Today is a landmark day in U.S. history. On March 23, 1775, Virginia legislator and lawyer Patrick Henry proclaimed “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Henry, a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses whose father-in-law gave him six slaves as a wedding gift, was upset with the British government. After two failed attempts at business, he went into law and made a name for himself in the 1753 Parson’s Cause case.
That dispute was over whether the Virginia legislature or the British crown should determine clerical salaries. Under a 1748 law, Anglican parsons were to be paid 16,000 pounds of tobacco, which was Virginia’s primary cash crop. But a bad crop in 1758 pushed the price of tobacco from two to six cents per pound, effectively tripling parsons’ pay. The Virginia legislature passed the Two Penny Act, under which clerical salaries would be paid at a fixed rate of two cents a pound, or roughly 5333 rather than the 16,000 pounds they were owed under the old law.
King George III vetoed the act, which the Virginia Burgesses saw as an infringement on their right of self-government. A parson named James Maury sued Hanover County, demanding back pay at his full allocation of 16,000 pounds of tobacco. Patrick Henry argued the case on behalf of the county, claiming that “a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.”
The jury found for Reverend Maury, but awarded him only one cent-pound in back pay, half what the 1748 act had authorized. The verdict effectively nullified the Royal veto.
But in 1775 Patrick Henry was also struggling with a personal tragedy. His wife Sarah was mentally ill, and was kept in an early version of a straitjacket to prevent her from harming herself. Friends and his doctor encouraged Henry to put his wife in a public hospital, but he visited the facility and saw that she would be chained to the wall in a windowless cell with only a mattress and chamber pot. Henry instead prepared a private, comfortable, two-bedroom apartment for her in the basement of the family home. There he bathed, fed, clothed, and cared for his wife. When he was away on business, a family slave cared for her.
Sarah Henry died in the spring of 1775, about the time Henry gave his famous speech. She was denied a religious funeral because her mental illness was believed to be caused by demonic possession. Patrick Henry buried her near his home, and planted a lilac tree over her grave. The tree still stands on the property.
Henry’s grief may explain why his speech was so difficult to decipher. It wandered through Biblical references and historical allusions. Indeed Henry may not have written the speech at all. Some historians speculate it was written by Lemuel Riddick, a friend who reportedly was too ill to give the speech himself and asked Henry to deliver it instead.
Or perhaps it was confusing because Henry’s speeches often relied more on hypnotic passion than clear reason, as Thomas Jefferson wrote :
Although it was difficult, when [Henry] had spoken, to tell what he had said, yet, while speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself, when he ceased, ‘What the devil has he said?’ and could never answer the inquiry.
In one of history’s curious echoes, next week the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act. At issue are the mandate requiring individuals to buy health insurance, and the mandate that states expand eligibility for Medicaid to 133% of the federal poverty level. The arguments against the ACA essentially reduce to Patrick Henry’s famous: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Opponents say the ACA tramples individual freedom and states’ rights, and their criticisms of President Obama sound much like Henry’s criticisms of George III. But almost all of the ACA’s opponents have health insurance, many of them through Medicare. They demand “liberty,” but they don’t risk the “death” of being sick and without health care.
In the airbrushed rendering of history, “Give me liberty or give me death” is simple. But Patrick Henry was not a simple man. He called slavery “repugnant to humanity … inconsistent with the Bible, and contrary to the principles of liberty.” Yet he continued to own slaves. He loved his wife, and could afford to build a comfortable, two-room apartment in his home where he or a slave could care for her through her illness. Yet those with lesser means had to leave their loved ones chained to a wall in a windowless public hospital cell, and no record exists of Henry speaking against or trying to reform such horrors.
Like Patrick Henry, our lives are far more complex than any simple phrase can capture. As we and the Supreme Court hear arguments about “liberty or death,” we and the Justices should ask: who demands to be free … and whom would they let die?
Good day and good nuts.