In Virginia, Henry’s ’Give me liberty or give me death!’ lives on
By JAMES F. LEE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 22, 2018
I knew Patrick Henry gave the famous "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech -- but that’s all I knew. Curious about this hero of the American Revolution, my wife, Carol, and I traveled to Richmond, Virginia, and nearby Hanover County to visit several historical sites associated with the fiery Virginia orator. Using the "Road to Revolution Heritage Trail" website -- one of 13 Virginia State Heritage Trail guides -- we curated our own Henry history tour.
Although born to an affluent family in Hanover County in 1736, Henry had dim prospects as a young man: He failed twice as a merchant and once as a farmer. By the time he was 23, he was working and living in his father-in-law’s tavern in Hanover, struggling to feed his wife and children.
We drove there, to the tiny Hanover County seat, on a blustery afternoon and had lunch at the Hanover Tavern. Built in 1792, the current building is located at the site of the original Shelton Tavern. Looking out its front window, we saw a small but distinctive brick courthouse across the road with five imposing rounded arches at the front. When Henry worked at this site, his view was no different. Lawyers would dine at the tavern in his day; as he served them, he would listen to their stories. It inspired him to enter their profession.
The law was his salvation. Self-taught, he was granted a license to practice law in 1760.
We walked across the road to Hanover Courthouse and were greeted by Gary Stauffer, a docent for the Hanover County Historical Society. He told us the courthouse was constructed in 1735, making it the second-oldest, still-standing courthouse in Virginia. The courtroom is small, with green wainscoting and a raised area behind a railing for the judge, court officials and jury. Portraits of famous Virginians from the area adorn the walls. Today, there are benches for visitors, but in Henry’s day the court observers stood.
It was here, in 1763, that Henry argued the "Parson’s Cause" case, one of the first legal challenges in North America questioning royal authority over the colonies. The case involved King George III’s voiding of Virginia’s Two Penny Act, which regulated the rate of pay owed Anglican ministers by the people of Virginia. With incendiary language that prompted cries of treason, Henry argued against the Anglican clergy, even suggesting that the king was a tyrant.
"When he spoke that day, this place was completely packed," Stauffer said. "They had the doors open and people crowding to look in."
The case made Henry famous in Virginia, sealing his reputation as a great orator -- and a radical. His speaking style had its origins in the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that greatly affected his mother. She was a Presbyterian and follower of the Rev. Samuel Davies, a fiery preacher at nearby Polegreen Church. She encouraged her son to listen to Davies’ sermons, which were laced with biblical and classical references delivered in the vernacular. Henry adopted a similar style, but remained an Anglican all his life.
Davies’ portrait is on the Hanover Courthouse wall.
The next stop on our trail was Scotchtown, a 16-room, Colonial-style mansion in Beaverdam, about a half-hour’s drive west of Hanover. A white clapboard structure with a brick foundation, the house is notable for its broad hip roof balanced by two large chimneys. Henry purchased this property and 1,000 acres in 1770 after he had made a name for himself as a lawyer. It is the only Henry home still standing and open to the public. The property’s unusual name, with an unknown meaning, was bestowed by its original owners.
Henry lived at Scotchtown for seven years. But they were the most monumental of his life, and arguably of the life of the country. During his time there, he wrote his "Give me liberty" speech and was elected Virginia’s first post-independence governor.
It was a crowded household that included Henry’s first wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, six eventual children and 10 slaves, who worked the tobacco and wheat fields and tended the house. Like many of the Founding Fathers, he decried the slave trade yet never freed any of his slaves, even upon his death.
Four rooms are open to the public at Scotchtown, each furnished with 18th-century pieces, including several owned by Henry. A wall panel refers to a long-ago visitor to Scotchtown who observed that "the furniture was all of the plainest sort." And it remains so today. Our guide, Susan Llewellyn, emphasized this by pointing out a "no-nonsense," straight-back chair owned by Henry in the master bedroom.
Still, examples of wealth are on display that you would not see in humble abodes. In the formal parlor, I noted a strange-looking device with several movable arms. Llewellyn explained that this was a mapmaker’s table, owned by Henry’s father, John Henry. Carol particularly liked an elaborately carved wooden tea caddy that belonged to Henry’s mother.
Scotchtown also contains a two-room museum highlighting the history of the house and Henry’s impact on the world.
"Liberty or death" remains Henry’s enduring legacy. The speech was delivered in Richmond during a debate at the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775, held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which has stood at the site since 1741. It was known then as Henrico Parish Church.
Llewellyn told us that Henry was grief-stricken when he delivered the speech because his beloved wife, Sarah, had died just the month before.
We drove to St. John’s Episcopal to see a reenactment of the speech and debate, performed by costumed actors from the St. John’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has worked to preserve the church since 1938.
Delegates including Henry, Thomas Nelson Jr., George Washington and Thomas Jefferson sat among the 300 spectators debating Henry’s resolution to form a militia for the defense of the colony. The delegates rose, shouted and argued, with some decrying the resolution as treason and others volunteering to serve the cause.
Finally, the great moment arrived. Face red with passion and arms flailing, Henry delivered his speech, peppered with Biblical references and homages to the Greek and Roman classics. His method was preaching at its purest. "You start low, you build slow, you throw in some rhetorical questions, you build up, build up, build up!" Llewellyn explained.
Then the crescendo: "Give me liberty or give me death!"
Henry’s oratory carried the day. A Virginia militia was formed, led by Washington.
"These guys truly had guts," John Tucker, the actor portraying Henry, said after the performance. "Henry and his friends were signing their death warrants. If captured, that would be the end for them."
But it wasn’t. And that moment was Henry’s finest hour.