Few lines are as enduring or well known in American history as the final six of Patrick Henry’s speech to Second Virginia Convention: Give me liberty, or give me death!
Henry was a man of many talents – an attorney, orator, planter, two-time Governor of Virginia, and Founding Father. He also wasn’t someone who was prone to sitting by; after an unsuccessful business venture, Henry turned his focus to becoming a auto-didactic lawyer. He quickly rose to fame through his victory in the Parson’s Case and was later elected to the House of Burgesses.
Years later, his rhetorical prowess continued to serve him well. His oratorical skill garnered him significant popularity which he successfully parlayed into several one-year terms as Virginian governor. In 1775, after being elected as the delegate to the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, Virginia, Henry delivered his famous speech. He was a fierce proponent of independence, recognizing early on that a militia would be required to win the freedoms that all those that were convened wanted. His speech had the intended effect; it swayed those that might’ve otherwise voted against the amendments to raise a militia.
After successfully founding a country, Henry seemed to want no part of the new government that was taking root. He was an opponent of the Constitution, in particular the powers it provided the president. Still, Washington tried to recruit Henry at one time or another for roles as diverse as Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of State, and minister to Spain. Henry rejected each role, however. He, like Washington, was viewed similarly to Cincinnatus, who, after serving his role as Dictator, returned to his life on the farm.
Throughout his life, Henry stuck to his views on most issues. He knew what he believed in and when he spoke, he roused others to act. His skill for oration, steadfast beliefs, and ability to sway the minds and actions of others cemented his legacy. And his lack of desire for more power made him a hero to the citizenry, who were only to happy to hand it to him when he did run for office.