Recognizing Fiction in History: “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!”

As I delve further into the background narrative of the Revolutionary War in America, I’m learning a great deal more about the power of rhetoric and fiction in the development of this nation.  The most powerful part about this research are the similarities I have had in my own work on the ancient past.

For example, the famous Patrick Henry speech containing the words ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ may have not been Patrick Henry’s at all.  Much like the figure of Jesus, it seems, the next generation of followers (or believers, or patriots in this instance) may have fabricated most–if not all–of Henry’s rousing words.  Certainly, we know he said something, but what that ‘something’ is seems to have been completely forgotten by those individuals who were eyewitnesses.  Jefferson remarked in one instance that he had been persuaded by Henry’s words but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what he had said–not even following the speech!

The words we now know seem to have come from a nineteenth century retelling of the events a few years following Henry’s death (1817).  The author of this retelling (or should we say, reworking) of the speech is one William Wirt (who would have been about 3 years old when Henry delivered his speech).  With eyewitnesses in short supply, and with not many capable of remembering what was said, Wirt seems to have taken liberties with the reconstruction–likely he kept the tone correct, but the words?  Is it possible that ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ had been Wirt’s and not Henry’s?

Why would someone wholly or even partially invent a speech?  This is not a new phenomena.  The very first ‘historian’ Thucydides invented speeches for his own agendas–idolizing Pericles and portraying him as the ultimate pro-democracy, Athenian statesman in his funeral oration.  Many after Thucydides, including Cicero, accepted his portrayal of the speeches as historically valid, whether they were or not (even though Dionysius of Halicarnassus didn’t much care for it, he stilled suggested it be emulated).

Thucydides wasn’t necessarily being dishonest; he believes he is doing something valuable for humanity.  In fact he appears to have had the same problem faced by Wirt; those who were there just couldn’t get the story straight in their recounting of the events (assuming here that he is telling the truth and not just using this as a rhetorical means to gain forgiveness from his reader for fabricating the speech in the first place).

What I find perhaps most interesting is that no one challenged his portrayal.  No one wrote accounts that his fabrication was a fabrication; no direct attestation from someone who had been there exists, to my knowledge, stating that Wirt’s presentation of Henry is inaccurate.  That, to me, is very telling of the state of usefulness of fabrications; that is to say, they are just as useful as the real thing.

During the time Wirt was writing, his generation started to realize that the veterans of the first war of American Independence had started to die off.  There was a rush, especially before and directly after the Civil War, to create biographies, histories, and lineage notes about various communities, families, and individuals of the Revolution.   Wirt undoubtedly was a part of that national push, especially by elites of society, to develop a cultural history of the time before all the veterans were gone.  In this way, we cannot necessarily fault Wirt for his portrayal of Henry and this famous quote, but we must still–as much as we don’t like it–be suspicious of it.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Recognizing Fiction in History: “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!” […]

  2. […] doing research for a side project in which I have a great interest (American History), some general myths have been debunked (for me, at least) in the process.  One such myth is the notion of gun access and the American […]

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