In this age of political tumult, tweeted headlines, and nanosecond attention spans, we rarely take the opportunity to exhale and reflect on the lessons laid out before us. As Americans, we too often take for granted the blessings of liberty. We too often presume that because we are free, it must always be so.
We hold this conceited presumption at our peril. Without understanding how our present is anchored to the past, we can easily go adrift and be wrecked in today’s storms. Patrick Henry reflected, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” Time to heed this counsel.
There are many points of reflection we can choose - but on the anniversary of Henry’s most famous oration - Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death! - calling upon his speech and its lessons is most fitting.
In 1774, the Virginia legislature declared its support for the Boston Tea Party; the British Governor responded by dissolving it. Undeterred, the delegates reconstituted themselves into the Virginia Convention at the Raleigh Tavern. The Second Virginia Convention met in 1775 - moving from a tavern to a church - perhaps foregoing the counsel of liquor for that of the Creator. Henry demanded that the Virginians put themselves on a war footing to defend against British oppression - it met strong opposition. On March 23, 1775, he rose at St. John’s Church and exclaimed:
If we wish to be free . . . if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have so long engaged … we must fight! … Why stand we here idle? . . . 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 for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
A violent thunderstorm swept in at the speech’s climax - perhaps showing divine approbation. Henry’s proposal was decisively approved. The speech, combined with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, swept through the colonies - forging a hardened resistance to British subjugation. Although the Declaration of Independence was not official for more than year, independency become a formality. Thomas Jefferson himself gave Henry credit for setting “the ball of the revolution” in motion.
Henry’s words were not idle chatter. The American Revolution cost many lives on both sides. Families were torn asunder. Homes and cities were devastated. The economy collapsed. These were dire times. But we, here, who live in this land of the free know that the fight was just and worth the cost.
In the course of the speech, Henry derided pleas that the Americans were too weak to fight: “But when shall we be stronger? . . . Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?” Indeed not.
He also trusted that the Supreme Power would aid the revolutionaries: “we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”
What does Henry’s speech teach us today? Everything. Phantom hopes are delusional; immediate action is vital; reliance on God essential; and protection of liberty indispensable.
This is why my then 10-year-old daughter Leah and I included Henry as an invaluable part of Patriot Week. Patriot Week renews America’s spirit by celebrating the First Principles, Founding Fathers and other Patriots, vital documents and speeches, and flags that make America the greatest nation in world history. Anchored by the key dates of September 11 (the anniversary of the terrorists attacks) and September 17 (Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution), the schedule for each day has a separate focus. On 9/11 we celebrate Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Paine; the Declaration of Independence; the First Principle of Revolution; and the Bennington (’76) Flag.
“The battle,” Henry explained, “is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Be vigilant, active, and brave, and we may yet remain free.
The Honorable Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court Judge and co-founder, with his daughter Leah, of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org). He is also the author of America’s Survival Guide (www.AmericasSurvivalGuide.com) and a former member of the State Board of Education.