What inspired Patrick Henry to proclaim, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!”?
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond, VA, at the Second Virginia Convention.In attendance were 120 delegates, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, and Peyton Randolph. Dozens of British sympathizers were in the audience.
The delegates met in Richmond “to avoid the wrath of Royal Governor Lord Dunmore who resided in Williamsburg,” explains Charles Wissinger, the casting director and Richmond-based actor who, with a cast of nine actors, regularly reenacts a portion of the Convention.
“Henry’s words not only articulated the concept of liberty as an essential right — a philosophy drawn from the writings of Enlightenment scholars — but also inspired support during a critical turning point in uniting the Colonies against British rule.”
It was a pleasure to interview Wissinger and the executive director of the St. John’s Church Foundation, Sarah Whiting. She sits at the helm of this National Historic Landmark, which in addition to weekly reenactments is home to Richmond’s first public cemetery — the final resting place of important figures in American history such as George Wythe (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), and Elizabeth Arnold Poe (mother of writer Edgar Allan Poe).
St. John’s Church (c. 1741) is in Richmond’s oldest standing neighborhood, Church Hill, and it features a permanent exhibit that delves into the area’s history, including events leading to the American Revolution. “There’s perhaps no better place to get a taste of the revolutionary spirit that forever altered the course of the nation,” Whiting says.
And scroll down for more of our Q&A with Wissinger and Whiting. — David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, and Hope Katz Gibbs.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about Patrick Henry.
Charles Wissinger: He was born in Studley, VA, a little town in Hanover County. Growing up, he listened to Rev. Samuel Davies at Polegreen Church, and he would take the messages he learned in church and practice them aloud. This is how he learned to become an orator. As a young man, he tried his hand unsuccessfully at being a farmer and merchant, perhaps because he was destined for something bigger.
David Bruce Smith: Henry’s house burned down around 1762. How did that impact Henry and his young bride, Sarah Shelton?
Charles Wissinger: Sarah’s family owned the Shelton Tavern, which is now known as the Hanover Tavern, and her father invited the couple to live there after the fire as long as they helped with the guests. Across the street was the courthouse, where Henry’s father, John Henry, was the presiding judge in Hanover. Looking for a new career, Henry read books, studied law, and went to the courthouse to watch his father work.
Sarah Whiting: In early 1763 he passed the Virginia Bar, and eight months later he tried the Parson’s Cause case, which turned out to be his most famous case.
David Bruce Smith: The case is significant because the verdict is considered the first step toward the American Revolution.
Charles Wissinger: That’s right. At the time, parsons (ministers, reverends, and pastors) were paid with the cash crop of the time — tobacco. In the years leading up to the lawsuit, little rain fell and the extensive minerals in the ground made the crop malnourished. As a result, the parsons received less tobacco, because it was valued at a higher price. They asked the local courts if they could be paid the same amount of tobacco they had received before, even though it was now worth much more. The courts declined their request.
David Bruce Smith: England’s King George, however, stepped in and reversed the court’s decision.
Charles Wissinger: Right again. The king told the parsons they could receive the same amount of tobacco from year to year regardless of its value. While that was better for the parsons, it was bad for everyone else — making the ruling damaging to the economy. Then Patrick Henry entered the Parson’s Cause case, asking how much in back pay the parsons would receive to cover the difference under the king’s new ruling.
Hope Katz Gibbs: What was Patrick Henry’s argument?
Sarah Whiting: Henry said the king had overstepped his bounds, contradicting the rules set by King James, who said we Colonists were allowed to govern ourselves. During his arguments, Patrick Henry called King George a tyrant. He won the case, leaving it to the jury to decide how much in back pay the parsons would receive.
David Bruce Smith: And the jury’s decision was two pennies per pound of tobacco, a decision that became known as the Two Penny Act.
Charles Wissinger: Think about that the next time you are asked for your “two cents’ worth”!
Another amazing fact about the lowly penny is that in January 2012, a one-cent copper coin from the earliest days of the US Mint in 1793 sold for a record $1.38 million at a Florida auction — the most expensive coin ever sold for at auction.
It was known as a “Chain Cent,” because the central design on the back is a chain of 13 linking rings representing the solidarity of the 13 original colonies. Some critics, however, claimed the chain was symbolic of slavery, and the design was quickly changed from rings to a wreath.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Where did Patrick Henry’s fame and recognition as an orator who fought for individual rights and liberties lead him?
Charles Wissinger: In 1772, he was elected to the House of Burgesses as a representative of Hanover County. In 1774, the Royal-appointed governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses because he saw that the delegates were leaning toward arming a militia and defending themselves against Britain.
The first Virginia Convention was held in Virginia’s capital, Williamsburg. Its primary focus was to decide on a place to hold the second Virginia Convention — because they needed to be as far from Lord Dunmore as possible to hold an extralegal meeting.
David Bruce Smith: Meaning not illegal, but not entirely legal either. Can you explain that?
Sarah Whiting: Lord Dunmore was appointed to oversee our elected officials. When he disbanded the House of Burgesses, neither Parliament nor the king knew about it. So the delegates who thought he had no right to do so took it upon themselves to do business as usual without Dunmore’s permission. It is a hazy, complicated line here! Dunmore is overstepping the power he thinks he has, and the delegates are choosing to start the Conventions to continue their business.
Hope Katz Gibbs: What happened during the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775?
Charles Wissinger: Though it was a week-long meeting, we don’t know how many of the 120 delegates were there each day. You have to understand that they were entrepreneurs and farmers, and it was just before the spring harvest. But one of the key issues they faced was to organize and arm a militia in defense of the Colony of Virginia.
David Bruce Smith: That brings us to Patrick Henry’s famous speech.
Sarah Whiting: Correct. Patrick Henry used his oratory skills to sway the votes in favor of forming the militia with his “Liberty or Death” speech. Because there is no record of how many people voted or how many people were at the convention, we can only rely on letters and diaries noting that the vote was extremely close. All we know for sure is that the vote to form a militia barely passed.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Patrick Henry was asked to head the committee that created a plan to organize the defensive militia.
Charles Wissinger: Yes, and not many people know that Col. George Washington already had a plan in his pocket when he sat at the Virginia Convention. That was the basis for the plan that eventually passed. After that, Washington went to the different counties in Virginia to organize and send troops to the North to aid the New England area. Within a year, Patrick Henry is still in Virginia while the Declaration of Independence is being written in Philadelphia.
David Bruce Smith: When it was signed, the Colonies were effectively breaking from England. This changed the war.
Sarah Whiting: We were now fighting as an independent nation breaking away from Great Britain. Lord Dunmore ran away. He jumped on a ship going back to England, never to return. In 1776, the people of Virginia elected their first governor — Patrick Henry. He served five one-year terms, although not consecutively.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Patrick Henry was elected one of the representatives to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but he chose not to serve.
Charles Wissinger: In fact, he said, “I smell a rat.” He didn’t want the Constitution ratified because he worried it would take away the states’ identities, giving more power to a centralized national government. And here’s where it gets really fun — that would have been the case without the Bill of Rights, which details the individual rights and liberties of the common man and the individual states. Henry’s criticism of the proposed Constitution stirred support for the Bill of Rights, which became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution after it was ratified.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Patrick Henry married twice and had 17 children. What else can you tell us about his personal life and how it affected his political life?
Charles Wissinger: Henry and his first wife, Sarah Shelton, married in 1754 and had six children. By 1775, she was suffering from what we’d now consider post-partum depression — and became so mentally ill that she didn’t recognize her own children, wouldn’t eat, and died. Just a few weeks after her death, he gave the “Liberty or Death” speech, and it’s possible that there’s some correlation between his state of grief and his willingness to risk everything to be free. When he is elected governor within a year, he’s a single parent with his oldest children taking care of the younger ones.
David Bruce Smith: On Oct. 25 1777, two years after Sarah’s death, he marries a relative of Martha Washington — Dorothea Dandridge.
Charles Wissinger: She was about 22 years old, 19 years younger than he was, and they have 11 children together. However, six of the 17 children died before Patrick Henry did. In fact, only two of his first six children outlived him — he died on June 6, 1799 at the age of 63. Dorothea, however, lived until Feb. 14, 1831; she was 73.
Don’t stop here! To learn more about Patrick Henry and St. John’s Church, visit historicstjohnschurch.org.