The Slaveholding Founders: Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” Speech

Some folks are making a big deal out of this being the anniversary of Patrick Henry’s liberty of death framed address at a
225px-Patrick_henry (Photo: wikipedia)
March 23, 1775 meeting of some powerful Virginians considering revolutionary action. The traditional view is that it helped to get the Virginia House of Burgesses to support sending Virginia soldiers to the Revolutionary War. Henry gave his speech to urge white Virginians to fight the British. This is a portion of his speech that was preserved, including a lot kept out of traditional history books, for obvious reasons (quoted and discussed more here):

For my own part I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. . . . And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House? . . . Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? . . . Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? . . . They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. . . . 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! . . . There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! . . . Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? . . . I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Assuming this version of his speech is roughly accurate (it was first printed by his biographer only in 1817, from recollections not notes), we see much that supports the idea that Henry was a leading “radical” in the American revolution, one willing to give his life for freedom. He asserted such views in speeches and letters and was later a strong supporter of adding the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, there is also much irony. Henry counterposes “freedom” to “slavery” and repeatedly uses the metaphor of “slavery and chains” to describe conditions of white colonists. Yet, at this point in his life, the “freedom loving” Henry had been a major slaveholder for many years, and he left some 65 African Americans firmly enslaved at his death. Clearly, the white founders’ frequent references to their own “enslavement” reveal how central African American slavery was to the colonial society and to many whites’ deep and defensive framing of the racially oppressive society they maintained and greatly profited from. It permeated their everyday thinking in many ways, indeed. In their minds, somehow, they could see their oppression as “slavery” but not the real slavery they imposed on others….. Will we ever tell the truth to our children and most of the rest of our society about our slaveholding founders?

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