"Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty," John Kukla
“Give me liberty or give me death” is the last line of Patrick Henry’s most famous speech, but how many of the words which we quote today are what he actually said?
“I think we are pretty close on what we remember about the Liberty or Death speech,” said historian Jon Kukla at the January 24, 2018 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. Kukla is the author of a recently published biography that is entitled Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty.
The text of Henry’s speech first appeared in 1817---42 years after he delivered the speech and 18 years after he died. William Wirt, who would later become the longest-serving U.S. attorney general in American history, published what he believed was the accurate speech text in his biography on Henry. While conducting his research for the book, Wirt corresponded with men who were present in Richmond at St. John’s Episcopal Church when Henry delivered his famous speech at the Second Virginia Convention.
While Wirt was successful in obtaining considerable information about the speech, only one person actually wrote down what he perceived as the entire text for Wirt. This was Judge St. George Tucker, whose recollections of the specific text were used nearly verbatim by Wirt in his biography on Henry.
“It should be noted that people during the 18th Century listened intently to philosophical debates, and typically didn’t take notes for publication,” said Kukla. “In fact we see this in Parliament’s debates where it was against the law to publish their debates. “I’m concerned that folks in the 18th Century remembered far more from speeches than people do today because we have too many distractions.”
Patrick Henry was born on May 29, 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia. He first came to prominence as an American revolutionary in December 1763 when he argued a legal case in Hanover County that is known as the Parsons’ Cause.
Since hard currency was scarce in Colonial Virginia, the Anglican clergymen were paid in tobacco which was typically worth two pence per pound. However several droughts during the 1750s caused a shortage of tobacco and sharp price increases of as much as 3-4 times its normal market value. As a result, the Virginia legislature passed the Two-Penny Acts, which allowed debts that were normally paid to clergy with tobacco to be paid at the flat rate of two pence per pound.
Several Anglican clergymen petitioned London’s Board of Trade to overrule the actions of the Virginia legislature, which the Board of Trade did. As a result of the Board’s actions, several Virginia clergymen sued in Virginia’s courts for the market value of the tobacco which exceeded the two pence per pound price that they had already received under the Two-Penny Acts. One of these clergymen was the Reverend James Maury.
Maury had sued successfully in Hanover County Court, and on December 1, 1763 the case resumed for the purpose of having a jury to award damages. Henry served as the attorney for Maury’s parish vestry against Maury.
“Basically Patrick Henry argued that the structure of the British Empire called for its colonies to be governed by their elected legislatures and to express allegiance to the King, while the British people who elected Parliament were subject to its laws and their allegiance to the King.”
The jury awarded Maury the minimum amount allowed under Virginia law for damages, which was one penny. Henry’s name became widely known and as a result, both his law practice and overall popularity flourished. In May 1765 he was elected to the Virginia legislature as a representative from Louisa County.
Shortly after becoming a Virginia legislator, Henry and his legislative colleagues learned of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act. During the debate by the legislature as to how Virginia should react to this controversial tax, Henry repeated many of his arguments that he first raised during the Parsons’ Cause. Henry argued that Parliament had no taxing authority over Virginia and the other colonies, and that British colonists had the same rights and privileges as British citizens living within the mother country.
During the debate, Henry also warned King George III as to what can happen to monarchs and dictators when he said, “Tarquin and Caesar each had his Brutus, Charles the First had his Cromwell and George the Third ..........”. At that point Speaker John Robinson and others shouted, “Treason, treason!” Henry paused and then replied, “.......... and George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”
The Virginia legislature passed five of the seven resolutions proposed by Henry to protest the Stamp Act. These actions put Virginia in front of Colonial America’s opposition to this unpopular tax, and spread Henry’s name throughout the other American colonies.
The Road to the American Revolution would continue for another 10 years when Henry would utter his immortal Liberty or Death words on March 20, 1775. During the early months of the war, Henry briefly served in two military capacities as a commander of county and state militia units.
On June 29, 1776 Patrick Henry was elected to a one-year term as Virginia’s first post-colonial governor. In 1777 and 1778 he was re-elected to two additional one-year terms and then stepped down per Virginia’s term limitations at that time. In 1784-1786 he served for two additional one-year terms.
As a wartime governor, Henry was a very strong supporter of George Washington’s Continental Army. He helped to recruit new troops for Washington, and supplied Washington’s army with badly needed food, clothing and ammunition. Henry also remained loyal to Washington during a time in the war when several prominent political and military leaders wanted to replace Washington as the overall army commander with Horatio Gates.
“They had a really strong friendship,” said Kukla. “Henry remained loyal to Washington, and Washington always remembered it. They remained good friends even when they were on different sides of political issues such as the U.S. Constitution.”
After Washington was elected president he offered Henry several prominent positions in the new government such as secretary of state, ambassador to Spain and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Henry declined the offers for health reasons and family matters.
Finally in early 1799 when Washington was a private citizen, he was able to persuade Henry to stand for election one more time for a seat in the Virginia legislature. Henry agreed and was elected as a delegate from Charlotte County, but he died before serving on June 6, 1799 at his Red Hill home.
What should we think of Patrick Henry today? Certainly he was a great orator, a dedicated public servant and a very talented trial lawyer but Kukla said that Henry was much more.
“He was involved in all aspects of the American Revolution,” said Kukla. “I rather like the guy because I like his candor. He looked at things pretty clearly, and he was a good loser. There were occasions when the votes went against him, such as on the U.S. Constitution. When Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution, George Mason and other opponents of the document were upset and wanted to organize a protest against the ratification vote. They invited Henry to attend a meeting but Henry declined and told them, ‘We have done our best, we have lost and now it’s time for us to go home’.”
Jon Kukla is a former director of research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, and a former director at the Red Hill-The Patrick Henry National Memorial in Charlotte County, Virginia. He has been a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Kukla is currently working on a book about the Stamp Act.
In addition to his new book on Patrick Henry, Kukla is the author of the following books:
1. Mr. Jefferson’s Women
2. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America
Prior to the speaker’s presentation, the following topics were discussed:
1. ARRT-Richmond and America’s History, LLC (a business member of ARRT-Richmond) donated two checks to Campaign 1776 toward their fundraising campaign to purchase land that was part of the Battle of the Waxhaws. Lindsey Morrison accepted the checks on behalf of Campaign 1776, and thanked both organizations.
2. President Bill Welsch reminded the audience that 2018 membership dues are now due, and should be paid in person or mailed to Woody Childs, ARRT’s Vice President-Membership.
3. President Welsch made other announcements regarding several upcoming lectures and conferences across the state that relate to the American Revolution.