Mickey Edwards: Patrick Henry's Speech is an Anniversary Worth Noting

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism.]

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry rose in St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia and, aware of the risks inherent in undertaking a rebellion against the British crown, chose the principle upon which he would stand. "Give me liberty," he said, "or give me death."

It was not a rhetorical flourish. Rebellion was treason and the penalty for treason was precisely that: death. Patrick Henry and his fellow rebels, Washington and Jefferson, the Adamses, Madison and Franklin, in declaring their independence from the British monarch, put everything -- their reputations, their possessions, their very lives -- on the line for the right to live as free men, governing themselves, no longer bound by distant and arbitrary rule. Patrick Henry may have been a bit more of a firebrand than some, his speeches a counterpart to Thomas Paine's writing, but he was merely putting into words the thoughts that ran through Nathan Hale's head, and George Mason's, and Benjamin Rush's.

Americans today are caught up in conflicts great and small -- how much authority to give to government, how to square guaranteed rights with the imperatives of security, how much taxation is too much (even when imposed by one's own representatives) -- but in each case, these are decisions we make, collectively, as we see the need....

...Patrick Henry said it best: liberty is our common heritage and it is a blessing preserved only by vigilance. July 4 has its meaning (independence) and September 17 has its legacy (a constitutional framework for self-government). And March 23 has its lesson, too: free men and women remain free only by commitment and effort.

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