“The Illusions of Hope”

Promise me just this one thing: that you will read every word of this speech and think about it in the context of current events. Thank you!

At the Second Virginia Convention, St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia

March 23, 1775.

MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as  well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the  House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and,  therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if,  entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall  speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for  ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this  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. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive  at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our  country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of  giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my  country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I  revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, 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? 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.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp  of experience. I know of no way of judging of 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? Is it that  insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not,  sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed  with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition  comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and  darken our land. 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. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if  its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other  possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the  world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? 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 those chains which the British ministry have  been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try  argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we  anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up  in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we  resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which  have not been already exhausted? 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  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 peace  and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. 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! 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 adversary. 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? 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 force which  our enemy can send against us. 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. 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 inevitable²and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in 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! Why stand we here idle? 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, give  me liberty or give me death!


Source:  Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry .  (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World’s Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.

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