Skip to Main Content

June 4, 1788

August 02, 2021 - 4 minute read

Patrick Henry Give me Liberty of Give me Death

On May 29, 1765, a tall, lanky, coarsely dressed member of the Virginia House of Burgesses stood and asked for recognition. Preparing to adjourn the session and return to their plantations and stately mansions, delegates representing the aristocratic Tidewater region were not anxious to waste their time listening to an impudent upstart from the Piedmont who had served in the House for only nine days. He had already infuriated the House when he challenged the integrity of John Robinson, a popular figure in Virginia politics, speaker of the House, and treasurer of the colony for thirty years. Now he was to try their patience once again.

On this day, the young backwoods-lawyer’s twenty-ninith birthday, the burgesses had begun discussing the Stamp Act, recently imposed by the British Parliament. A modest tax, it had already been approved by colonies in the north and there was no reason it should not be approved in Virginia, that is, until Patrick Henry stood to refuse to allow the House “to end its session in feeble inaction.” 

As older and more seasoned members of the House shouted their disapproval, demanding that he be silenced, Henry offered five resolutions, climaxing his bellicose oratory with the warning that “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…” At that point cries of “Treason! Treason!” rumbled through the House of Burgesses. When newspapers began printing his resolutions, Henry’s words reverberated throughout the colonies  He had sparked the fires of rebellion.

Ten years later, Henry once again inspired rebels with a call to arms, imploring Virginia to “be immediately put into a state of defense, and ….prepare a plan for embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.”  Richard Henry Lee seconded the recommendation as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others looked on during the Second Virginia Convention held in St. John’s Anglican Church in Richmond.  Rising to his full height, punctuating his powerful discourse with deliberate pauses and thunderous exclamations, Henry prodded his stunned audience. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” he roared. “Forbid it, Almighty God,” he continued, then stated his course. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

A mighty man among Patriots, Henry was elected the first governor of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia, re-elected several times, provided livestock and other food to George Washington and his troops encamped at Valley Forge, and built a resume of public service unrivaled by few others. However, when Governor Edmund Randolph offered to designate Henry as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in the spring of 1787, Henry declined, pleading financial difficulty, but also because he “smelt a rat.” Now, Patrick Henry, the “lion of liberty,” stood as Virginia’s leading opponent of the proposed Constitution.  

Unlike several other ratifying conventions and the Constitutional Convention itself, the Virginia ratifying convention began on time. On Monday, June 2, “a majority of the gentlemen delegated thereto assembled at the public buildings in Richmond.” By the end of the day, the convention agreed to move to the larger New Academy on Shocke Hill to accommodate the large number of delegates and the throng of interested citizens. Rules of procedure were approved and Edmund Pendleton was unanimously elected President. The next day, the convention agreed to “resolve itself into a committee of the whole convention” as the most effective and efficient mode of proceeding “for a full and free investigation of the subject before them.”

On June 4, after approving reports from the Committee of Privileges and Elections, the convention resolved itself in the committee of the whole and President Pendleton relinquished the gavel to George Wythe who would chair the committee for most of the remainder of the convention. 

George Wythe was among the most respected legal authorities in the North America. As America’s first law professor, he had taught and mentored Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall, Henry Clay, John Breckinridge, Bushrod Washington, and others.  He served in the House of Burgesses, represented Virginia in the Second Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence, and assisted in writing the State’s constitution and designing its seal. Revered for his knowledge of the law and known for his integrity and “exemplary life,” he struggled with the concept of slavery and authored legal opinions as a judge and a lawyer in favor of freeing slaves - at one point urging abolition under Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776 which declared “that all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

When Wythe died in June 1806, his will dictated that his large book collection be transferred to his close friend and former student, Thomas Jefferson. Later, they were sold by Jefferson, along with much of his own library, to create the Library of Congress.  After Wythe’s death, his sister’s errant, dissolute grandson was charged with murdering Wythe by poison. He was found to be not guilty, in large part due to strong testimony excluded from the trial because it “was gleaned principally from the evidence of negroes, which, by the statute law of the State, could not be used against a white man.”

With George Wythe presiding, debate on the Constitution began. Patrick Henry was the first to rise, proposing that the instructions to Virginia’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention be read. His purpose was obvious – to demonstrate that the Convention had exceeded its powers.  Pendleton objected with a brief, terse statement.  Henry withdrew his motion, but from then on he would take the offensive with an unrelenting resolve to prevail.

Back to top