Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death”—Granddaddy of Revolution Mythologies

Critical Thinking

July 13, 2015
by Ray Raphael Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

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 [1914], 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:

[xiii] Magazine of History, March 1906, 158:

[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:

[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: 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: 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.


  • The Charles Stewart (or Steuart) who received the letter about Henry’s speech from James Parker was also the man who owned James Somerset and brought him to Britain. Stewart was in contact with slave-owning planters Virginia and the Caribbean, who funded his appeal. Does that strengthen the circumstantial case that Henry was alluding to the Somerset decision?

  • Hello Ray,

    This is a GREAT article, shedding light on some of the differences between history, herstory, and the REAL story.

    Only hope the editors will correct the online record by fixing the typo for the year (1826) JA & TJ died – and at the same replace the word immanent with imminent.

    Thank you!

      1. If I may be permitted another tiny quibble: Surely “backpedaled” makes more sense than “backpeddled.”

        Great article!

  • This splendid article represents one the greatest aspects of this journal–it is not afraid to boldly challenge long-standing presuppositions about the people and events of the American Revolution. This was an engaging (dare I say, timely), critical examination of an issue which is just taken for granted as historical fact. Well done.

  • Hi Ray,

    Have you by chance found any primary source evidence regarding the influence of the Somerset decision on Virginians’ decisions to support the war? I have often heard the argument made that Somerset and this fear of its consequences heavily influenced southern support for the war. Yet I have not been able to find more than a single mention of the case in the letters and papers of the leading Patriots from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The single mention I found of it was a letter from Henry Laurens of South Carolina acknowledging that he had heard of the decision, with no additional opinions, criticisms, or fears regarding the outcome of the case. If anyone were to be as concerned as is often claimed about Somerset, it would have been Laurens, whose slave holdings were extensive. I have not been through the Virginia sources or to the archives there, so I wonder if there is evidence supporting this argument for that province that doesn’t seem to exist for the provinces further south.

    As for the argument about British-backed slave insurrection driving southern support for the war, I would respectfully argue cause and effect is reversed. Prior to July 1775 the Patriot leadership in the Carolinas and Georgia were surprisingly unconcerned about the likelihood of slave insurrection. Sure they stirred rumors of such, as it helped them win the support of some who otherwise would have been inclined to support the British. But privately to one another and to family and friends much of the leadership was dismissing any concern about insurrection. They had arrested some slaves and free blacks in early June in Charleston, but eventually released them when they learned there was no threat.

    What changed was that in early July the British took on board the ship Scorpion the most skilled harbor pilot in Charleston, who – like most of the pilots – was black, and took him to Boston. The Patriots believed Gage was planning an invasion of the southern provinces (unbeknownst to them Howe had arrived and taken command). With the assistance of the harbor pilots the British would overcome the most significant hurdle that prevented them from moving their men-of-war within firing range of the cities – navigation over the treacherous bar and into the harbor. This is when the Patriots in the Carolinas and Georgia began taking action against the slaves – including the trial and execution of Thomas Jeremiah (a free black and skilled harbor pilot who was planning on helping the British navigate the bar) and the attack on slave refugees on Sullivan’s Island who were also attempting to assist the British. The Patriots’ concern was therefore not that the British would help the slaves attack the white colonists, but that the slaves would help the British destroy their city.

    This was a critical element of Patriot strategic thinking during the spring and summer of 1775 – how to prevent white loyalists, slaves, and Indians from helping the British. These groups would be critical to British strategy for the southern provinces, and the Patriots knew if they could not take on the British directly they could hinder the British ability to implement their strategy until exhausted and frustrated, they moved on or gave up. This is also why, I would argue, Dunmore’s Proclamation hardly supports the contention that British support for slave insurrections was terribly influential in moving the South closer to war. This ignores all that had occurred in the southern provinces prior to November 1775. The Patriots had already taken action against white loyalists, with the Association, the Drayton-Tennent-Hart mission into the backcountry, and William Henry Drayton’s use of the militia and provincial regiments to divide backcountry loyalist leadership, intimidate individual loyalists (further weakening the loyalist leadership) and maneuvering the surrender or neutrality of most of the loyalist forces in the backcountry (all without firing a shot!)

    They had also taken action against John Stuart and Alexander Cameron – the Indian superintendent and his deputy – to weaken Indian opinion of the British and seek Indian neutrality. They had taken control of the militia and organized provincial regiments loyal to the Provincial Congress, claiming that they were for defense against slave insurrection while privately admitting these claims were pretexts to maintain an illusion of loyalty to the government. (Henry Laurens, as President of the Provincial Congress, had to inform his colleagues that if they hoped to maintain that illusion they would have to decrease the size of the new provincial regiments as they were so numerous that no one would ever believe they were just for defense against the slaves).

    Some prominent historians have tried valiantly to connect Patriot action against the British with contemporaneous, but obscure and remote slave rebellions that were detected and stopped in their infancy. Timing and geography, however, work against using any of these planned insurrections as explanation for Patriot activity against the British. The reality is the Patriots’ greatest concern – and what influenced all of their activity in 1775 – and even in 1774 – was a fear of what the British warships could do to their cities and towns, and the consequences of a coming British invasion of the South. Actions taken against loyalists, slaves, and Indians were taken with the intention of preventing the British from leveraging their support. While Dunmore’s Proclamation would have won him few allies among the white population in the South (and as Henry’s circular shows the Patriots weren’t above using British statements for propaganda purposes), by November 1775 the lines were pretty firmly drawn and the Patriot leadership in the South (again, I haven’t looked at Virginia) had already taken action to neutralize white loyalists, Indians and slaves to prevent the British from leveraging their support in their eventual invasion of the southern provinces.

    I wrote more about this here following the publication of a Vox article before the 4th of July making the argument (I include sources for all of the arguments I make above)

    As for Patrick Henry, I again admit to not having engaged much with the Virginia sources, but my understanding is that while – as you have clearly shown here – he probably didn’t say the famous lines attributed to him, his speech nevertheless was – according to witnesses – extremely powerful and influential in turning a reluctant body in favor of the war. I wonder therefore if it’s fair to claim that the story is perpetuated because of our own patriotic need to pretend the war was just and hide the fact that it was more about preventing British-backed slave insurrection. I am a staunch advocate of getting history right, but it’s also clear that whatever Henry’s speech consisted of, it was deemed by contemporaries to be truly inspiring and influential – enough to convince skeptics that the cause was indeed just. If only we did have the real words!

    The Civil War historian Allen Guelzo had an op-ed in the NY Times on the 4th of July about how Lincoln viewed Jefferson. The topic is mostly irrelevant, but he closed with these lines, which I think are apt:

    “History is neither a political fable in which all the brothers are valiant and all the sisters virtuous, nor is it a tabloid exposé, full of crimes and follies, signifying nothing but victimization. There is, I admit, a caustic delight in unveiling the frailties of our Jeffersons (and our Lincolns). But the delight turns malevolent when it serves only to strip the American past of anything remarkable or exceptional, or when it demeans or discourages civic engagement and confidence.

    Patriotism without criticism has no head; criticism without patriotism has no heart. Lincoln was capable of understanding both the greatness and the limits of Thomas Jefferson and the founders and still come out at the end embracing the American experiment for ‘giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.’ And so should we.”

  • Ray;
    This article has great purpose informing readers of the mythology of Patrick Henry’s speech and reveals one of the great orators of his time (Wirt) writing as someone he clearly idolized (Henry). I particularly smiled at the neat parallelism you used in the opening paragraph, reminding us that Nathan Hale’s famous last words were also a post-mortem invention.
    But… after criticizing Wirt’s “cover” of Henry’s speech as a “a distortion of the Revolutionary experience” its curious that you fall prey to the same temptation by proposing, as you admit without any direct evidence and a distant circumstantial case, that “Henry might also have pandered to his audience by playing the “slave card.” The first-hand witnesses Parker, Tucker and Randolph did not mention it in their reports and recollections of Henry’s speech. Your referenced “circumstantial evidence” certainly shows that concerns regarding slave insurrection existed, but there’s no basis to assert inclusion in Henry’s speech. Many other topics would have been candidates for inclusion — Jefferson (et al) later included a laundry list of rationale for rebellion in the Declaration of Independence, but there’s no indication that Henry’s speech referenced any of that, either.
    Oooh, I just wish you’d resisted temptation to include it here, the article is thoroughly enjoyable in all other aspects.

  • I hear you, Jim. I hoped to make it clear that the “slave card” was hypothetical — “might have.” I think we can safely surmise, from the evidence, that he followed this line on other occasions — we know he did at Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788, for instance, and from the context of the mobilization in 1775 it seems he did then too. I admit, he might or might not have done so in this particular speech, but since my purpose was in part to take a closer look at oratory, I think it appropriate to point out that a speaker might highlight a fear that was uppermost on people’s minds.

  • But was it really uppermost in peoples minds? The 1772 “Somerset” panic regarded the right to hold slaves as property, not the threat of of “insurrection”, and even that threat receded after subsequent communications revealed that the case was very limited in its impact. The appeal became focused on Stuart’s efforts to get his property returned and the entire British – not just Americans – planter aristocracy’s desire to get the precedent expunged. There’s no evidence that Madison’s Nov 1774 letter to Bradford was publicly shared or that Henry had particular knowledge of it, and footnote 8 of your source for that letter notes that there’s no record of the slave incident Madison referred to. Henry, and the general populace, didn’t know of Dunmore’s threats at the time of the Williamsburg powder incident since it wouldn’t happen for another month, and Dunmore’s “proclamation” wasn’t issued for another eight months (Nov 1775). As you note, Henry used the threat of British-induced slave insurrection as a rallying point in later speeches, but those were after Dunmore’s threats in April 1775 (Williamsburg powder incident), Dunmore’s Proclamation of 7 Nov 1775, and threats by other royal representatives.

    Also, we should consider that if Wirt had found any evidence that Henry played the “slave card” he may have had ample reason to have included it in his version of Henry’s speech. Both of his wives came from slave-holding aristocracy. Wirt, although he ran against him on the anti-masonic ticket, became a supporter of Clay, who was definitely a pro-slavery/states rights presidential candidate. Adding a slavery aspect into Henry’s speech would have altered the public dialogue happening at the time or Wirt’s research. Jefferson’s address to Congress on the state of the nation given in December 1806 called for Congress to note the expiration of the Constitution’s Article 1 provision preventing the abolishment of slave transportation into the US and called for congress to end transportation of slaves. The US transportation act was debated and adopted on 2 March 1807; and the British Transportation act was passed later that same year. Slavery remained at the forefront of national debate throughout the period when Wirt was publishing his Patrick Henry memoir, with additional transportation acts passed in 1810, 1816, 1818 and 1822 (making transportation an act of piracy).

    I don’t mean this as a criticism, only to say that since its debatable whether slave insurrection really was a primary concern at that time, and that there would have been incentive for Wirt to have attributed a slavery angle to his account of Henry’ speech if he had found evidence of it, it doesn’t seem appropriate to suggest now, 200 years later, something that we cannot attribute to Henry.

    Man, I feel like the “JAR cop” tonight. I don’t mean to be the constant whiny voice of dissent. Sure wish we could have these discussions over a bucket of chilled oysters and a “shrub”!

  • I posted a reply to this last night, and after I posted it said my comment was in moderation and waiting for approval. It still has not been posted. I assume it was of my own error, but I don’t really want to recreate the whole comment. The gist of it is here:

    The broad points were the following, with the caveat that my work focuses on the Carolinas and Georgia, and I have not done near the same amount of research on Virginia:

    – Slave insurrection was not a particular concern of the Patriot leadership in the summer of 1775. The SC Provincial Congress had some slaves and free blacks arrested in early June, but released them soon after when it was determined there was no threat. For the rest of June Patriot leadership wrote each other and friends/family that there was no concern about slave insurrection. They certainly understood the propaganda value of spreading rumors of British plans to support slave and Indian attacks on white colonists, as that news won them some support from those who otherwise would have supported the Crown. Nevertheless, privately they repeatedly claimed to have no concern about insurrection.

    What was of concern, beginning in July, was that the British began recruiting the assistance of black harbor pilots (and river pilots in NC and GA) who could get the British warships over the treacherous bar and within firing range of Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington. The British took one black harbor pilot – acknowledged to be the best in Charleston – to Boston, where it was believed Gage (who had been replaced, unbeknownst to the southern colonists) was planning an invasion and attack on the southern colonies. What followed included the trial and execution of Thomas Jeremiah – one such harbor pilot who planned to help the British – on spurious charges, and the attack on the slave refugees on Sullivan’s Island who were trying to get to the British ships. Bottom line – the Patriots were concerned about how the slaves (along with Indians and white loyalists) would help the British, not how the British might help the slaves

    – Using Dunmore’s Proclamation as evidence that southern support for the war was about preserving slavery is, in my mind, not convincing. First, Dunmore had raised the idea on more than one occasion in the years prior to 1775 about how an attacking force could use the slave population against the southern colonists. At the time he was speaking about the French or Spanish, but no one would have been that completely surprised in 1775 when he again brought up this idea. In any case, the Patriots already believed Josiah Martin of NC had done or was about to do exactly what Dunmore did in November. The New Bern Committee intercepted a letter from Martin in August telling a member of His Majesty’s Council in North Carolina that rebellion, and the failure of all other methods to end that rebellion, would justify arming the slaves against their masters.

    More importantly, however, this argument about Dunmore’s Proclamation does not account for all that occurred before November 1775 – the Association; the Drayton-Tennent-Hart mission into the backcountry to recruit Loyalist support; William Henry Drayton successfully dividing backcountry loyalists and their leadership, significantly weakening SC loyalism – all without firing a shot; the action taken against John Stuart, the Indian commissioner, and Alexander Cameron, his deputy, with the aim of delegitimizing the British representatives among the Indians and securing as much of a neutrality of the tribes as possible. By November 1775 the Patriots had, or were on their way to establishing firm control over loyalists, slaves, and Indians, because they understood the important role those groups would play in British strategy in the South. Again, the concern was the British. Action taken against the domestic groups was to prevent the British from being able to leverage their support.

    – Many historians have tried to connect Patriot activity against the British in 1775 to obscure, remote slave revolts that were detected and stopped in their infancy. Timing, geography and other factors undermine these efforts, but there is still a starting assumption that southern support for the war was about slavery. Take, for example, the Patriot efforts in SC to seize control of the militias and organize provincial regiments loyal to the Provincial Congress. Historians have argued that this was done to defend not against the British but against slave insurrection. Letters from Patriot leadership, however, explain how that claim was a pretext to allow them to organize forces for ostensibly legal purposes. Henry Laurens, the President of the Provincial Congress, suggested to his colleagues that if their claim that these forces were to be used against slaves and not the British or loyalists were to be believed, they’d do well to reduce the size of the regiments as no one would believe the numbers they were organizing were just intended for use against insurrection.

    Anyway, if interested in more detail and sources, please see the link above. Also, Ray, I wanted to ask whether you had found any primary sources linking Somerset with support in Virginia for the war. I’ve heard this argument made – usually as just a hypothesis – but I’ve never seen anything to support it in any of my research in NC, SC, or GA. In fact, only once was it ever mentioned in any of the letters I read from the Patriot elite (essentially all of whom were slaveholders). That one mention was Henry Laurens – who had enormous slaveholding interests – acknowledging to someone that he had heard of the decision, with no additional comment on it. As I said, I haven’t gotten into the VA sources to nearly the same extent, so I’d be very interested if you’d found anything about it. Thanks.

    1. I see my other post came through eventually. I wasn’t patient enough. Please feel free to delete the second comment, and this comment.

  • Dan,
    Like you, I research the southern states where slavery was common. In that research, I have run across little or no evidence that fear of slave insurrection was a major factor. However, I also noticed that you mentioned the role Indian depredations (or fear thereof) played in the southern states. 1773 opened the cession lands to a quick migration to settle the area above Augusta. In early 1774, the business of the colony was dominated by raiding by some unhappy Creek warriors. When the Loyalty petitions came around the back country in August of that year, language was inserted directly related to the Indian fears.

    “Because we understand that the Council and Assembly of this Province have lately applied to his Majesty for assistance in the case of an Indian war; and should we enter into any such resolutions, we could not in justice expect any such assistance, . . .” (Resolutions from Parish of St. Paul signed by later patriots, John Dooly and William Few)

    In the Parish of St. Matthew, the resolution said the Patriot resolutions were “very wrong, and may incur the displeasure of his Majesty, so as to prevent us from having soldiers to help us in case of an Indian war.”

    When the South Carolina Secret Committee (led by the zealot, William Henry Drayton) sent it’s commissioners to the back country a year later, they were armed with a number of Indian related arguments. They pointed to the letters from Alexander Cameron found on the Indian agent, John Stuart, indicating the Cherokee stood ready to act “whenever called upon in support of his Majesty.” The suspicions grew worse when Cameron (Stuart’s deputy agent to the Cherokee) fled into Cherokee Country and refused to come out. Rumors of Indian attacks and controversy over the annual powder delivery to the Cherokee inflamed the situation even more.

    It has often looked to me as if the back country people of GA and SC (who comprised a large percentage of the population) may have been largely influenced to turn Whig by their fears and feelings toward the Creek and Cherokee Indians. The icing on the cake came a year later when the Cherokee attacked all along the frontier. From that time forward, many of the later partisans who carried the southern campaigns turned to the Patriot cause for the duration.

    Sort of a theory I have considered before. Happy to see you may have similar observations.

    1. Hi Wayne,

      Apologies for the delayed response. The Patriots definitely used rumors of British support for slave insurrection and Indian attacks to their advantage, and you pointed out one of the lines they found in the Cameron/Stuart correspondence that they used to this effect. (It also had the effect of weakening Stuart’s position, which helped delegitimize him among some of the Indian tribes). Regardless of whether or not the Patriot leadership was all that concerned about the threat posed by slaves and Indians, they definitely understood the propaganda value these rumors offered. If you’ve read the Journal of Alexander Chesney, an Irish immigrant who lived on the Pacolet River, he discusses his arrest in 1775 for sheltering Loyalists. He was given an option of avoiding prison by joining the Patriots, and spent some of the next couple years fighting Indians with the Patriots – particularly the Cherokee in 1776 – despite being a Loyalist, and he wrote that he had no qualms fighting with the Patriots against the Indians. Other loyalists also tempered their opposition to the Patriots when they learned the British might be trying to stir up the Indians. Robert Cunningham was just one example, and neutralizing the threat he posed went a long way in Drayton’s efforts to divide loyalist leadership in the backcountry in the summer of 1775.

      At the same time, as you noted, many backcountry residents remained loyal because they thought the British were their best protection against the Indian threat. The militia commanders in the three western – most districts, which bordered the Indian territory – remained loyalist and brought many of their men along with them – Thomas Fletchall in particular. So sometimes people chose the same side for what seemed to be completely opposite reasons.

      Rachel Klein, in her book The Unification of a Slave State, argues that the Patriots got lucky that their efforts to recruit Indian support mostly failed because it would have turned a lot of the backcountry against them. I don’t entirely agree with this. The Patriots knew they had a delicate line to tread regarding the Indians. As I’ve argued with the loyalists and slaves, they needed to deny Indian support to the British. At the same time, they had to be careful about how they did that. The Patriots never really sought active Indian support like the British did – they sought Indian neutrality instead – an important distinction. They declined sending the Indians large gifts of ammunition as the British did, but sent a small amount to the Indian headmen, who would be responsible for its management and distribution as needed.

      Even this was very controversial, as one of the shipments of gunpowder from the Council of Safety in Charleston was intercepted by a local committee, which wrote to the Council of Safety asking if the shipment was a mistake. The Council of Safety said it wasn’t and reprimanded the committee for stopping it, but this created a lot of resentment among those who might otherwise support them as it was thought the Council of Safety was arming the Indians. Richard Pearis defected from the Patriots to the loyalists at about this time, and used this episode for propaganda purposes to moderate effect. It was a small sampling of what would have happened if the Patriots tried to recruit large scale, active Indian support. In my opinion Klein doesn’t give the Patriot leadership enough credit. They knew what they were doing, and the precarious balance they had to maintain between denying the British Indian support and angering the backcountry inhabitants by supporting the tribes.

      As for using rumors of British support for Indian attacks against frontier residents, the Patriots engaged in some minor creative interpretation of British correspondence, but more than anything, careless British wording and even uncertainty about the Indians’ (and slaves’) role helped make the Patriots’ case for them. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what it meant that the Indians were ready to act on behalf of the King when called upon. Until his death in 1779, Stuart stressed to all of his correspondents (Dartmouth, Germain, Prevost, Campbell) that the Indians would need a British force to show up near the Cherokee and Creek Nations (at Pensacola, for example) to escort the Indians to the coast. In part this was because of the vast distances from the Indian territory to Charleston, Savannah, or even Camden and Augusta. The Indians didn’t have the logistics or enablers to sustain that long of a march. It was also so that white British soldiers could ensure the Indians did not attack loyalists, women or children.

      The British commanders and officials, however, assumed Stuart would be there anytime during the war that British forces needed them closer to the coast. This was the interpretation that Patriots had of Stuart’s letters, namely that Stuart was preparing the Indians for an imminent attack, since they also knew the British were preparing for an attack against the southern colonies. While Stuart and his deputies did not want the Cherokee to attack in 1776, the lack of clarity about the Indians’ role meant that Stuart was constantly telling the Indians to be ready for the time British troops would arrive and they would attack. This kept the Cherokee constantly on edge, waiting for an order to attack that never came. Eventually Stuart and Co. lost control of large numbers of the Indians.

      One aspect of the Patriots’ pacification of the loyalists in the backcountry in 1775 that I think is wildly underappreciated is the role of William Henry Drayton. He had initially gone into the backcountry with William Tennent and Oliver Hart to explain the situation between the Patriots and British and try to win support. Many historians argue that this mission was a failure because they had little success with persuasive efforts (though rumors of British support for the Indians certainly helped). The Council of Safety had a much better understanding of the situation than these historians give it credit for though. They saw the hold that the loyalist leadership had over the backcountry inhabitants, and had authorized Drayton to the full use of coercive measures to subdue the loyalists. Drayton understood they would have to employ both a top-down and bottom-up approach to weaken loyalist support and isolate the leaders from the rest of the population. They used the militia and armed propaganda to intimidate inhabitants into signing the Association, depriving the leadership of supporters. They used economic coercion to prevent loyalists from trading with or traveling to Charleston, and prevented the storehouse and mill owners in the backcountry who had not signed the Association – many of them were loyalists – from supplying themselves from Charleston. This further cost them support among their neighbors since they could no longer supply them with the goods they needed. This had the most notable effect on Moses Kirkland, whose supporters largely abandoned him, leaving him exposed and forcing him to sleep in swamps, flee to Charleston to obtain support from the governor, and enter the city under cover of darkness.

      At the same time, the Patriots also took a top-down approach by taking steps to divide the loyalist leadership. Drayton used intimidation, superior intelligence, and clever positioning of his militia and provincial forces to force Fletchall into signing a treaty at Ninety Six in September without actually having to fire a shot. This removed Fletchall and his men from the conflict, dividing him from other loyalist leaders like Thomas Brown and Robert Cunningham, who would not agree to the terms of the treaty. They then arrested Cunningham, and Brown was forced to flee to the Cherokee Nation. Though Cunningham’s arrest brought his brother Patrick into the conflict, Andrew Williamsom forced another treaty at Ninety Six with Patrick Cunningham’s men, further weakening the loyalist opposition. Williamson also worked in clever wording into what was essentially a cease-fire, so that William Thomson and Richard Richardson would not be party to the cease-fire, and could finish the job of cleaning up loyalist opposition in the Snow Campaign that winter. The Patriots’ two-pronged pacification strategy was in stark contrast to the British effort later in the war to pacify the Carolinas largely through a top-down process by capturing or killing “high value targets.” The problem was without also weakening the base of support, there was always new leaders to take over from those captured. When much of the low country leadership surrendered with Charleston in 1780, and were sent to St Augustine, and men like Pickens and Williamson took paroles – backcountry leaders like Sumter, Marion, Davidson, and eventually Greene were able to take over. British efforts to then capture or kill those men temporarily sidelined men like Sumter.

      Henry Laurens never fully trusted Drayton, who as late as 1774 was still a vocal opponent of the Patriots (He though he was actually an agent of the British inserted into Patriot leadership to discredit it with his radical actions. Much of that pacification strategy in 1775 though was the work of Drayton, with input from other Council of Safety members like Arthur Middleton. Laurens would incrementally come to realize the importance of some of the more radical actions taken by the Council, despite his initial opposition, as he realized their benefit (the most notable example was the decision to intercept official mail in July – Laurens was horrified by the idea until he learned the contents of the letters between the southern governors and Dartmouth, and the actions the British were prepared to take against the colonists.)

  • Dan,
    Just to let you know, I looked (and printed out) your blog post on slavery and Southern Support for the American Revolution. Nicely stated. Also, I hope you (or the editors) don’t mind but I copied and pasted your response to me on the Indian influence to another article comments. Specifically, I did an article on Alexander Cameron last year and I thought it would be nice to attach our discussion on the Indian influence in that post. Instead of here, where we have strayed from the subject.

  • I love this discussion, Jim, Dan. and Wayne. Here is my current take, with your comments in mind. First, the fear of slave insurrections was a way of life in slaveholding communities throughout the South. As tensions mounted with British imperial authorities, nervous whites could easily imagine how Crown authorities might play this. Two examples, one from South Carolina and one from Virginia.

    In early May 1775, Henry Laurens shared with the South Carolina General Committee a report he had just received from London: a “black plan” was allegedly afoot to arm the slaves so they might rise against their patriot masters. Within days, a panic took hold of Charles Town. The General Committee decreed that 100 men should be added to the nightly patrol to “guard against any hostile attempts that might be made by our domesticks.” As fear ran rampant, so did rumors. According to John Stuart, British Indian Commissioner, “Massacres and instigated insurrections, were words in the mouth of every child.” On May 29 the South Carolina Gazette printed a new story from London: “There is gone down to Sheerness, seventy-eight thousand guns and bayonets, to be sent to America, to put into the hands of N*****s, the Roman Catholics, the Indians and Canadiens.” (Josiah Smith to James Poyas, 5/18/75, quoted in Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves, and Subjects, 229, 238; John R Alden, “John Stuart Accuses William Bell,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 2 (1945), 320.)

    Henry Laurens, to his credit, was one of the few whites who thought the alarms were exaggerated. “[U]pon the whole there appears very little foundation,” he reported to his son John, for the “great fear & …amazing bustle” that gripped Charles Town, “where the inhabitants are as suddenly blown up by apprehensions as gun powder is by fire.” The point is not that there was such a scheme afoot, but that people believed there to be. It struck a nerve—the same nerve orators drumming up anti-British sentiment might wish to strike. (HL to JL, 6/23/75, Papers of Henry Laurens, 10:191.)

    In Williamsburg Virginia, in response to Governor Dunmore’s April 21 raid on the magazine, it was patriots who first played the slave card. The next afternoon, the Municipal Common Hall (the city’s governing body) sent a delegation to ask the Governor to return the powder. This was no time to leave them without any means of defense, they argued: “[W]e have too much reason to believe that some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions in the minds of our slaves, and that, therefore, the utmost attention to our internal security is become the more necessary.” That is when Dunmore responded by playing his slave card. The fear came first, and Dunmore was using it. (Van Schreeven et al., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence. A Documentary Record, 3:5 and 3:55.)

    It is true these incidents occurred shortly after Henry’s speech. I relish this close attention to chronology. But note that Laurens’s informant in Britain must have penned the warning around the time of Henry’s speech, and for it even to progress to the rumor stage, people in Britain must have received some indication of the colonists’ fears well before Henry’s speech. Note, too, that Virginia patriots did not specify when they first heard about “wicked and designing persons” inciting insurrections. The truth is, fear of slave insurrections was always in the air, as we might expect in such a repressive society. Whether or not we have detailed accounts from March, 1775, I think we can safely conjecture there was a buzz floating about: British officials, as the ultimate act of aggression, might soon take the action Dunmore threatened in April and executed in November. This took nobody by surprise.

    That said, I agree that we cannot safely assume Henry addressed this in his historic speech. We know it was in his repertoire and he might have taken this tact—that is as far as we can go. This conversation has led me to rethink the likelihood that Henry would actually play the slave card in this particular speech. Most likely he would not because of the respectable venue (the Virginia Convention, the upper echelon of Virginia’s patriots), yet even here, apparently, he did some name-calling, so it is still possible he stooped to this level. We will never know. On the other hand, I think he would likely play the slave card when mobilizing volunteer companies back home— that was suited for local audiences, to mobilize the politically inert.

    When Jefferson tried to play the slave card in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Congress rejected it. It was certainly not what Americans in the early 19th Century wanted to celebrate. For this reason, Wirt’s being pro-slavery bias is irrelevant. Even if Henry had played the slave card in this speech, Wirt’s informants might not have recalled this, or, if they did, pass it on. Wirt, through Henry, was addressing a broad American audience and had every reason to suppress slavery, a divisive issue, and celebrate the noble ideals that all Americans could embrace.

    1. Hi Ray – thanks for the reply. Certainly fear of slave insurrection had been a way of life for decades in South Carolina, particularly as blacks outnumbered whites in the province. But that’s not sufficient to explain the “why now” question. Laurens was not the only one who felt that threats of slave insurrection had been overstated. The letter you reference was from Arthur Lee, who was in London, and it arrived in Charleston in May. The Provincial Congress, which met beginning 1 June, created a committee led by Thomas Bee to investigate the rumors of British-backed insurrection. (Incidentally, the General Committee moved up the date for the Provincial Congress to meet from late June to 1 June not because of any out of the ordinary concern about slave insurrection, but because hostilities between the British and the colonists had commenced in Massachusetts). A handful of slaves and free blacks were arrested, but shortly thereafter it was determined there was no real cause for concern, and those arrested were either released or sent to the workhouse.

      Throughout June, one prominent white leader – both radical and conservative – wrote privately that there was no reason for concern – Laurens, Drayton, Gabriel Manigault, Patriot leaders in North Carolina. Indeed the committee of the Provincial Congress generally acceded that the prisoners were no threat. Nothing more was heard of this subject until it became apparent the black harbor pilots – slave and free alike – were the key to allowing the British to destroy Charleston and other coastal cities. One has to explain why the commotion of July didn’t exist in June. Also, adding men to the patrol – the routine arm of enforcement of the slave laws for decades – was one thing. Forming new provincial regiments loyal only to the Provincial Congress and seizing control of the militia was quite another. They did the former in response to the arrival of news of a threat in May, a threat that had dissipated within weeks. They did the latter in response to the British threat.

      A lot of historians – and Olwell, who you cite, is one – try to assign responsibility for some of the Patriots most notable actions to belief that the British were sponsoring slave insurrection. The evidence just doesn’t support most of these claims. The few revolts or planned revolts from 1774-1775 that still exist in the records occurred in remote parishes and counties in the Carolinas and Georgia, far from the cities. In most cases, news could never have reached the cities in time to be responsible for the specific actions cited by these historians as the result of the Patriots hearing about those insurrections. In one example, historians argue that a specific slave rebellion far from Charleston was responsible for the new fears of the slaves in July 1775, and the Thomas Jeremiah ordeal in July and August. The problem is, the white man who was said to be the instigator of the whole thing was then given a job by Henry Laurens to work on his plantations in Georgia, with responsibility for some of his slaves. This isn’t mentioned in the main source covering this planned insurrection – it only mentions that he was given a job out of state. You have to go digging elsewhere to find out that it was Laurens that gave him the job, and sent him off to work in close proximity of his slaves. That hardly supports the notion that news of this insurrection was responsible for new fears about the British.

      Long story short, there was always concern about slave insurrection. That was a constant. But the fears of May following the arrival of Lee’s letter had disappeared by June, even as the Patriots began simultaneously organizing armed force to use against the British. Then in July something else caused renewed fears – something else has to explain this besides the same old fears that had existed for decades. That something else was that the British may have finally found a way to get within range to destroy Charleston, Wilmington, and Savannah. Combined with intelligence they had learned from a number of sources, including captured mail, that the British were planning a southern expedition, this new military consideration was enough to cause a general panic.

      1. We are talking apples and oranges here, Dan. I am not trying “to assign responsibility for some of the Patriots most notable actions to belief that the British were sponsoring slave insurrection,” nor am I saying that there were in fact slave revolts, or even a realistic prospect of them, just then. I am saying that once armed conflict seemed likely, hawks like Henry, in mobilizing white men to fight, probably did what hawks always do when mobilizing for war: vilify the enemy and play on people’s fears of what the enemy might do, whether or not those fears were realistic. (By showing rumors to be unfounded, you are actually offering evidence of fear.) If Henry called Englishmen “wretches sunk in luxury” who had “lost their native courage,” he might well have raised the specter of what such cowards would likely do: instigate rebellion. Why wouldn’t hawks play on people’s greatest fears?

        As to “why now,” the answer is simple: war was coming, and that is precisely when background fears come to the surface, particularly if people suspect the enemy might play on them. By the spring of 75, colonists far and wide were bracing for the contest. Many months earlier, in the First Continental Congress, southern radicals like Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Christopher Gadsden were saying: bring it on! After the Massachusetts Powder Alarm of September 2, 1774, Silas Deane reported from Congress that Gadsden was “for taking up his firelock, & marching direct to Boston, nay he affirmed this morning, that were his wife, and all his children in Boston, & they were there to perish, by the sword, it would not alter his sentiment or proceeding, for American Liberty.” Joseph Reed reported that compared to Virginians like Lee and Henry, “the Bostonians are mere milkstops.” Lee actually moved that “the free citizens of Boston” should “quit the place” so patriots could launch an attack on the city’s garrisoned soldiers.” These folks certainly suspected that come spring, when wars were normally fought, there would be one. That is when vilification comes into play. This is not, as you show, a reason for the fighting, but it is a common response once fighting seems imminent.

        1. Ray,

          Thanks for the reply. And fair enough. I had misread your original article as assigning causation for Virginian support for the war after Henry’s speech to Somerset and the fear of British support for slave insurrections.

          Just to clarify though, when I asked “what changed,” I didn’t mean 1774 (or earlier) to 1775. There was just so much going on in those last months of 1774 and first months of 1775, that you could trace changes in thought from one month to the next – and almost one week to the next. So while Arthur Lee’s letter and news from Massachusetts in May caused much consternation about how the British might assist the slaves – which as you say was only a normal assumption. This led to a short burst of activity, but by June that fear had dissipated and the prisoners released. Then in July a very different concern led the Patriots to fear how the slaves might assist the British.I wanted to stress that that month of June suggests two very different ways of thinking and it’s important to note the differences.

          Thanks for the back and forth.

  • This is a useful reminder that the text of speeches from the founding era, particular those attributed to Henry, should be viewed with caution; this is a familiar issue for anyone who has worked w/ Henry. Undoubtedly the “text” of the speech which has been transmitted through history is not a word-for-word rendition from Henry. Still, Ray’s criticisms are too broad. Consider McCant’s or Elson’s work. (One question: Ray relies heavily on the fact that Tyler provides a very clipped section of Tucker’s recollections (ftnt 8): I must be confused because my copy of Tyler includes a very extended quotation of the Tucker recollection including, in part, the paragraph quoted.)

    In terms of Henry’s possible reliance on Somerset, it is, as Ray notes, speculative. Henry’s views on slavery have been much discussed, not entirely unlike Jefferson’s. I know, though, that some additional work is being done on the question of the impact of Somerset (although I’ll have to think about from whom I heard this). It is a topic worthy additional exploration, but while Henry’s record on slavery is not good, without additional evidence or analysis, I am not sure that it belongs in the complicated question of the “liberty or death” speech.

  • That Henry said ”Give me Liberty or give me Death!” is supported by a number of eyewitness accounts, including that of JohnTyler, John Roane, as well as St. George Tucker. Judge Spencer Roane also
    eludes to Henry saying those famous words in a letter to Wirt in 1805. There is also the eyewitness account from a Baptist minister collected by historian Henry Randall which upholds the traditional ending of Henry’s Speech. Though it would stretch the imagination to believe Tucker remembered every single word Henry said over 30 years later, all evidence indicates that the overall theme of the speech Tucker provided Wirt, as well as a number of specific phrases, such as “we must fight!” and “give me liberty or give me death!” is accurate. Furthermore , it was not a French traveler” or a ”French spy” that wrote about Henry’s Stamp Act speech, but a Madeira wine dealer named Charles Murray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *