March 23, 2013 - Anniversary of an Influential Speech

A lot of history books written for kids quote a phrase here or there that paint a simple, heroic picture of particular bits of history. “The British are coming, the British are coming!” is an example. Some history books have Paul Revere shouting these words of warning as he rode his horse from Charlestown to Lexington in April of 1775. 

But in actual fact, Revere rode as silently as he could, since the British were actually already there: the countryside was filled with British army patrols, and most of the American colonists still considered themselves British citizens and were loyal to the King. Instead of shouting a message to all, Revere stopped at the house of pretty much every “Patriot” – by which I mean “rebel,” those who wanted to declare independence from England and fight, if necessary, for the right to do so. In a low voice, Revere told each of the Patriots, “The Regulars are coming out,” referring to the regular, official British army. Many of the Patriots jumped onto their horses and rode to tell their neighbors with the same warning. By the time Revere reached Lexington, around midnight, there may have been 40 or more horsemen riding as silently as they could manage while still giving the not-famous warning.

Almost a month before that famous ride, another event had spurred another oft-quoted phrase: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Today is the anniversary of the that quote.

On this date in 1775, a man named Patrick Henry spoke to the other men (yes, they were all men!) in the Virginia House of Burgesses. As a group, they were undecided as to whether or not to mount a military force against the British. The British Parliament had been making a larger and larger proportion of the American colonists angry, with the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Declaratory Act, the Townshend Revenue Act, the Tea Act, and five acts called, together, the Intolerable Acts. British soldiers had even fired on American colonists, killing five, in the Boston Massacre. Colonists had passed resolutions, had boycotted British goods, had fought back by attacking a British ship (check out the Gaspee Affair!), and had protested with the Boston Tea Party.   

It seemed to many that war was inevitable. Others probably still hoped to remain a part of Great Britain or to separate peacefully.

Patrick Henry apparently thought that the colonists had to take action. Right away. And so he used his oratorical skills to change the undecided's minds.

Would it surprise you to know that we don't really know for sure what Patrick Henry said that day? Nobody was filming or taping the speech (of course! since the technology did not yet exist!), but nobody wrote it down right away, either. Forty-two years after the speech was made, a biographer named William Wirt tried to recreate the speech using oral histories. This is Wirt's recreation of the very end of Patrick Henry's speech:

And, Wirt writes, the entire crowd jumped up and shouted “To arms! To arms!”

Here's what we know:

  • This speech did apparently move enough of the men to pass a resolution to commit Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War.
In other words, Patrick Henry was able to move people by appealing to their emotions, but it was hard to remember just what he had said. His speeches were probably not as strong on logical argument as we might hope.
  • Henry was also known to appeal to people's fears of Indian and slave revolts in order to manipulate them. I found Henry's words (according to Wirt) “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” to be terribly, terribly ironic, since Patrick Henry purchased at least 78 slaves during his lifetime! I imagine he wasn't trying to move his own slaves to revolt against their chains with these same words!

Also on this date:

National Puppy Day 

World Meteorological Day

Anniversary of the coining of the word “okay” (America's “Greatest Word”)

Earth Hour 8:30 – 9:30 p.m. 

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