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The True Meaning of ‘Give Me Liberty’

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Almost 250 years ago, four weeks before the battles of Lexington and Concord, Patrick Henry rose in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va., to urge Americans to arm for a war that he saw as inevitable. He famously concluded his call to arms: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Patriots embraced Henry’s dramatic refrain, and rallying militia members sewed it into their hunting shirts. Since then, his words have echoed through the centuries, here and abroad. In 1845, Frederick Douglass referenced Henry when he wrote of the enslaved battling for freedom. Over a century later, when thousands gathered for liberty in Tiananmen Square and when Hong Kong protesters fought for democratic rights, they also invoked Henry’s words.

Yet, Henry’s phrase has been embraced by some as a radical call for opposition to almost any government action. Timothy McVeigh quoted Henry after his 1995 anti-government Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 and injured 700. In 2020, signs attacking Health regulations demanded, rather confusedly, “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19!” Protesters seeking to undermine a democratic election on Jan. 6, 2021, quoted Henry. His famous phrase has appeared on everything from AR-15 dust covers to a Tea Party manifesto.

Rather than a call for democratic freedom, Henry’s mantra has become a radical screed. But wrapping anti-government campaigns in Henry’s words demonstrates a fundamental historical misunderstanding, one that speaks to an increasingly dangerous American fixation on personal freedom at the expense of fellow citizens and our shared government.

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Henry was never simply a tax protester or opposed to government regulation. The problem was, as we learn in school, taxation without representation. Henry consistently recognized the right of government, empowered by the community, to make binding laws and regulations—even when he disagreed with the result.

In 1788, Henry led antifederalist efforts to oppose ratification of the U.S. Constitution, because he believed that it would create a government too powerful and distant from the people. When the Constitution was ratified over their objections, some antifederalists sought to enrage the public and undermine its implementation. When they called upon Henry to lead their effort, he emphatically rejected such opposition, insisting that change must be sought “in a constitutional way.”

Henry’s commitment to the community’s right to govern was never clearer than in his final political campaign. 

In 1798, in desperation over the Sedition Act that criminalized political dissent, Thomas Jefferson, in his Kentucky Resolutions, proposed nullification of the law: the idea that a single state could make a federal law “null, void, of no force or effect” in that state. Turning to the defunct Articles of Confederation, Jefferson resurrected the notion that the nation was a mere compact of independent states.

George Washington saw that anarchy or secession was the likely consequence of Jefferson’s rash theories. He begged Henry to come out of retirement to oppose the dangerous new doctrine. An ailing Henry agreed.

At Charlotte Courthouse on March 4, 1799, thousands gathered, suspecting correctly that this would be Henry’s last public speech. Henry did not disappoint. He reminded the throng that he had led the antifederalists, opposing ratification of the Constitution because a powerful government could undermine the people’s rights. Now, it seemed, his predictions had come true.

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But Henry also reminded the crowd that “we the people” had ratified the Constitution and now it was “necessary to submit to the constitutional exercise of that power.” Jefferson, Henry told the crowd, was dangerously urging action that violated the Constitution.

Henry, the great antifederalist, warned that if we cannot live within the Constitution that “we the people” adopted, “you may bid adieu forever to representative government. You can never exchange the present government”—that the community had endorsed—“but for a monarchy.”

Even when the people ignored his warnings, even when the government interfered with the people’s rights, even though he too disagreed with the Sedition Act, Henry recognized the community had the right to decide and to voice any dissent via their elected representatives, not by refusing to follow the law. That is the very nature of a democracy: joining with our co-citizens even when we disagree and using the vote and peaceful protests, not violence, to articulate disagreement.

A modern fixation on Henry’s “give me liberty” speech as a license for unbounded personal freedom is a historic lie and is symptomatic of a broader problem. Our fixation on personal liberty has morphed into disregard for the broader community’s interests that lay at the heart of America’s founding.

The Founders would be appalled.

The freedom that American patriots fought for was not a ticket to do whatever one wanted, but the right to participate in a community that governed itself, a government—to use Jefferson’s phrase from the Declaration of Independence—“deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.” With such a government, Henry understood that a “loyal opposition” must seek reform “in a constitutional way”: at the ballot box.

John Ragosta, PhD/JD, is the author of For the People, For the Country: Patrick Henry’s Final Political Battle (Virginia 2023). The Road to 250 series is a collaboration between Made by History and Historians for 2026, a group of early Americanists devoted to shaping an accurate, inclusive, and just public memory of the American Founding for the upcoming 250th anniversary.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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