sloops of war, and two frigates are now under orders for America.
While the crown never favored us with a formal reply, the volley that the King’s men fired at Concord bridge was invitation enough for all that ensued that day, and every day of the arduous months and years that followed. But “the shot heard round the world” had yet to be fired, and many of the delegates were still loyal to the King.
It was for the purpose of discussing the Continental Congress and for determining measures for our colony’s defense that this Second Virginia Convention had convened on March 20th. In the two intervening days, the assembly had appointed Peyton Randolph president and approved seven delegates—including Washington and Jefferson—to represent our colony in the second Congress. Now Patrick Henry had been called upon to address the matter of our defense.
A native of Virginia from Hanover County, Henry had reportedly succeeded as a lawyer after failing as a shopkeeper. As he rose from his seat in the third pew, I cursed the wig that was partially obstructing my view. Through the gap between the delegate’s neck and his right curl, I glimpsed a thin-lipped man with a prominent nose, who appeared to be approaching his fortieth year of age. Then he presented himself before Mr. Randolph, who sat facing us at the back of the church, and began to deliver his address.
His three resolutions essentially came down to two proposals: forming a colonial militia and outfitting it for war. While the first measure had already been deemed expedient to circumvent Lord Dunmore’s machinations to undermine colonial representation in the House of Burgesses, arming ourselves against the crown was a bold suggestion, even for Henry.
This was not the first time that his brilliant oratory had courted sedition. Ten years earlier, he had begun his political career in the House of Burgesses by opposing the Stamp Act in the following terms: “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third—” (‘Treason!’ his audience had erupted) “—and George the Third may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Now Henry was suggesting that we move to take definitive action against the crown, and even the delegates who agreed with him were stunned. After all, why petition the King for a redress of grievances and then arm ourselves against his reply? Could we be sure that he would spurn our latest appeal, as he had the others before it? Did we have so little faith in the magnanimity of a sovereign who was as willing to listen to our concerns as he was unwilling to act on them? The delegates who spoke after Henry made similar objections. They argued that such an act amounted to a “prophecy of war” that “would place Virginia in the false position of appearing not to resist armed conflict but to invite it.” Some of the men spoke truly; all of them spoke prudently. Their consensus was that no warlike measure should be taken to match the crown’s preparations unless war became inevitable.
Inevitable? I thought. Blood had already been spilt in the Boston Massacre, and royal warships were still bottling up trade in that city’s harbor after a year-long blockade. If we did not hasten to precipitate the crown’s intentions, the only thing that would be inevitable about the war is that we would lose it.
I waited impatiently for Henry’s rebuttal. As he resumed his former position, there was an unearthly fire burning in his eye that belied his air of impassioned calm.
“Mr. President,” he began in his resonant voice, “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 character very opposite to theirs—I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.”
Henry paused before continuing with renewed frankness.
“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 the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the 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 as guilty of treason towards my country and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”
A few of the other delegates shifted uneasily. It was common knowledge that George III advocated the Divine Right of Kings, as had other monarch before him. According to this view, to oppose one’s God-ordained monarch was not just an act of treason against the crown but a direct affront to the majesty of heaven that had anointed him. Thus, Henry was subtly affirming the Lockean view that loyalty to one’s heavenly King and loyalty to one’s earthly king could be divided; that George III ruled by divine favor, not by divine right; and that if “right” no longer included behaving rightly and protecting the rights of the people, that favor could be removed without any blame attaching itself to the earthly parties that had helped to depose it.
“Mr. President,” Henry resumed more emphatically, “it is natural to 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 that 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 may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth—to know the worst and to provide for it.”
Henry’s rich voice had risen to an impassioned tingle that heightened every nerve. His restraint but not his eloquence abandoned, logic and rhetoric intermingled freely with passion and patriotism. Everyone dreaded his next words; no one dated to miss them. Who could have foreseen that one man’s tongue would determine the fate of so many? As he continued, excitement began to play more and more upon his features.
“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 of the future but by the past. And judging by the past,” his voice rose contemptuously, “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 these 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 argument 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 already been exhausted? Let us not—I beseech you, sir—deceive ourselves. 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!”
The force of Henry’s call to arms was almost savage. Word by word, he had built his case, stripping the truth bare with a tide of rhetoric that spared us no illusions. It now seemed as if all his previous speeches had been leading to some other moment in time. That time had come; that moment was now. Again, his voice rose and fell upon our ears.
“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 is 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. The 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 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 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!”
Henry’s words seemed to reverberate against the walls of the building and all within them. The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid like whipcords.
“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!”
Henry ceased, breathing heavily. No one spoke; only Henry moved. He paused to let his words sink in, then returned to his seat with the same deliberation with which he had risen from it. It was a moment before any of us realized that his speech had ended. I glanced around the room. Washington was immobile. Jefferson was leaning forward, still staring at the spot where Henry had stood, apparently lost in thought. Even the delegates who had opposed him were beside themselves. No other member was yet adventurous enough to interfere with that voice which had so lately subdued and captivated. Finally, Mr. Randolph rallied himself and, after some suitable deliberation, called Henry’s resolutions to a vote. By a narrow margin, they passed.
So. The thing is done. We men of Virginia are hereby resolved to commit ourselves to the cause of liberty, and no man among us knows when we shall see peace again.
God help us.
For Your Reference:
King George III, John Locke, and the American Revolution
The First Continental Congress’s Petition for a Redress of Grievances
Patrick Henry, the Second Virginia Convention, and the Speech
The Letter from Benjamin Franklin, William Bollan, and Arthur Lee
Where direct quotes from the above materials were employed, some of the spelling and punctuation was revised for clarity and continuity.