Patrick Henry: “Liberty or Death” Speech

(1775)

Audience

Henry's immediate audience was his fellow burgesses. He had been preparing for more than two years to give his “Liberty or Death” Speech, which was based on his experiences forming a local voluntary militia and meeting with other colonists, especially in Massachusetts, who also saw that British measures to stifle dissent would soon quash their ability to assert or defend their rights.

Henry was not speaking merely as a legislator—or even to those in other colonies—but to history itself. His earlier speeches had invoked the fate of other tyrants who had impeded the course of human liberty. He took his stand on the human need for freedom. It was this appeal to universal rights that he helped spread throughout the colonies, thus shrinking the audience for those still seeking a less extreme resolution of the conflicts between the colonies and the mother country.

Henry also was delivering an ultimatum to royal authority in the colonies. He would not accept any half...

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A drawing depicting Patrick Henry's famous speech (Library of Congress)

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