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On this day in 1775

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave . . . 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.

- Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775, at the second of the Virginia Conventions.

The full speech is available here It’s not long so, as Glenn Reynolds would say, “read the whole thing.”

16 comments to On this day in 1775

  • Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?

    Given the widespread acquiescence to welfare statism, clearly for a very large number of people the answer is… yes

  • Alisa

    People, let alone politicians, don’t say things like that any more. Forget ‘say’, they don’t even think in these terms. We’ve come a long way, baby.

  • RRS

    And – 90 years later the city in which those words were spoken lay in ruins; for assertions of much those same principles by the immediate descendents of those very same men who heard those words.

    Principles have costs.

  • RAB

    What I am about to say is pure conjecture of course, but I wonder if George 111 had said ” Oh fuck it! Let’s give each American Colony 2 MP’s at Westminster each and have done with it”, would that have placated the likes of Patrick Henry?

    I think not. He seemed to have been hell bent on Revolution whatever concessions were made by the British Crown towards the American Colonies.

    “give me liberty or give me death” is fine rhetoric, but that in the main was what Henry was, a rhetorician. He was a failed businessman and slave owner(as so many of the Revolutionaries, including Washington were) so to talk of “Slavery” when referring to mere taxation, in the same terms as utter loss of freedom, is a bit rich.

    There were many strands to the revolutionary story, which tends to get told in simplistic black and white terms; Brits V Americans, when it was more akin to being the first American Civil War.

    Some of those strands were the wish for westward expansion into Indian territories that the Crown had forbidden, and of course the main reason for the taxation, which was to pay for the cost of the French/Indian war that had kept the 13 States, nee Colonies, free from French rule, and which the states were unwilling and ungrateful enough to not want to stump up for (that’s the way it was taught in Britain circa 1960). How much would the French had gauged out of the States had they won I wonder?

    Henry was a great advocate of State rights over Federal ones, but changed his mind in his latter years, so RRS’s words above have great resonance.

  • Anyone fancy asserting that principle today by, for instance, refusing to pay tax or building a house on a green field or driving without a licence? Because if you do I think you will end up with more of the death bit than the liberty bit.

    Which is why I won’t be joining you.

  • Scott McPhail

    ” . . .and of course the main reason for the taxation, which was to pay for the cost of the French/Indian war that had kept the 13 States, nee Colonies, free from French rule, and which the states were unwilling and ungrateful enough to not want to stump up for (that’s the way it was taught in Britain circa 1960). ”

    Or the French/Indian War that was fought to expand the British Empire and to which the Colonies contributed greatly in men and money. Surely they resented taxes whose chief aim was the upkeep of a colonial military establishment that was larger than existed before the war but which now lacked a French enemy. And as for the costs of the war, certainly the money spent in Canada had a better return than that which was wasted in Hanover?

  • RAB

    You seem to forget Scott that the American Colonies were part of the “British Empire” at that point in time, and as such benefited from any expansion and security of same.

    The role of the colonies in said war was questionable to say the least. The Colonies had badly trained and independent Militia, from each other, let alone the mainstream British troops.

    The war went badly to start with. Washington was captured and sent home with his troops with his tail between his legs. Not a great general by anyones estimation. However losing most of your battles but eventually winning the war, of Independence that is, is all that counts in American history isn’t it?

    The beating of the French in Canada, enabled the Louisiana purchase in 1803, which took the threat of physical force being needed to facilitate their expansionist plans to zero. The USA bought up the land at 3 cents per acre and doubled the size of the USA at a stroke.

  • Patrick Henry IX

    RAB – we get it: you don’t like Americans. Give it a rest.

  • RAB

    Wrong Patrick, I love Americans and America, I’ve been there many times. It’s the ones who get drawn towards being Politicians I’m generally leery of ;-)

  • Paul Marks

    George III did not have the power to grant the Americans seats in the House of Commons RAB.

    The better informed Americans always understood that the war was against PARLIAMENT not against a man called George (the third of his name). However, making George (in reality a kindly man – and he remained so even after the illness later took his mind).

    Of course the time it took to cross the Atlantic might have made representation in the House of Commons inpractical – but Parliament was not interested (such ideas were propsed on the House of Commons and were soundly defeated).

    More importantly is the key issue – the POWERS of Parliament (not who got to be a member).

    There was a reason why the Founders (slaver owners or non slave owners) despised Blackstone (the leading British legal writer of the time) – and they despised him long before they were committed to independence.

    Blackstone taught that Parliament (again not the King – PARLIAMENT) could do anything it liked.

    That destroyed every principle of liberty – it indeed made the population slaves.

    “But not if the people were given the vote….”.

    Having the vote is not relevant – it is the unlimited power itself which is unacceptable.

    Those who call “slave owers” have to understand the nonslave owning founders held the same view (on this matter) as the slave owners.

    Nor does owning slaves rule someone out of discussion of the principles of liberty – otherwise there could be no political discussion (worth the name) in the entire Classical World.

    That some people are slaves does not mean that all people should be slaves – or that it does not matter if some people are free if all people are not free.

    “This is all an old discussion Paul…”

    Not at all.

    A case over whether Congress can do anything it likes (i.e. are Americans slaves) is up before the Supreme Court this week.

    The Obamacare case.

    Of course the Founders had great waryness of judges (they did not regard the people as perfect, far from it, but they prefered to trust the muskets of the people over any group of men in funny robes).

    In the 1930s the Supreme Court failed to defend the Constitution of the United States.

    Privately owned gold was stolen (by the Roosevelt regime), and contracts voided – thus showing that the argument that “people can not be slaves if they have the vote” is nonsense.

    The case that begins consideration this week will show if there is really any point in continuing to have a Supreme Court.

    Or whether people have to look to themselves – in cooperation with each other.

    To decide whether they are will accept being slaves (i.e. that the Federal government can do anything it likes – as long as it is elected), or whether they will consider another path.

  • Mike James

    From Patrick Henry to rap lyrics. My country has no excuse.

  • Scott McPhail

    “The role of the colonies in said war was questionable to say the least. The Colonies had badly trained and independent Militia, from each other, let alone the mainstream British troops. ”

    “It will be observed that to the provincial troops employed in this expedition is to be attributed a greater share of renown than is usually rewarded them. By their Zeal, Discipline and native energy, they contributed in no small degree to the success of the campaign.”
    Commissary Wilson’s Orderly Book: Expedition of the British and Provincial Armey under Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst against Ticonderoga and Crown Point 1759.
    London 1857

  • RAB

    Writing his memoirs with 20/20 hindsight do you think Scott, in 1857? Load of water under the bridge since then wasn’t there?

    Henry wanted war, not peace and reconciliation, and if you have read the full speech admits that the Colonies were ill prepared for a war against Professional troops, but was willing to start one anyway…

    “An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?…”

    Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just giving you the perspective from this side of the Pond.

    I wish in the “What if” version of history that can be applied to every historical moment in time, that America and Britain could have stayed united and not broken apart with such animosity and loss of lives, for I think the world would have been a better safer and fairer place as a consequence. But it was not to be.

  • Laird

    RAB, 1857 was the publication date, not the date of writing. That was 98 years after the Ticonderoga campaign. The Orderly Book was kept contemporaneously.

    And no, “it was not to be”, but overall I think that was for the good. Without violent revolution (actually, secession, but we’ll let that pass) we would not have written the Constitution which served us so well for a long time (until it was essentially abandoned in the 20th century) and which has served as the model for so many others. True, a gradual separation would likely have occurred, as it did with Canada, Australia, etc., but the world would be a far poorer place under that scenario.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    The trouble with ‘what-if’ is that you can’t find a natural cut-off point. What-if the French and British had drawn in North America- and each kept their colonies? What-if the French and British crowns had joined in a Catholic Restoration under Phillip and Mary? (fewer religious wars in Europe?)
    Once you start this game, where do you stop? It was wise of the writers of Doctor Who to have him state that he can’t alter history once he has experienced it- otherwise he could go back and give himself tips on how to beat the Daleks better, etc.

  • Paul Marks

    The “Rockingham Whigs” managed to defuse tension in America by the simple policy of not imposing taxes that the Americans were strongly opposed to.

    Only after the Rockingham Whigs (Edmund Burke and co) were pushed out of power, did the tension (and the violence) come back – and it developed into all out war.

    OF COURSE the Rockingham Whig policy could have been followed and the war avoided.

    After all, in the 19th century Britain learned by its mistake and did not impose taxation (tax money going to London) on the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand colonies.

    This is why they did not have Wars of Independence and remain with the Queen as Head of State to this day.

    Although there is also the land question.

    American settlement beyond the Cumberland Gap.

    It must be pointed out that “the Crown” (again nothing to do with George III personally) had no real interest in protecting wandering indian tribes.

    That was window dressing – window dressing of a desire to gain a monopoly of land.

    Such a policy would have had to be stopped if peace was to maintained.

    Although this does NOT mean that the British army should have been used as George Washington later used the American army – i.e. to crush Indian resistance in Ohio and so on.

    People who wanted to farm in such areas should have been left to make deals with (or to fight with) the local indians as best they could (without government aid – by sending in thousands of soldiers).

    Of course this would have meant that American westward expansion would have been slower (and perhaps more payments – and less killing), but the end result (settlement from sea to shining sea) would have been the same.

    After all this is what happened in Canada – where the use of military force against indians was more restrained.