Bit of a bubbly soap-box homily coming up…fair warning.
In the pre-Georgian years of home schooling my kids (that would be the Virginian era), I recall gathering essays, poetry, and historical speeches, saving them for my kids as examples of how to persuade, how to win people to a cause, and simply how to write and speak well. I didn’t particularly endorse the topics on which the speeches were focused, but rather the manner in which they were written, and, I supposed, delivered.
As my oldest son began to exhibit the alarming signs of wanting to be a politician, I had to change tactics. The speeches were no longer just about writing persuasively; they had to be about persuasion sans character assassination, because that was the kind of political speech he heard day in and day out. I desperately did not want him thinking that should be the norm. American history, fortunately, despite its horrific flaws, did not originally stampede toward polarization and superiority of position in its early days. And so it was that I chose Patrick Henry’s speech given at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, in the spring of 1775, as the speech for my son to study as an 11 year-old boy who wanted to be a politician.
Why that particular speech? Have you ever read it or studied the context in which it was given? Henry was a delegate in the Second Virginia Convention, a body whose job it was at that moment in history to determine a course of action against British oppression. They had taken the approach of caution, diplomacy, and patience in regard to the Crown, despite obvious actions by Parliament which very clearly communicated they were not the least interested in what any of the Colonies wanted or had to say. A fleet had already been in colonial ports as a barricade when Henry delivered this speech calling the Convention to arms.
Now, I’m not an “arms” kinda gal. Unless you use them for hugging. I was raised in a peace church, one that had its historical share of persecution and torture at the hands of both European and eventually American governments. So it was with some reticence that I gave my son a call to arms as an example of a really great political speech. Of course there were others, but this one has meaning today in a way that I feel none other does. One small caveat: Henry spoke with no notes. The speech as we have it today was put down about 5 years later by a biographer (William Wirt) who interviewed others who were present. The compiled recollections are what have become known as the “infamously insolent” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” speech.
Read a little bit:
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 [sic] 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.
Let me stop you here for a moment. Re-read those first two sentences: 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 what was important to me about this speech and what still moves me today: when was the last time you heard respect like that communicated from one politician to another whose position was diametrically opposed to his or her own? We’ve become accustomed to character attacks, rather than posited beliefs, as the norm for “political debate.” (It’s actually become worse than that as our politicians feel free even to mock their opponents and their opponent’s supporters, leaving policy and political passion far behind.) This was what I wanted to sink into my son’s sponge-like mind: there can be discourse without destruction, passionate argument without belittlement, and there can be a situation in which there may not be a “right” or “wrong,” and a choice simply has to be made. Read some more.
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 don’t care who you are, that’s eloquence right there. From the hip. In order to speak like this extemporaneously, the man had to think this way, as well. His thoughts were structured, with, dare I say it, an introduction, body, and conclusion, and no small amount of poetry. “It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope.” Okay, that may have been a not-so-veiled moment of impatience leveled at his opponents who kept wanting to give the Crown opportunities to do a 180. But he continues with “We…” He includes himself in clinging to the illusion of hope. He does not point a finger and ridicule his opponents in the debate. And he continues with poetic fluidity for which he had already become famous. (I’ll be quiet now, and let you read the rest unedited.)
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 inevitable and 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!
Hear a little MLK in there? “The words ‘bad timing’ came to be ghosts haunting our every move in Birmingham. Yet people who used this argument were ignorant of the background of our planning…they did not realize that it was ridiculous to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay.” (Why We Can’t Wait)
Seems to me, great speech writers and orators study other great speech writers and orators, which is why, obviously, I wanted my son to study the great speeches. I believe by extension that great legislators should study historically great legislators, and not just on the macro scale. Let’s make it real. My son has every intention of fulfilling his dream of becoming a legislator (he’s finished his second year of law school at UGA). And since I’m still his mom and I’ll never give up home schooling because I see it as an extension of parenting (which is never “done”), I want to find great men and women in Americus’ history who have been great leaders. Great orators. Great legislators. (Got the President from Plains, thanks…)
Who was a “great” City Councilperson? Everybody’s favorite mayor? The best advocate for agriculture? Who put aside partisanship, name-calling, padded pockets, and promised favors to support the citizens and businesses of Americus? Any names come to mind? I haven’t lived here long enough or studied City politics thoroughly enough to know who these people might have been. I’m genuinely interested to know. And if you can point me in that direction, I’ll pass it along to one of the next great statesmen of Americus. And I’m not biased one bit.