Imagine your favorite eve-of-battle movie speech. Picture the hero’s army, outnumbered by the enemy, but rallied to defiance by the stirring power of one man’s words. Perhaps Aragorn’s “It is not this day” speech comes to mind. Or William Wallace’s daring declaration: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” Or Kino Loy’s “One way out” call to arms.

Cinematography has mastered the art of depicting poignant war cries that move both the on-screen, beleaguered heroes and the audience. Such speeches are not a mere invention of Hollywood, however, but find precedent in real life. Today and tomorrow, we will examine two rebel yells from the American Revolution that are almost cinematic in their effect. Even when America was at its weakest, these spoken seeds of independence gave new life to liberty’s worthy cause.

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” – Patrick Henry

The Virginian statesman’s world-famous address to the Second Virginia Convention most assuredly makes Hollywood jealous. Patrick Henry’s fiery words practically beg to be set to a John Williams’ score. The battle cry to end all battle cries, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” called for its indifferent hearers to wake up, rise up, and fight tyranny while they still had the chance:

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger,” the famed orated asked.

“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. The 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.”

SEE ALSO: Great speeches every self-governing American should know pt. 1

“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.”

These words were spoken on March 23, 1775, a few weeks before the battles of Lexington and Concord. But Patrick Henry was far-seeing. Astutely, he knew an American army – no matter how ragtag or inexperienced – would be an unstoppable force if it got a hold of the “holy cause of liberty.”

History would, of course, prove him right.

But, in the moment, Henry had first to convince his sluggish colleagues that the time for peace and appeasement had passed.

“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!”

SEE ALSO: Great speeches every self-governing American should know pt. 2

These timeless words have come to exemplify a spirit of defiance to tyrants not just in America, but internationally. In fact, Chinese dissidents last November employed Patrick Henry’s famous plea in their protests against China’s oppressive zero-covid policy.

“One day you’ll pay for everything you did today,” the protesters were warned.

“The state will also have to pay the price for what it has done,” the crowd retorted, in a comeback that would have made Patrick Henry proud.

Nearly 248 years after his stirring speech, there are still those who must decide between liberty and death. Countless have declared “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees” (or, as Kino Loy put it, “I would rather die trying to take them down than giving them what they want”).

No matter how powerfully Hollywood portrays these declarations of defiance, they will always pale in comparison to the real men and women who paid that price in real life. May we too declare: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance

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