Historic St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia (“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”)

St. John's Church, Richmond, VA
St. John's Church, Site of Patrick Henry's Famous Liberty or Death Speech

On March 23, 1775, the small, wooden-framed church building in Richmond, Virginia, was packed to capacity. The 120 delegates from the House of Burgess filled the pews. A couple of dozen spectators jammed into any available space in the seats and alcoves, taking up any open space in the room. The tension was high; the place was buzzing with noise. Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the House of Burgesses, pounded his gavel to gain order. It was highly unusual to be meeting outside of Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital and home of the colony’s government.

Why would all the members of the House of Burgess travel so many miles from Williamsburg to Richmond, then a small village of approximately 600 people to hold a convention? Why, instead of meeting in the spacious, comfortable Capital building, would they meet in the little Henrico Parish church building? What was so unusual about this event that drew so many spectators?

Notice in VA Gazette of VA 1775 Convention
Notice in Virginia Gazette of Virginia Convention

Origin of the House of Burgesses

In 1618, the Virginia Company of London issued the Great Charter, which introduced the General Assembly and the House of Burgesses. The first burgesses were elected in the summer of 1619. In March 1643, the Burgesses separated from Council members, officially becoming the House of Burgesses and functioning as an individual chamber.

The House of Burgesses consisted of two elected delegates from each settlement in the Virginia colony. It was responsible for originating laws and granting supplies. The Council and Governor had the right of revision and veto. The Council also served as the Supreme Court. The King and House of Lords in England were the supreme law and could overrule anything done in the colony.

Place where the Speaker of the House Presided
Place where the Speaker of the House Presided

Colonials Chafe Under Increasing British Tyranny

Initially, the Crown took a hands-off approach to ruling the colonies and promoted self-government. As the decades wore on, however, this began to change. The change was not received well in the colonies. In 1765, burgess Patrick Henry submitted the Stamp Act Resolves, accompanied by a fiery, passionate speech criticizing King George III. Several of the resolutions passed in Virginia, but, importantly, each of the thirteen colonies published all of the resolutions. Many colonies followed suit, passing similar resolutions. This action would set the tone over the next decade that would eventually lead to revolution.

Both Virginia and Massachusetts took the lead in the rebellion. In 1774, Boston had a “tea party,” throwing about 340 chests of expensive tea over the side of ships, ruining it. Parliament responded by closing Boston Harbor and implementing the Coercive Acts. The Virginia House of Burgesses responded to Britain’s heavy-handedness by issuing resolutions in support of the Boston colonists. John Murray, Virginia’s royal governor and earl of Dunmore, then retaliated by dissolving the 131-year-old House of Burgesses. This same year the House of Burgesses would hold the First Virginia Convention, despite Dunmore’s action, and set in motion the meeting of the First Continental Congress in the Fall of 1774.

Thomas Jefferson Reenactor at St. John's Church
Thomas Jefferson Reenactor

Tensions with Britain Escalate

Even though formally dissolved, the House of Burgesses convened their second convention on March 20, 1775. To remain out of Lord Dunmore’s reach, the burgesses decided to hold the convention in Richmond, about 50 miles west of Williamsburg. A notice was put in the Virginia Gazette on January 20, 1775, instructing each impacted jurisdiction to elect their delegates and send them to the convention.

Many urgent issues before the Burgesses remained unresolved since they disbanded the previous year. One of the most critical issues was that of the militia. While the Virginia counties had been forming their volunteer militias, there was no coordination or centralized command among them. An armed, organized militia was not what Lord Dunmore or the Crown wanted.

The first three days of the convention were relatively uneventful. These three days primarily consisted of calling the meeting to order, dealing with administrative items, and reviewing the events of the First Continental Congress the previous Fall. It was the fourth day, March 23, 1775, that would be forever seared into the mind and hearts of those who were in attendance, either for good or ill. That was the day Patrick Henry introduced three resolutions, all related to the creation of a Virginia militia.

Patrick Henry (Reenactor)
Patrick Henry Reenactor

Patrick Henry – the Passionate Patriot and Voice of the Revolution

Patrick Henry is one of the obscure heroes of the revolution; he also happens to be one of the most critical revolutionaries. Henry began standing up to the Crown as early as 1763 when he took on the Parsons Cause case on behalf of local farmers. He did it again in 1765, within days of becoming a burgess, when he submitted his resolutions to the Stamp Act.

It was in the First Continental Congress in 1774 where Patrick Henry challenged the delegates to think more boldly about the situation before them. His effort impacted John Adams, who, writing in his diary, quoted Henry as saying, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian but an American” (Elson, 2007, p 69) . He knew early on what others could only accept after fighting began – that independence from Britain was necessary and obtaining it would be hard-fought.

Patrick Henry, a backwoods country lawyer, was an essential voice during a time when the older, established aristocracy was willing to be more submissive to British rule. Henry would bring issues to the forefront, disrupting the norm, and electrify his audience at the same time.

When the First Continental Congress disbanded in October 1774, Patrick Henry returned home to Scotchtown. He resumed caring for his family and his mentally ill wife, Sarah. Sarah Henry passed away in early 1775, leaving her loving husband and six children distraught. Patrick Henry, however, would not be allowed time to grieve the loss of his wife. The Second Virginia Convention began only weeks after Sarah Henry’s death. Patrick Henry knew what he had to do. He would not fail.

Patrick Henry Quote from March 23, 1775

“As for Me, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”

The introduction of Henry’s three resolutions immediately prompted debate. The problem wasn’t the subject of the militia, but rather the tone of the resolutions. These resolutions appeared to invite conflict with the mother country. The conservative, cautious men preferred to take a softer tone, in hopes of reaching an amicable agreement with England.

Patrick Henry stood and, as only he could, took the floor. Calmly, eloquently, yet firmly and powerfully, he proceeded to give a raw review of their current situation. “It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth…Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?” he stated.

Henry then proceeds to make a case for the necessity to prepare for war. “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. 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? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.” He talks of the increased tyranny by the Crown, the violence, the ignored petitions to the king, the king’s contempt. As he talks, his words are almost poetic, captivating.

By various accounts, Henry’s emotions fluctuated throughout his speech. He was, at times, calm then became animated and passionate. He delivers the harsh reality to the room, “There is no longer any room for hope.” His eyes blazed, his voice boomed, “We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!”

Henry then reminded those like George Washington, also a deeply spiritual man, the fight is not theirs alone. Henry told them, “Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

Then, with crossed wrists, as if manacled, and appearing as if helpless, he plead, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!”

Standing still, his arms now at his sides, Henry gazed at the faces in his audience. In a soft, cutting voice, he then stated, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (Wirt, 1836).

At the word “death,” his hand makes a stabbing motion towards his breast, bringing home the point to a stunned, silent audience. The speech had the effect Henry sought. Henry’s motion and resolutions passed by five votes. With this passage, Virginia began preparations for her defense.

One Baptist parson in attendance at the convention described the experience in this manner: “The tendons of his neck stood out white and rigid, like whipcords. His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock. . . Finally, his pale face and glaring eyes became terrible to look upon. Men . . . strained forward, their faces pale and their eyes glaring like the speaker’s. . . When he sat down, I felt sick with excitement” (Cox, Winter 2002-2003).

George Washington Reenactor at St. John's Church
George Washington reenactor

The Rest, As They Say, Is History

Patrick Henry was proven correct. Within weeks of that now-infamous speech, fate would continue to push Virginia and Massachusetts forward toward the inevitable. On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord would take place. One day later, April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore had all the gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine confiscated. These events were coincidental, as the news did not travel fast at the time.

These events, among others, did force men to make hard choices. Those hard choices were treasonous if the cause was lost. Death would be certain. They risked everything, including their lives, for the cause. It is easy to look back in hindsight and judge those choices. Thankfully, for men like Patrick Henry, the decisions were not hard to make. Fortunately, as we now know, the cause was won.

View of the Henrico Parish Church (Now St. John's Church)
View of the Henrico Parish Church (Now St. John’s Church)

History of Saint John’s Church

Saint John’s Church has been called by a few different names over the centuries, including “the Henrico Parish Church, the New Church, the Old Church, the Richmond Church and the Church on the Hill” (St. John’s Church Foundation, No Date). It was in 1829 when it’s current name of Saint John’s Church was first referenced. During the critical Second Virginia Convention in 1775, people commonly referred to the church as Henrico Parish Church.

Henrico Parish Church was first established in 1611 at a place called Dutch Gap. In 1741, the Parish established the church and its burial ground on its current land in Richmond, Virginia (St. John’s Church Foundation, No Date). This building is one of the oldest wooden structures in Virginia and the first church built in Richmond. The church still serves the community today.

Even with a couple of expansions, the core of the building where the convention took place remains intact. If you visit, you can still see the pew where Patrick Henry reportedly sat.

Grave of George Wythe, St John's Church
Grave of George Wythe, First Virginia Signer of Declaration of Independence

 Visiting Saint John’s Church

I lived in Virginia for a couple of decades before I finally made it to St. John’s. I could kick myself for taking so long to go and not having gone more often. The reenactment of the debate that took place on March 23, 1775, is one that everyone should witness. It is an interesting experience to put yourself back in the colonial period and think about the magnitude of what the delegates were facing. They had no standing military, and no formal government yet were debating the possibility of going to war with the most powerful military power in the world at the time. Even today, especially if you are a history buff, witnessing this reenactment is captivating.

The experience should only take a couple of hours at most, as it is not a big place. Be sure to have a couple of more sightseeing options on your list to fill the day. Maybe take a trip to Beaverdam, just north of Richmond, to see Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown while you are in the area.

Note:  Be sure to check the foundation’s website (see below) in advance for hours, tour schedules, and events to be sure there is a tour available on your desired date.

I am an American Quote by Patrick Henry
Quote by Patrick Henry at First Continental Congress in  Philadelphia

 URL:

https://www.historicstjohnschurch.org/

St. John’s Church Address:

2401 E. Broad Street
Richmond VA 23223

Saint John’s Church Foundation:

Many historical sites are privately managed and funded, including Saint John’s Church. They are not part of the National Park Service and do not receive any federal funding. They rely solely on private donations to keep the site maintained, manned, and in good repair. Please refer to the Foundation’s website if you are interested in donating (tax-deductible) to them (see URL above).


References:

  • Cox, J. (Winter 2002-2003). The Speech: It May Not Be the One That Patrick Henry So Famously Made. (T. C. Foundation, Producer) Retrieved October 22, 2019, from Colonial Williamsburg Journal: https://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Winter02-03/speech.cfm
  • Elson, J. M. (2007). Patrick Henry in His Speeches and Writings. (J. M., & Elson, Compilers) Lynchburg, VA, United States.
  • St. John’s Church Foundation. (No Date). Welcome to Historic St. John’s Church. We’re Glad You’re Here. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from Historic St. John’s Church, 1741: https://www.historicstjohnschurch.org/
  • Wirt, W. (1836). Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Philaelpha, PA, United States: as reproduced in The World’s Greatest Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds. (New York) 1973.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This post is Wonderful and informative . Brings back my time in school history. I , for one, so Thankful for those men and their courage and Love for our country. Proud to be an American..Thank for all our Freedoms, especially Religious Freedoms.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here