Patrick Henry and the Virginia Convention



Important events occurred in Virginia on the 20th of March, 1775. A convention of representatives of that province met in St. John's Church (yet standing) in Richmond. They approved the acts of the Continental Congress, and thanked their representatives who sat in that body. They resolved to be firm in defence of their liberties, but expressed a hope of speedy reconciliation. Patrick Henry promptly rebuked their expression of that hope. He, like Samuel Adams, Hawley, and Greene, saw clearly that the colonies must fight. He knew the danger that threatened the liberties of his people. The House of Burgesses could no longer be relied upon as an auxiliary of the people in their struggle, because of the continual interference of the royal governor. The colony was unprepared for the impending conflict. Only a little powder and a few muskets in the old magazine at Williamsburg comprised their munitions of war. In view of this weakness in the presence of danger which he foresaw, Henry proposed the appointment of a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying, arming, and disciplining a sufficient number of men to place the colony in a posture of defence. True patriots in the convention opposed the measure as mischievous at that time. They would not believe that armed resistance would be necessary. "It will be time enough to resort to measures of despair," they said, "when every well-founded hope has vanished." They suggested that the colonies were too weak to think of resisting the arms of Britain, and deprecated any action that should provoke war. They relied upon the innate justice of Englishmen for redress and reconciliation.

Henry's feelings kindled into a flame at these timid suggestions. "What," he exclaimed, "has there been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify hope? 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 us back to our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world to call for all this accumulation of armies and navies? No, sir; she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us the chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying argument for the last ten years; have we anything new to offer? Shall we resort to entreaty and supplication? We have petitioned; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. 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. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free; if we wish to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the 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! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us.

"They tell us, sir, that we are weak--unable to cope with so formidable an enemy. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be next week or next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? 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? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of Liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any power which our enemy can send against us. Beside, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a great 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. And, again, 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 it, sir; let it come! It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry Peace, peace; but there is no peace! The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field. What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me," he cried, with both arms extended aloft, his brow knit, every feature marked with the resolute purpose of his soul, and with his voice swelled to its loudest note, "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!"

Henry's resolution was adopted by an almost unanimous vote, and himself, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others were appointed a committee to execute their designs. In a few days they submitted a plan for the defence of the colony, which was accepted, when the convention reappointed the delegates to the first Congress to seats in the second, to convene in May, adding Thomas Jefferson "in case of the non-attendance of Peyton Randolph." Henry's prophecy was speedily fulfilled. Almost "the next gale" that swept from the North brought to their "ears the clash of resounding arms" at Lexington and Concord.





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