There was tension in the air as great men of Virginia gathered in the little St. John’s Church at Richmond for the colony’s second revolutionary convention. The danger of war with Great Britain was mounting.
Henry – later to serve as a four-term governor of Virginia – won international attention with his “Liberty or Death” speech urging the colony to arm its militia.
This fearless and outspoken man, a delegate to the first Continental Congress in 1774, has been called the “Tongue of the Revolution.”
As a young lawyer he had won his spurs in oratory in cases involving the colonists’ rights as early as 1763.
Henry came to the Virginia House of Burgesses just at the time of Britain’s passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. He promoted resolutions declaring the English Parliament had no right to tax American colonies.
Now, ten years later, when the convention of 1775 opened at Richmond, the stage was set for momentous events. Henry had said the previous November he regarded war with Britain as inevitable. His opinion was not shared at that time by most of Virginia’s revolutionary leaders. When he addressed the convention March 23 his conviction was even stronger.
The speech reached its climax with these memorable words:
“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.
“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’s oratory set some hallmarks for others to shoot at.
Thomas Jefferson, not Patrick’s admirer in all respects, was unrestrained in praise of his speech-making, saying “the gentleman from Hanover spoke as Homer wrote” and that his oratory was marked by “torrents of sublime eloquence.”
The little St. John’s Church on the Richmond hill, erected in 1741, still stands amid a shaded courtyard, bigger now through remodeling and restoration projects than when it accommodated the 1775 convention.
As part of Richmond’s bicentennial anniversary as Virginia’s capital (the seat of government was moved there from Williamsburg in 1779) a troupe of professional dramatists reenacted the revolutionary convention in its original setting, the old church. An actor named Tye Heckman played the role of Patrick Henry.
This writer and his family were among the tourists seated in the old-fashioned pews for one of the performances. It was an unforgettable experience!