Patrick Henry’s voice rings out today as clearly as ever, reminding America that true leaders speak, act, and fight for the people’s liberty. America faced a crisis of leadership in 1775. The colonies faced growing taxation from Great Britain. Across the colonies, leaders railed against taxation without representation. For years, the colonies had complained to Great Britain, but nothing was done. Parliament and the King refused to recognize the justice of the colonists’ grievances. Whispers of independence and revolution were in the air, but few were willing to make a public show of support for such a radical idea. Into the void stepped Patrick Henry. In his immortal speech before the Virginia Convention, he decried British policy as oppressive and tyrannical. With characteristic boldness, he wholeheartedly endorsed armed rebellion against the crown, crying “give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry became the leader the colonies had been looking for, changing the course of American history. More than that, however, he set an example of a leader who called others to action, led boldly in a time of crisis, and defended his ideals in the face of tremendous opposition.
Patrick Henry took an unusual path to influence. Many of the Founding Fathers began their careers early, attended prestigious universities or studied law at a young age. However, Patrick Henry did not take the easy road. He did not study law until later in life. But when he did, it became obvious very quickly that he had talent. Thomas Jefferson called him the greatest speaker he had ever heard. He became well-known for supporting controversial causes, speaking out against the much-reviled Stamp Act. When America needed someone to speak out for independence, Patrick Henry was willing to do so. “The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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’s speech helped tip the scales in favor of revolution. Without his tremendous influence, American history might have been very different. Patrick Henry’s speech was more than just rhetoric. It demonstrated his willingness to publicly support the cause of freedom. When American independence was hanging in the balance, he spoke out. He not only changed the facts of American history, but he showed future generations that a true leader must speak boldly to gather others to his cause.
Most people’s knowledge of Patrick Henry begins and ends with his famous speech. However, his influence was just beginning. Some great orators are content to simply stir up the populace and then step back and let others do the dirty work. Patrick Henry acted. He joined the militia and became a colonel. He stirred up so much trouble that the royal governor issued a proclamation decrying his efforts. In 1776, he was elected governor, leading the critical state of Virginia through the early years of the war. During the dark days of the early revolution, George Washington faced internal threats from other leaders who doubted his ability. Patrick Henry defended him, and even exposed a plot to have Washington replaced. The fate of the Revolution in Virginia was in his hands, and he guided the state with a steady hand. His tremendous influence helped Virginia fuel the American Revolution, especially through his ceaseless efforts to supply George Washington with the encouragement and supplies he needed.
Perhaps Patrick Henry’s greatest legacy is the Bill of Rights, the list of freedoms he fought to secure. In the years after the American Revolution, the colonies were faced with a second task: building a new government to establish liberty for future generations. Not everyone agreed on the best way to do that. A Constitutional Convention was called to reform the government, and the leaders gathered there formed the document we know as the US Constitution. Patrick Henry was very worried by the new powers granted in the Constitution. He feared that a paper document would not be able to preserve liberty from potential tyrants. He was especially insistent on the inclusion of a bill of rights. “The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change… is this same relinquishment of rights worthy of freemen?” Thanks to Patrick Henry, America got its bill of rights. Without him, that great document ensuring liberty for future generations might never have been written. Patrick Henry has been proved right. The Bill of Rights has served as an indispensable support of American liberty, serving as a check on all who would abuse their power. Every time we read an uncensored newspaper, worship as we please, or voice our opinions in the public square, we are enjoying the legacy of freedom Patrick Henry established.
Patrick Henry has shaped the world we live in today. He ushered in the American Revolution in the South, stirring the citizens of the colonies. He led the state of Virginia through the turbulent revolution, and preserved liberty by demanding a bill of Rights. Even more importantly, he set an example of what a statesman should be, moving others to action, acting boldly himself, and defending his principles, even when it was unpopular. Patrick Henry shaped history, and we can judge our leaders by their ability to follow his example of words, action, and integrity. As Patrick Henry said, “I know no way of judging the future but by the past.”