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Patrick Henry

Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1775

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death”

Patrick Henry, widely considered a Founding Father of the United States, delivered his speech “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death” to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. The goal of the convention was to decide how to handle Britain’s military threat. Henry believed in fighting for independence—the speech’s immediate goal was to convince Virginia to raise a militia—while others wanted to compromise with Britain. Although no manuscript of Henry’s speech exists, accounts from convention attendees were compiled, and the current text was canonized 42 years later by William Wirt in his biography on Patrick Henry.

This guide refers to the text printed in Holt McDougal’s 2007 Elements of Literature: Essentials of American Literature anthology.

Henry addresses his speech to the president of the Virginia Convention: Peyton Randolph. He offers respect to the men who spoke before him, acknowledging that people may reasonably disagree on a subject. He then pronounces that the question of independence is an important one. Henry intimates that this discussion is so important to their country that he cannot keep his thoughts to himself; if he did, he would be “guilty of treason” and of dishonoring God himself (83).

Henry acknowledges that the colonists’ hopes of peaceful resolution are normal; however, he urges them to consider that they may be ignoring Great Britain’s unjust treatment. He argues that they must open their ears and eyes and “know the whole truth,” no matter how much anguish it causes (83). He explains that he is confident, based on previous experience with Britain’s behavior, that the British will continue to behave the same way. He asks the colonists to consider what Britain has done to make them hope for a different outcome. He declares that they must not trust Britain or risk betrayal, noting that Britain is currently preparing for war and arguing that Britain’s only possible reason for developing its army and navy is to use them against the colonies.

Henry suggests that the colonists have done everything they can to be civil to the British, but their requests have been met with violence and disregard “for the last ten years” (84). Having explored all nonviolent avenues, Henry says, the colonists cannot simply hope for peace any longer: If the colonists want freedom, then they need to fight for it.

Henry then addresses the concerns that the colonists’ military power is weak by questioning whether this situation is likely to improve. On the contrary, he implies that their strength is likely to dwindle, as Britain might take steps such as disarming colonists or stationing soldiers in their homes. Furthermore, Henry says the colonies have the most powerful thing they could have on their side: God, who has also furnished them with potential allies. He reiterates that the colonists have no choice except to fight or to succumb to “slavery.”

Henry suggests that the current state of peace is an illusion: Britain’s actions signal that war has already begun. He ends by reiterating that he would rather die than continue to live in “chains,” saying, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” (85).