by Don Vitale
If you’re reading this to better understand early America, you need to repeat after me: “There-Was-No-Media.”
Why? Because our Founders lived at a time when there was nothing that even barely resembles what we now have and use on a daily basis. In other words No Internet, No iPhone or Texting. No TV, Radio, Morse Code, not even the Telegraph.
While you’re at it…you can also eliminate newspapers. Major towns had a newspaper that printed at most a couple hundred copies once a week…..poorly edited, not exactly a model of quality journalism.
The point I’m getting at is how do we know what our Founders actually said word-for-word? I mean, we’re talking history in the making, friends. America’s history. Important stuff!
No reporters or tv cameras were doing live coverage…..recording the actions for posterity. No personal interviews with Jefferson, Washington or John Adams.
I repeat: How do we know exactly what our leaders actually said and did?
Okay, let’s take Patrick Henry. Maybe that will let you know where we’re going with this.
Here was a man who uttered the phrase “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death.” Or
presumably uttered the phrase.
It was the last line of a speech he gave to the Virginia Convention in 1775
at St. John’s Church in Richmond Virginia. The speech, as most speeches of the day, probably ran an hour…or longer. All we ever hear though is the last paragraph.
His speech was so stirring, so moving and so powerful it convinced the leaders of Virginia to send it’s soldiers into the War that had just begun….events that led to America’s independence.
Think I’m overstating the man’s ability to sway people’s opinions?
Consider this: John Marshall, who later become chief justice of the Supreme Court, described Henry’s speech as: “…one of the most bold, vehement and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.”
Or George Mason, a patriot and Founding Father, said “…your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them.”
And….Edmund Randolph, who later became America’s first Attorney General, said that when Henry ended his speech, members of the Convention were stunned….sat in silence for several minutes.
Convinced? That Patrick Henry was a fiery orator? That he had an historic impact on his fellow citizens?
That may well be the case….but there’s an issue here that needs to be examined. Namely, no one was on the scene copying or taking notes when Patrick Henry made his fiery speech.
So when did the public get a chance to read and learn about Patrick Henry’s famous speech? The next day? A week later? A month after the fact?
Try 17 years after Patrick Henry’s death! Or 46 years after he made the speech! As we all know, Sixty Minutes wasn’t there to ask questions and personally interview this spellbinder of a patriot.
Henry’s speech was first published in a book written in 1816 by William Wirt, an author and statesman. According to Wikipedia….Wirt’s book entitled the “Life and Character of Patrick Henry,” contained the “…supposed text of some of Henry’s speeches, many of which had never been published. Some historians have since speculated that some of
Henry’s phrases that have since become famous, such as “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!,” were fabricated by Wirt for this book…”
Wirt reportedly wrote a friend “…not one of his [Henry’s] speeches lives in print, writing or memory. All that is told me is, that on such and such an occasion, he made a distinguished speech.” The only person Wirt found who had attended the meeting was an old-timer, Judge St. George Tucker. Wirt asked Tucker to try and reconstruct the first two paragraphs of Henry’s speech. Eventually, Tucker admitted defeat in putting the speech together. “In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech,” he decried.
Nonetheless, Wirt used Judge Tucker’s recollections of the speech, writing the Judge, “I have taken almost entirely Mr. Henry’s speech in the Convention of ’75 from you as well as your description of its effect on your verbatim.” Unfortunately, Judge Tucker’s letter containing his remembrances have been lost.
Let’s not blame Judge Tucker, friends. After all, tain’t easy trying to remember someone’s speechifying word-for-word 46 years after the fact. I’m sure you all agree with me on that, right?
While Patrick Henry’s oratory was hypnotic by some accounts, it seemed to have a short shelf life. Declared Thomas Jefferson: “Although it was difficult when Henry had spoken, to tell what he had said, yet, while speaking, it always seemed directly to the point….and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself, when he ceased, ‘What the devil has he said?’ and could never answer the inquiry.”
At this point you may be asking….who or what was Patrick Henry before his speechmaking.
Patrick Henry was born at Studly Plantation in Virginia in 1736.
The record we have shows he began his career as a planter. But the soil he had to work with didn’t produce sufficient crops. Next he tried his hand at a retail store…but that didn’t work out either. Undaunted, Henry decided to study to become a lawyer. After his admission to the bar, he was an immediate success, representing a variety of clients. In time he was sworn in as a member of the House of Burgesses. Henry became a leader in Virginia along with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee. Their actions in Virginia led to the First Continental Congress.
Which brings us back to Patrick Henry’s iconic speech of March 23, 1775.
According to William Wirt who had tried putting together Henry’s alleged words
for his book on the man, the fiery orator ended his speech with the following:
“…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! Why stand we here idle! What is is that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!”
We can only rely on Mr. Wirt that Patrick Henry made history with his one-liner.
But just wait a Legs-Brains-and-Kidneys, please!
Let’s not overlook that history tells us Henry’s famous shibboleth had been in prior use:
***The Culpeper Minutemen displayed the words “Liberty or Death” on their flag.
***During the Siege of Barcelona the defenders used the motto “Live free or die.”
***A popular play by the Roman statesman Cato performed for the
Continental Army at Valley Forge had the line “…liberty or death.”
***And there are more….
Did Henry’s call-to-arms arouse the leaders of Virginia to action?— Yes.
Did his speech use the words “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”?— Maybe Yes, Maybe No.
Did Patrick Henry copy the “Liberty or Death” phrase from others?— Possibly.
Will we ever know any of the above for sure?—Doubtful.
Like I said before, friends: There-Was-No-Media.–dv