Some Things Just Shouldn’t be Messed With

Sunni's picture

I can appreciate wanting to update a classic essay for a contemporary audience ... but it isn’t as simple a thing as just changing out old-fashioned words for new. There’s a lot that must be understand about the original piece, as well as the contemporary idiom the author wants to put it in. Rhythm, flow, symbolism, allusions—all these, and more, may need to be considered. It takes a real wordsmith to pull off that kind of challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think Tim Wingate makes it. Perhaps I am biased, though; on a visit to Williamsburg, I heard a re-enactment of Patrick Henry’s speech in the room in which it was originally delivered; and it was electrifying. The slow buildup of tension, and passion, the uncomfortable rustling of his audience as he spoke his treasonous words, and the famous exclamation which concluded it—I don’t know of any writer who can improve upon that. I had tears in my eyes, and the hair on the nape of my neck was bristling as the re-enactor concluded ... and I still have that response, just thinking about it.

So, no offense, Tim, but I’ll stick with the original, copied below from The History Place.

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 that 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 fulfill 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 offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards 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 warlike 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 motives 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 on 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 longer.

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 the 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!

Patrick Henry – March 23, 1775


Wow, thanks for posting that. It has been almost than 30 years since I saw the same "show" in Williamsburg. I also have not forgotten it. I wonder if they still do it today?

I would certainly hope so!

I would certainly hope so! (And you’re welcome.)

There was just a TCF thread

There was just a TCF thread on this. With all respect to Mr. Wingate, no one can touch the original. I get goosebumps just reading it.

Well, I hope it wasn’t

Well, I hope it wasn’t started by one of the pro-IPers there, else I might be in real trouble. Heh.

Heh... I think you're safe.

Heh... I think you're safe. :)

And if not, the Certain Persons Cabal would rally to your aid. >:)


Er, it’s been a very long time since I’ve been a member there. I have no idea what you’re talking about.


I kinda figured you'd've heard. :)

The Certain Persons are... well, I was going to just link to the TCF wiki page, but that's been... altered by the CPC.

The original entry reads thusly: A sub-genus of TCFers who are always on the verge of having their arses booted out for wiseass remarks, flaming, thread-jacks, etc. but who are otherwise so loveable that we keep them around despite themselves. (Examples: Bucctoo; Motherbatherick; the rest of you ... you know who you are.)

Sort of the (VERY)immature cousins of the LRT ka-nigits from the early TCF days. :D

While I would agree...

That intellectual property, like property rights in general, is defended improperly at present, I would not say that the concept of ownership of ideas per se is invalid. One of the oldest legal systems, the patent, was actually created for the exact purpose of granting monopoly privilege. Reduced to its ultimate significance, the patent becomes absurd. The requirements for a patent, the means of enforcement from the seventeenth century and so on all give tell to the fact of the patent as nothing more than an act of political chicanery dressed up in seemingly noble intentions. Suppose I discovered gravity. It would be possible for me to get a patent on it in a consistently patent-bound society. Suddenly, I am owed for usage of "my" discovery every time any ammunition manufacturer considers the effects of gravitation in altering the trajectory of their projectiles.

If copyrights, on the other hand, were ever to be defended by me, the defense would have to be highly qualified. I could not defend them as they are practiced now. For example, the expiration date of copyrights is wholly arbitrary, and at least in the United States the system is utterly ridiculous. A good case is Ulysses. It was first published in completed form in 1922, but due to the obscenity proceedings against it, it could not be published inside the United States. Consequently, as revealed in a letter by James Joyce to a friend, the US government refused to recognize ownership of the work. It all leaves much to be desired, at any rate.

As to the general subject matter; I must admit that I have not read Mr. Wingate's article, nor do I intend to.

Ownership of ideas

Interesting comments, Brian. I will defer engaging on the subject for now, though; I’d prefer to do so on a post explicitly exploring those issues.

"One of the oldest legal

"One of the oldest legal systems, the patent, was actually created for the exact purpose of granting monopoly privilege."

Should read,

"One of the oldest legal systems of intellectual property, the patent, was actually created for the exact purpose of granting monopoly privilege."

It might appear to be a minor correction, but I'm not satisfied with the statement in its original form. It implies far too much and the statement is far too broad.

Agreed, heartily

Mr. Wingate is no doubt a good writer, but Henry was a world-class extemporaneous speaker.

They say that the "Give Me Liberty" speech was so spellbinding that no one present actually took running notes, but had to try to reconstruct Henry's words afterward. So no one is fully certain of what Henry said, but all present knew what he meant.

A minor but important correction: the "Give Me Liberty" speech was not made in Williamsburg, but in Richmond, which was then (March 23, 1775) not yet Virginia's capital (it would become so in 1780). The royal governor, fearing revolutionary action, had dismissed the House of Burgesses from Williamsburg, so the outlaw delegates met illegally in the only sufficiently large facility they could find outside of the capital, St. John's Church in Richmond.

The Henry speech you would have heard in Williamsburg, if reenacted true to the facts, is the "If This Be Treason" speech of 1765, a response to the Stamp Act. Also a great one - and Henry's very first as a delegate.