Patrick Henry - Defining Freedomsee also: A Picture Essay of Patrick Henry’s Famous Speech
Arising with dawn on that mild morning, the young man readied himself to head for the nearby livery stable to prepare for the short carriage ride from the inn, where he and Judge Anthony Winston had stayed the night before, to St. John’s Church, the most prominent building in Richmond. March 23, 1775, would put the otherwise ordinary place of worship on the map of American history in a way that Peter Francisco could not have imagined. As he exited the inn, Peter looked up and down the main street of the largest town he had ever visited. Having spent most of his life on a secluded plantation, he could scarcely imagine so many people living in one place. I think the judge said 600, he thought. I still can’t believe I’m really here. For him, it was like a small taste of a life he could only dream about. A gust of blustery air nearly blew the tri-corn hat off his head, sending it twisting and tumbling freely down the lane, but his quick reflexes kept it securely in place before it could escape. All was quiet. Crickets chirped softly out in the grass. Somewhere in the distance, just barely audible, he thought he could hear the clopping of horses’ hooves along the cobblestones. Above the distinct outline of rooftops, tall trees silhouetted the faint blue sky like silent witnesses. Not even a hint of light shone from any of the storefront windows. The entire population still appeared fast asleep. The solitary figure of this strapping youth – 6 feet 6 inches tall nearing his 15th birthday – strode in near silence toward the livery, save the sound of dirt clods crunching beneath his 240-pound body. He was relieved to see that he wasn’t the only person in town awake. The stable owner was there preparing for another busy day, expecting large crowds of people again from all over the Virginia colony like those over the last few days who had descended on Richmond, the seat of the Second Virginia Convention.
“Good morning, sir,” Peter said, breaking the silence, respectfully addressing the man whose back was turned as he gathered oats for his equestrian guests’ breakfast. Startled, the man turned around to see Peter’s immense figure standing in the doorway. “Good morning to you, too. I was just getting ready to feed your two American Cream Drafts. Beautiful creatures they are.” “Yes, they are beautiful,” Peter responded. “But you look like you have many horses to feed today, so I’ll take care of mine.” The fact that the two horses actually belonged to the judge and not to Peter was of little consequence. From the very first day Peter had laid eyes on these two equines, he had adored them as if they were his own. He took a bucket of oats in each of his oversized hands and walked over to the huge beasts. At his height, Peter could look them in the eye. “There, there, now, I’ve brought you something to eat.” Almost in unison, the horses seemed to greet Peter with a nod as he approached. Each, in turn, nuzzled Peter’s face before dipping his massive head in the bucket. “We’ve a big day before us,” he said softly to the horses. “The Judge says we’ll be hearing great and powerful things at the church today. Then, later in the week, the judge says we’ll be headin’ back home to Hunting Tower. Do you miss Hunting Tower? Of course you do,” he answered for them. After they had finished eating, Peter entered their stall and began brushing and rubbing their ivory-colored coats. He loved feeling their well-defined muscles twitching under his deft hand. This closeness of feelings between man and beast was unusual to say the least. Having finished their rubdown, Peter then gathered their collars, bits and bridals and prepared them to be hitched to the carriage in which he and Judge Winston had ridden from Hunting Tower Plantation in Buckingham County. The judge was the local representative to this convention, a pivotal meeting that would change the course of history and waver the allegiance of the recently-reformed Virginia House of Burgesses to their motherland, England.
Most carriage drivers would simply take their horses around to the back of the stable where all the visiting carriages were kept, but Peter decided to wheel the carriage around to the front himself. He grabbed the tongue of the carriage and, as big as he was, easily guided it through the massive doors on the front side of the stable, then returned for the horses. As he began to hitch them up, he noticed Judge Winston walking down the street. “Good morning, Peter. I trust you slept well,” he greeted. “Yes, sir, and good morning to you,” Peter replied. “Have you had your breakfast?” “No, sir. I had the innkeeper’s wife fix me some biscuits last night, and I’ll eat them later. I just thought it best to be ready to go whenever you wanted, seein’ as how you don’t like to be late for meetings and things.” “You know me well, Peter, you know me well.” Peter had been hitching the horses to the carriage, which now stood ready to take the judge to his destination. “Excellent, Peter,” said Winston. “Then we should be getting on to the church. I have a feeling in my bones that we are about to make history today.” With the demeanor of a dedicated servant, Peter opened the door to the carriage, and the judge took his seat. Then, Peter climbed onto the driver’s station. Before giving the signal, he reached down beneath his feet to feel where he had placed the sword and pistol the judge had asked him to bring on this trip. They were still there, right where he had placed them only a few minutes before.
“Giddap,” Peter prodded the horses in his gentle voice, and the Creams obeyed his command instantly. For the third day, they rode to the outskirts of town in silence, passing many regal homes belonging to some of the wealthier residents of Richmond. St. John’s Church soon came into view, sitting majestically on a hill overlooking the James River. The parish was an imposing structure, adorned in white staves with a massive spire rising out of the vestibule and encasing the large front doors. Completed in 1741, the church was a part of Henrico Parish, a parish that had been established by early settlers in 1611. A few other folks had arrived early as well. Patrick Henry, the judge’s nephew, was talking to two other men who appeared to be of equal substance and stature. Peter didn’t know it at the time, but they were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. At 6 feet 2 inches, Washington was an especially imposing figure, though less so in his reticence, just nodding in agreement as Jefferson and Henry engaged in animated conversation. History would indeed be made today. After the imposition of the Intolerable Acts on the continental territories by Parliament in 1774, attempting to coerce them into submission, the colonists began to resist. They started organizing themselves against Britain in a series of meetings in Virginia and Philadelphia. The debates at today’s convention over the need to establish and arm a militia would set a course that would change the destiny of the New World, but no one here could possibly imagine that. Certainly not Peter.
Among those arriving at the church to occupy seats in the visitor’s gallery were Susannah and her father, James Anderson. Peter couldn’t help but notice their arrival. Just a single look at Susannah made his heart leap in his broad chest. At least, it felt that way to Peter. Even though their backgrounds divided them socially, their prior encounters had emboldened Peter. Ignoring his knees, which felt like the jelly he often spread on a Sunday morning biscuit, he ambled over to their fully-enclosed carriage. When he had covered the twenty yards’ distance, Peter reached up to take hold of Susannah’s hand as she stepped down from the carriage. The moment their hands connected, electric warmth shot through Peter’s body. “Why, Peter,” she said, “you are always such a gentleman. And how are you today?” “Seeing you has made me much better already.” Peter was almost shocked to hear himself speak such bold words. Susannah’s father had exited the opposite side of the carriage and walked around the back to where Peter and Susannah stood. He noticed that their eyes seemed locked on each other as he tapped Peter on the shoulder. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked that, but, after all, Peter had saved his daughter’s life. “Peter, my boy, it’s good to see you again. And I see you’re wearing the hat I gave you. Wonderful, wonderful.” “Yes, sir,” said Peter. “I save wearin’ it for special occasions like this.” “Indeed, today should be very special. It will be good to get all this nonsense out of the way at last. Come now, Susannah, we want to find good seats in the church.” As her father reached for her arm, Susannah glanced back. “Bye, Peter, I’ll see you later.” Peter’s mouth felt like he had been crossing the desert, but still managed, “Good day, Miss Susannah.” He rejoined the judge, regaining his senses and remembering his duties as bodyguard. Other dignitaries also began to arrive, and soon they were all filing into the church. Judge Winston looked at Peter and said, “You might want to take station near one of the windows today. My nephew intends to address the body with words I think important for you to hear.” During the previous days of the convention, Peter had lingered around the open windows, due to unseasonably mild temperatures, but most of the speeches that he had heard were not very inspiring. Most seemed to favor keeping relations with Great Britain as they were. But Peter knew the position that the judge’s nephew would take, and he wanted to hear every persuasive word. At his size, Peter was able to easily make his way to one of the windows. Through it, he could see the judge, Patrick Henry and the two men that Henry had been speaking to earlier. He could also see Susannah Anderson and her father. A flutter of excitement caught in his throat at just the sight of her, for this refined young lady had truly captured his affection.
Various people rose to speak, then returned to their seats. Some of them inspired mild clapping or an audible “Here, here.” None of them were very noteworthy until Patrick Henry rose from seat number forty- seven, strode purposefully and confidently to the center of the room, and turned to address the delegates. “No man, Mr. President,” Henry began, addressing Peyton Randolph, presiding officer of the congressional assembly, his tone almost apologetic, “thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very honorable gentlemen who have just addressed this House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful of those worthy gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.” Henry’s voice began to rise. “This is no time for ceremony. The question before this House is one awful moment to the country. 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....” Peter watched as Henry began to circle the room, making eye contact with as many delegates as possible, without speaking a word. “Mr. President,” Henry resumed, “it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?” With that utterance, the young patriot held out his arms from his sides as if asking the question of all there assembled.
“Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.” Henry’s arms dropped to his sides and his shoulders slumped. He stood silent for several moments, and Peter wondered if he was finished. Then, with his arms raised and hands above his head, he looked toward the ceiling and continued, “I know no way of judging the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I should 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 members of this House.” Peter scanned the room. While some of the listeners just sat impassively, others were nodding in agreement, including Judge Winston, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. As for Jefferson, a small smile crept across his face. Peter took a moment to further survey the visitors’ gallery until his eyes rested on Susannah. She was shaking her head, and Peter was a bit disheartened by that. He was drawing his own conclusions, and they were much different from what hers appeared to be. At that moment, as if hearing his thoughts, she looked toward the window where Peter was standing, and when her eyes met his, she couldn’t help but smile demurely. “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations, which cover our water and darken our land,” the young orator pleaded. Henry was again moving around the room with arms waving, the tone of his voice imploring answers to his questions. Peter, too, was being swept up in the emotional pleadings. “Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.” Fatigued, Henry dropped his arms once again to his side. He looked as though he had been beaten, but he had not. For when he spoke again, his voice bellowed, reverberating off the interior of the church with persuading emphasis. “They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry has been so long forging. And what do we have to oppose them?”
More of the delegates were nodding in agreement now, and Peter could sense his own head joining in unison. “Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and we have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament.” Henry’s voice grew louder, his gestures more exaggerated. “Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne!” Henry allowed himself a moment to turn completely around and cast his eyes across the sea of delegates. His eyes glanced out the window where Peter was standing, and the two men exchanged a brief look of acknowledgement. Henry began to speak more rapidly. “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! I repeat it, sir, we must fight.” Henry grabbed a nearby banister that separated him from some of the delegates. He gazed at the men he knew to be in favor of appeasement and lowered his face to theirs, his eyes fierce with passion. “An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!” Henry turned to face the rest of the body assembled there. “They tell us, sir, that we are weak, unable to cope with so formidable an adversary.” Everyone knew that he was referring to those men he had just personally addressed. “But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”
Some of the delegates began straining to hear every word of the orator’s now-moderated tone. Peter cocked his head further into the window as well, with the added benefit of being able to see Susannah more easily. “Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?” With a gradual rise in his voice, Henry further entreated his audience, “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable ... and let it come! I repeat, sir, let it come!” It was all Peter could do to contain himself. He so dearly wanted to cheer, yet he knew it was not his place to demonstrate in such a manner. Some shouts of affirmation issued from within the church. Other delegates yelled in the negative. Patrick Henry just stood silent, waiting for their voices to be still. When he spoke again, his voice was measured. “It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, Peace,’ but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!” His voice intensified. “The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms.” Continuing to scale, Henry’s voice now reached a thunderous climax. “Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have?” Henry once again circled the room. “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He returned to the center of the room, his eyes raised skyward. “Forbid it, Almighty God!” With arms raised above his head, Patrick Henry made his final declaration. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” These last words were delivered as thunder, while he remained in his pose.
Many of the delegates were on their feet cheering and applauding, repeating Henry’s words, among them, Washington, Jefferson and Judge Winston. Some shouted, with fists in the air, “Treason!” and “Traitor!” Others remained seated. Peter had never before been so swept away with emotion. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Andersons rise and make their way to the front door. Peter pushed through the crowd of men gathered around him, pressing toward the window so that they, too, could hear. He ran around to the front of the church just in time for the Andersons to exit. “Wasn’t that speech compelling?” Peter exclaimed. “But do you not agree with it all?” Susannah’s father pushed past Peter brusquely, preferring not to engage in conversation. His daughter turned, and the eyes with which Peter had been so enchanted glared back at him. “If that foolishness is truly what you think, Peter Francisco, then you are also a fool – a fool on a fool’s errand! So, go back to your foolish friends. But I warn you, this course will render nothing but heartache and despair. Good day.” “But what about freedom from slav – ” Peter started to protest, but stopped abruptly when he saw a young man emerge from the crowd and help Susannah into the carriage with her father. The man said something to Susannah, which to Peter was inaudible. Looking him over, Peter could see that his charcoal suit had been tailored to fit and the cravat with lace at the ends appeared so tight around his neck that his large Adam’s apple protruded out over the knot. His sandy blonde hair peeked through a tan tri-corn rim, just above his crooked nose that didn’t really seem to fit his face. He is tall, Peter thought, but he still looks at least eight or nine inches shorter than me, and he definitely needs to eat more. Susannah flashed him a coy grin. “Oh, George! You’re such a gentleman,” Susannah said deliberately, loud enough for Peter to hear. “We certainly need more men like you who know what the colonies need and how to treat a lady.” “George Carrington! Hello there, my boy! Good to see you!” Mr. Anderson said, tipping his hat in George’s direction. “I do appreciate your chivalry. You’ll make a fine husband one day. I certainly hope my Susannah will make a match with someone like you. Please give your parents my regards.” Susannah’s father barely took a breath before calling, “Let’s get going, driver!” As a cloud of dust kicked up behind the carriage wheels, Peter stood there feeling crushed, as though someone had just hit him in the chest with a twenty-pound blacksmith’s hammer. While Peter watched George saunter away, he narrowed his eyes and glared at the back of his head until the crowd that still lingered outside the church swallowed his lanky figure. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter noticed Patrick Henry talking as he made his way through the large wooden doors at the front of the church. His inspiring speech began to drift back into Peter’s thoughts. One word stood out more than any of the others. Freedom. Peter played that word over and over in his mind. What did it really mean? What would it mean for me? If I was free, could I come and go as I please? Could I own property one day? Could I marry a girl like Susannah Anderson?
Slumping down pensively on a nearby tree stump and propping his head up with his huge hands, a dejected Peter focused his eyes on the road ahead. Patrick Henry’s words seemed to reverberate in his mind like waves crashing against a boat, their ebb and flow much like the emotional tide Peter was experiencing at this very moment. He looked down at the James River – the same river on which Portuguese pirates had abandoned him as a young boy at City Point nearly ten years ago. Where is my family now? He wondered. What are they doing? He had been just five years old, such an innocent age, when the precious gift of freedom had been stripped away from him. Peter thought about the long road behind him and the journey he had taken since that time when he was so young and so afraid. Now putting fear aside and discounting how the Andersons had reacted, Peter knew – deep in his very soul – that freedom was well worth fighting for. More than that, he knew it was well worth dying for. To continue reading, visit travisbowman.com. You will also find pictures and in-depth information about Peter Francisco as well as details about the feature film!