Wearing no hat, but rather a wig, Harry Kollatz Jr. and friend Bill Gordon participate in a "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" reenactment.
Today, 241 years ago, a backwoods country lawyer of some promise stood up in a Church Hill sanctuary to give an oration that rang the rafters and reverberates down to us right this very second.
This evening, you can experience this historical moment during a re-enactment at St. John’s Church and round out the evening imbibing of “Pints with the Patriots.”
After all, Henry once tended bar at Hanover Tavern — and apparently wasn’t that good at mixing those fruity drinks the cocktail crowd asked for.
The main event begins at 5:30 this evening and is free, but you can avoid the line by going online.
Hanover County’s own Patrick Henry, “a failed shopkeeper and late-blooming lawyer,” worked as a busy traveling attorney and represented — sometimes without asking a fee — “New Light” preachers who stood on streets to proclaim the Good News in defiance of the Church of England. The principle of free and open speech inspired Henry, as did the right of elected local legislative bodies to pass laws for the people without interference by a higher authority — like a king some 3,000 miles away.
During his bustling career, Henry had already spoken out against the British Stamp Act in a manner that came close to treason.
What exactly he said at what came to be called St. John’s Episcopal Church isn’t known for sure. The first written account was reconstructed 42 years later by his biographer William Wirt, who corresponded with two living eyewitnesses, Thomas Jefferson and St. George Tucker. Tucker wrote to Wirt what he recollected that Henry said, but the letter is long lost.
Henry didn’t speak from notes. George Washington, who sent a letter to his wife, Martha, the day after the speech, didn’t even mention Henry’s declamations. Washington thus exhibited smart caution, because leaving a paper trail could’ve provided further implication toward treason.
At the time, Henry lived in a plantation house he bought at auction with his wife, Sarah Shelton. She, however, may have died just a few weeks or less prior to Henry’s speech. She’d been in mental and physical decline for some time. Rather than send her to the distant and torturous asylum in Williamsburg, Henry kept her home, in the basement, wearing a “strait dress.” (Scotchtown, by the way, is open to the public through Preservation Virginia. The house recently underwent a renovation to its interpretative exhibits and I’ll write of this in a future post.)
The members of the Second Virginia Convention met in Richmond because Royal Gov. Lord Dunmore — who’d done less for Anglo-Colonial relations than his predecessors — had banned the Virginia House of Burgesses for their scurrilous and anti-royalist activities. But the Virginia political class didn’t want to be caught unprepared should the British choose to take punitive action.
Henry addressed a tough house. Declaring Virginia in open revolt meant treason and that meant, if caught, death, and death through long, painful and grisly methods.
But keeping a secret about the meeting was something of a ruse. Everybody in little Richmond knew something was going on. The Henrico County Parish Church on Richmond Hill provided the largest meeting room for the delegates. The curious public gathered around the windows to hear the debates.
What Henry may or may not have said by now is beside the point. A quite narrow voice vote made clear the mandate that Virginia should form a militia to be commanded by planter and French and Indian war officer Col. George Washington.
My friend Eric Dobbs recalls how some years ago he brought into St. John’s Church the son of a Yoruba Oba (king) of Nigeria — making his visitor an actual prince. The prince wanted his photograph taken there. Dobbs, in a Facebook post, recalled, “I asked how he knew about the church. He said, ‘Is this not where Patrick Henry made his famous speech?’ I said it was, but how did he know about the speech? He said, ‘The whole world knows of this speech. It is what we expect of you.’ When he said that, I would have carried him there on my back if necessary.”
Now that’s worth celebrating.