I first encountered Patrick Henry in fifth grade. He was the patriot of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” fame—not to be confused with that other “H” patriot, Nathan Hale, who was disappointed because he had only one life to give for his country. More than half a century later, students are still asked to couple “liberty or death” with Patrick Henry on multiple choice tests, never suspecting that the quotation originated with William Wirt, a man they’ve never heard of. More is at stake than attribution. Hidden within this most pervasive mythology of the Revolution is a distortion of the Revolutionary experience.
William Wirt’s Tricky Task
In 1805, while practicing law in Virginia at the age of 32, Wirt embarked on an ambitious project: a biography of the legendary orator Patrick Henry, who died shortly before the turn of the century. Although Wirt had neither met Henry nor heard him speak, he assumed he could find sufficient material by consulting newspaper accounts, combing through Henry’s private papers, and communicating with Henry’s contemporaries.[i] But in 1815, ten years into his quest, he confessed to a friend he had come up empty:
It was all speaking, speaking, speaking. ’Tis true he could talk— ‘Gods how he could talk!’ but there is no acting ‘the while.’ …And then, to make the matter worse, from 1763 to 1789, covering all the bloom and pride of his life, not one of his 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…. [T]here are some ugly traits in H’s character, and some pretty nearly as ugly blanks. He was a blank military commander, a blank governor, and a blank politician, in all those useful points which depend on composition and detail. In short, it is, verily, as hopeless a subject as man could well desire.[ii]
Hamlet-like, Wirt questioned his ability to continue. “Then, surely, you mean to give it up?” he asked himself, but he could not abandon the project: “I have stept in so deep that I am determined, like Macbeth, to go on.” And so he did, but it wasn’t easy. “Fettered by a scrupulous regard to real facts,” he confessed, felt “like attempting to run, tied up in a bag. My pen wants perpetually to career and frolic it away.”[iii]
Yet Wirt’s pen needed room to roam. He knew he could not say that Henry “made a distinguished speech” and “keep saying this over, and over, and over again, without being able to give any account of what the speech was.” To celebrate Henry’s oratory, he would have to put it on display—and that meant placing words in his subject’s mouth. This gave him further cause for doubt: wouldn’t that be “making too free with the sanctity of history?” Yet there was no other way. Based only on distant memories of aging men, he imagined what his subject might have said—or perhaps what he wished Henry had said—despite his pledge to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, at least in this book.”[iv]
In 1816 the editors of Port Folio magazine asked Wirt to publish a sample of his forthcoming book, and the author selected the alleged text of the speech Patrick Henry delivered in Richmond’s Henrico Church on March 23, 1775, more than four decades earlier. The final work, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, came out the following year. An instant bestseller, it was reprinted twenty-five times in the next half-century.[v]
How accurate is Wirt’s rendition of Henry’s most famous speech?
Wirt did correspond with men who had heard the speech firsthand and others who were acquainted with those present. All agreed that the speech had produced a profound effect on the listeners, but it seems that only one of Wirt’s informants, Judge St. George Tucker, tried to render an actual text.[vi] By his own admission, however, Tucker’s account of the speech was based on “recollections,” not recorded notes. “In vain should I attempt to give any idea of his speech,” he admitted to Wirt.[vii] Further, Tucker’s attempt at a reconstruction amounted to only one section, less than one-fifth of the speech that Wirt set forth. Here is Tucker’s version:
Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done every thing that could have been done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned—we have remonstrated—we have supplicated—we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult, our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon, until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight!—I repeat it sir, we must fight!! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us![viii]
Wirt wrote back, thanking Tucker for his contribution: “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 you verbatim.”[ix] Wirt did adopt one other phrase, “peace when there was no peace,” from an article that Edmund Randolph, a firsthand witness, published in 1815 in the Richmond Enquirer.[x] That was all. More than one thousand of the 1,217 words in the speech we think of as Henry’s—including the stirring last paragraph—were conjured by William Wirt.
Undoubtedly, Wirt’s reconstruction included words that Henry could have said. The phrase “liberty or death,” for instance, was common currency; Christopher Gadsden used the Latin form, “aut mors aut libertas,” as a masthead for a newspaper column ten years earlier during the Stamp Act protests.[xi] But the diction, cadence, and structure were Wirt’s. It should come as no surprise that William Wirt created such a masterpiece, for he was one of the great orators of his day. He gained prominence as lead prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s trial for treason, went on to become Attorney General under President Madison, and delivered the memorial speech to Congress when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the nation’s jubilee anniversary, an unlikely coincidence seen by many as an act of God.[xii]
The Revolution in Retrospect: Whitewashed History
In fact, at least one person who heard Henry’s speech gave a report just two weeks afterward, and this account differs substantially from Wirt’s rendition. In a letter dated April 6, 1775, James Parker, a Scottish merchant residing in Virginia, wrote to Charles Stewart, a former Surveyor General of Customs in North America who had returned to Great Britain in 1769:
You never heard anything more infamously insolent than P. Henry’s speech: he called the K—— a Tyrant, a fool, a puppet, and a tool to the ministry. Said there was no Englishmen, no Scots, no Britons, but a set of wretches sunk in Luxury, that they had lost their native courage and (were) unable to look the brave Americans in the face…. This Creature is so infatuated, that he goes about I am told, praying and preaching amongst the common people.[xiii]
Even allowing for the bias of an unsympathetic observer, Parker’s account is plausible. As in any era, hawkish patriots during the American Revolution probably questioned their adversaries’ courage and descended to name-calling. Demagoguery is the underbelly of oratory, yet “wretches sunk in Luxury” did not make a showing in Wirt’s speech.
Henry might also have pandered to his audience by playing the “slave card.” Although we have no direct evidence for this, we can build a strong circumstantial case.
In 1772 Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, determined that James Somerset, who had been purchased in Virginia, taken to England, and then escaped, could not be forcibly returned to his master because there was no “positive law” permitting slavery in England. This caused great concern for slave-owning Virginians. A runaway ad in the Virginia Gazette stated that an escaped couple might be trying to board a ship for England “where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among Negroes, greatly to the Vexation and Prejudice of their Masters).” Another announced that a man named Bacchus would probably try “to board a vessel for Great Britain… from the knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.”[xiv]
As tensions mounted in the wake of the Coercive Acts and armed conflict became a distinct possibility, white Virginians worried that Crown officials would actually encourage slaves to revolt against their masters. “If america & Britain should come to an hostile rupture,” James Madison wrote in November 1774, “I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may & will be promoted. In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together & chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English troops should arrive—which they foolishly thought would be very soon & by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom.”[xv] Four months later, when Patrick Henry delivered his rousing speech, armed conflict seemed imminent and it was no longer “foolish” to expect English troops would arrive “very soon.” Since Henry’s aim was to mobilize a military resistance, he would have been foolish not to play on fears of a British-inspired slave insurrection.
The following month, Governor Dunmore seized gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine and warned that if colonials harmed a single British official in response, he would “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.”[xvi] As independent military companies from seven counties prepared to march on Williamsburg, one, from Albemarle, resolved “to demand satisfaction of Dunmore for the powder, and his threatening to fix his standard and call over the negroes.”[xvii] Eventually the incipient rebels all turned back, but the company from Hanover, under the leadership of Patrick Henry, was the last to disband.
Six months later, when Dunmore actually did declare freedom for all slaves willing to join British forces, Patrick Henry, on nobody’s authority but his own, dispatched a circular letter:
As the Committee of Safety is not sitting, I take the Liberty to enclose you a Copy of the Proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore; the Design and Tendency of which, you will observe, is fatal to the publick Safety. An early and unremitting Attention to the Government of the SLAVES may, I hope, counteract this dangerous Attempt. Constant, and well directed Patrols, seem indispensably necessary.[xviii]
Wirt’s account reflected none of this. He used the word “slavery” three times, each with rhetorical flourish. Witness the dramatic conclusion: “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!”[xix]
“Caesar had his Brutus”: Another Doctored Speech
“Liberty or death” was not the only speech to receive a touch-up. Ten years earlier, in his first term as a representative to Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Henry had stepped forth to denounce the Stamp Act. Here is Wirt’s version of that story:
It was in the midst of this magnificent debate, while he was descanting on the tyranny of the obnoxious act, that he exclaimed, in a voice of thunder, and with the look of a god, “Caesar had his Brutus—Charles the first, his Cromwell—and George the third—(‘Treason,’ cried the speaker [Speaker of the House]—‘treason, treason,’ echoed from every part of the house.—It was one of those trying moments which is decisive of character.—Henry faltered not for an instant; but rising to a loftier attitude, and fixing on the speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis)—may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.[xx]
In this folkloric rendition, which Wirt heard and repeated half-a-century after the fact, Patrick Henry dramatically defied his detractors. At the time, however, a French traveler who observed the event firsthand noted that Henry responded to the charge of “treason” quite differently:
Shortly after I Came in one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former times tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he Did not Doubt but some good american would stand up, in favour of his Country, but (says he) in a more moderate manner, and was going to Continue, when the speaker of the house rose and Said, he, the last that stood up had spoke treason, and was sorey to see that not one of the members of the house was loyal Enough to stop him, before he had gone so far. upon which the Same member stood up again (his name is henery) and said that if he had affronted the speaker, or the house, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to his majesty King G. the third, at the Expence of the last Drop of his blood, but what he had said must be attributed to the Interest of his Country’s Dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended, but, again, if he said anything wrong, he begged the speaker and the houses pardon. Some other Members stood up and backed him, on which that afaire was droped.[xxi]
While nineteenth-century Romantics depicted Henry as bold and defiant in the face of numerous adversaries, the firsthand witness shows Henry apologizing profusely to his lone critic, the Speaker of the House. He backpeddled, as an up-and-coming political figure might be expected to do when accused of excess. Indeed, the notion that anybody in 1765 would actually embrace the charge of treason could only be conjured in retrospect, once “treason” against British rule had become fashionable. It’s a classic case of reading history backwards.
William Wirt of course had no access to the French traveler’s private journal or James Parker’s letter. He did not cover up evidence; instead, he perpetuated an oral tradition that had evolved over decades, adding his own embellishments. By then Henry had become a larger-than-life hero, and that is precisely why Wirt chose him for the subject of a biography. Dedicating his book “TO THE YOUNG MEN OF VIRGINIA,” Wirt hoped to inspire youthful Americans to defend liberty, much as Henry had. “The present and future generations of our country can never be better employed than in studying the models set before them by the fathers of the Revolution,” Wirt wrote to John Adams shortly after the book’s publication.[xxii]
Wirt achieved his goal. His “liberty or death” speech became an instant classic. Students in the Nineteenth Century memorized it and competed with each other for the most dramatic delivery. Today, it remains a cornerstone of grade-school textbooks, an iconic representation of the American Revolution that encapsulates the military mobilization of 1775.
The phenomenal appeal of Wirt’s speech reveals how Americans in the Nineteenth Century were drawn to a glorified “memory” of the Revolution, one that masked the myriad complexities of Eighteenth Century history. Further, we, like Wirt and his contemporaries, want Henry to have made that immortal speech. While Englishmen sunk in luxury and the perils of British-inspired slave insurrections can no longer stir our patriotism, such oratory continues to inspire.
[i] William Wirt to Betsy Wirt, April 14, 1805, referenced in Judy Hample, “The Textual and Cultural Authenticity of Patrick Henry’s ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 63 (1977): 299. The original is in the William Wirt Papers, Maryland Historical Society.
[ii] Wirt to Dabney Carr, August 20, 1815, John P. Kennedy, Memoirs in the Life of William Wirt: Attorney-General of the United States (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1856), 1:345.
[iii] Ibid., 346, 344.
[iv] Ibid., 345, 347.
[v] Hample, “Textual Authenticity,” 302, 299.
[vi] Ibid,. 300-2.
[vii] Tucker to Wirt, undated and now lost, quoted in Moses Coit Tyler, Patrick Henry (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898; first published in 1887), 143.
[viii] Tyler, Patrick Henry, 142-43.
[ix] Wirt to Tucker, August 16, 1815, William and Mary Quarterly, First Series, 22 , 252. Unfortunately, the term “verbatim” in this sentence is unclear: does it refer to the speech itself, or merely to the effect it had on Tucker, which Wirt diligently reported in a footnote? In either case, Wirt acknowledged that Tucker was his main source.
[x] Hample, “Textual Authenticity,” 301.
[xi] South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, February 11, 1766.
[xii] An excellent short biography of Wirt appears on the website for the William Wirt Papers at the Maryland Historical Society: http://www.mdhs.org/findingaid/william-wirt-papers-1784-1864-ms-1011
[xiii] Magazine of History, March 1906, 158: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=YyY2AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA158
[xiv] Gerald Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 131.
[xv] Madison to William Bradford, November 26, 1774, at Founders Online: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-01-02-0037
[xvi] William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, a Documentary Record (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973–1983), 3:6.
[xvii] Ibid., 3:52, 69-70, cited in Woody Holton, “Rebel Against Rebel: Enslaved Virginians and the Coming of the American Revolution,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 105 (1997):174.
[xviii] Henry’s broadside can be viewed on the Library of Congress’s American Memory, American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/rbpe.1780180a It is also reprinted in Richard R. Beeman, Patrick Henry: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), insert between pp. 57 and 59.
[xix] Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death.” Avalon Project, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/patrick.asp Apparently an authoritative source, the editors of the Avalon Project include Wirt’s rendition of Henry speech in a section called “18th Century Documents,” along with various treaties, Acts of Parliament and Congress, nonimportation agreements, the Articles of Confederation, state constitutions, notes on the Federal (Constitutional) Convention by Madison and others, state ratifications of the federal Constitution, and inaugural addresses. As with other renditions based on Wirt, they take the further liberty of changing Wirt’s third person reporting to the first person. (Wirt: “‘No man,’ he said, ‘thought more highly than he did, of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who had just addressed the house.”” Avalon: “No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House.”)
[xx] Wirt, Patrick Henry, 65.
[xxi] “Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies, 1765,” American Historical Review 26 (October 1920-July 1921), 745. An interesting account of printed renditions of this speech prior to Wirt’s is on pp. 727-9. Initially, even Wirt had his doubts about the folkloric account he passed on: “I had frequently heard the above anecdote of the cry of treason but with such variations of the concluding words, that I began to doubt whether the whole might be fiction. With a view to ascertain the truth, therefore, I submitted it to Mr. Jefferson as it had been given to me by Judge Tyler, and this is his answer:—‘I well remember the cry of treason, the pause of Mr. Henry at the name of George III, and the presence of mind with which he closed his sentence, and baffled the charge vociferated.’ The incident, therefore, becomes authentic history.” (Wirt. Patrick Henry, 65.) Such was the standard of evidence in Wirt’s time: confirmation by one witness half-a-century later. But Jefferson by that time had allowed other accounts to influence his memory—he even imagined that the ceremonial signing of the Declaration of Independence, his signature document, had occurred on July 4 when all contemporaneous evidence indicates otherwise.
[xxii] Wirt to Adams, January 12, 1818, John P. Kennedy, Memoirs in the Life of William Wirt: Attorney-General of the United States (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1872), 2:46, quoted in Andrew Burstein, America’s Jubilee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 46. Adams had presented Wirt with a number of names of patriots from Massachusetts who figured prominently in the Revolutionary ferment, and Wirt suggested that more could and should be written about all of them.