6. Patrick Henry
“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!”
When Patrick Henry delivered those words, they were not just a political slogan, a t-shirt or the motto on a license plate, they were reflective of a potential reality.
Quite possibly the rhetorician who lit the revolutionary fires in a young Thomas Jefferson, Henry was perhaps the most passionate defender of individual rights of the Founding Fathers. In fact, after winning the war for liberty against King George, Henry became involved in the Constitutional Convention to keep George Washington and his colleagues honest in Philadelphia, fearing a too-powerful central government might result.
Henry practiced law and served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses where he advocated for the state to join the Committees of Correspondence. Organized by Samuel Adams, the goal was for the colonies to present a united face to the Crown.
His most famous speech, with its immortal line excerpted above, was Henry’s second consequential address. In the other, he introduced the Virginia Stamp Act resolutions, whose language was so defiant it made even many sympathetic members of the assembly squirm, while others loudly accused Henry of treason.
“If this be treason,” he retorted, “then make the most of it.”
The day after Lexington and Concord, Henry, a colonel in the militia, led troops in what became known as “the Gunpowder Incident,” when Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, fearing his own unruly colonists, attempted to disarm them by commandeering the colony’s gunpowder stores. Henry intervened and the governor backed down without bloodshed.
Henry was not an advocate of a Constitution setting up a more powerful federal government. In fact, he set out for Philadelphia worried that liberty was again under assault. Henry was the most influential voice in the adoption of the Bill of Rights — which while it might not have been needed under Washington’s administration, has certainly acted as a bulwark against the encroachments of plenty of others, since.