Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death, by Patrick Henry
Properly speaking, this is not a book, but merely a single and well-known speech given by Patrick Henry that is titled by its moving peroration, in which the noted American orator finished his speech in a way that seems to deliberately mimic Joshua’s famous statement in Joshua 24 about he and his family obeying God: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” In the end, Patrick Henry and the majority of his fellow members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, got their liberty. In terms of its contents, the speech is organized well, is a piece of stirring rhetoric, and is about the length of an ordinary sermonette (somewhere in the ten to twenty minute range, depending on how slowly one speaks). Most of the length of the speech, moreover, is dedicated to the speaker drawing ferocious conclusions about the evil intents of Great Britain in sending over their fleet and army to North America, with the (accurate) knowledge that the only possible enemy that was targeted was the overmighty and overly independent colonists themselves, including Henry and his somewhat more famous revolutionary contemporaries (Washington, Adams, and the like). The speech stands as a successful example of passionate rhetoric written in the form of Cicero or Isocrates, and clearly spoken by someone familiar with both the realities of the late 18th century Virginian (and American) political context as well as the forms and approaches of classical rhetoric, a speech worthy of study and examination, despite its brevity, and the fact that no other speeches by this notable orator were included herein.
Of particular interest to students of the problem of slavery in America is the fact that over and over again Patrick Henry comments on the purposes of the British army in reducing the colonists to a state of slavery. The British, like every imperial nation before or since, would have thought it entirely proper and natural that colonial peoples like the early Americans should be in a state of dependence, but the Americans saw themselves, not incorrectly, as fully the equals of the British and as no dependent people at all. Later on, of course, the United States would become an imperial people of its own, and not always remember that its proud desire for self-rule was shared by other peoples of the earth aside from itself. Likewise, it is highly ironic that Virginia, the largest slave state of the early American republic, would produce speakers (like Patrick Henry) who were so incensed about being reduced to colonial bondage. Without necessarily charging these people with gross hypocrisy, it is clear that the experience of Patrick Henry and his fellow elite Virginians as slaveowners, used to dominating and ruling over their households, including free subordinates, less wealthy neighbors, wives and children, as well as indentured servants and slaves, could not conceive of being paid by the English in their own coin. There was no room for subservience in the minds of these Virginians, because they expected others to be subservient to them. It is this feeling, widely shared by his contemporaries (and by later Southerners) that would be a decisive aspect of American history until the Civil War, when blessedly the Southern aristocrats were removed once (and so far, for good) from their position of dominance over the American republic. Nevertheless, we may praise this speech for its importance in encouraging America’s freedom from imperial misrule, even if we may not consider Henry and his contemporaries blameless and just in granting freedom to others.