Library of Congress
No contemporary copy of Henry’s “liberty or death” speech exists.
William Wirt reconstructed Henry’s 1775 speech—in 1817.
The Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Pocahontas, perhaps eleven or twelve at the time, did not save John Smith from death out of love for him.
Chief Seattle never uttered words a Hollywood screenwriter gave him in 1971.
Architect of the Capitol
The Apotheosis of Washington in the Rotunda of the Capitol makes a god of the first president.
Abner Doubleday likely never played, let alone invented, baseball.
by Gil Klein
The crowd waited expectantly as Adrian Grantz, portraying Patrick Henry, rose to reenact the culmination of the debate of the Second Virginia Convention of March 1775. A couple hundred people from all over the country packed into Richmond's St. John's Church, the site of the original speech, as they do nearly every Sunday.
The words tripped out of Grantz's mouth as the hushed audience waited for the famous concluding lines.
"Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace, " Grantz said, his voice rising for the finale. "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?"
Then, in a gesture that has been repeated by generations of schoolchildren, he raised his arms as though breaking the chains.
"Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Cheers and applause. People stood in ovation.
Henry's "Liberty or Death" became a slogan useful in situations where action is summoned to defeat perceived tyranny.
But the historical fact is that though Henry did speak forcefully on that March day to spur the convention to action, we have no reliable record of what exactly he said.
The speech children have memorized for almost two centuries was committed to paper in 1817 by William Wirt, forty-two years after the event, in his biography of Henry. It was based on a recollection—not notes—of someone who had been there, Williamsburg's St. George Tucker. Wirt, who became attorney general of the United States, was himself an orator, but his best-known speech he took from Tucker and put in Henry's mouth.
Indeed, around the time Wirt wrote about Henry, amateur historians were crafting tales of the American Revolution as well as of the colonial era that were designed less to capture the facts than to create a founding myth for the young republic.
In the view of professional historians, these myths should be punctured. But historians do so at their peril. The myths are more beloved than the cold facts, and they are hard to kill.
Many of them are designed to explain us as we wish to see ourselves. They establish the national character and set the standard for coming generations.
Writer Joseph Campbell said that all cultures are based on myths: "What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration." Columnist Michael Gerson wrote of myth: "When these strings are touched, we feel the vibrations deep down. And we know that myths are not the same as lies."
The Past and history are different things, wrote British historian J. H. Plumb. People have always used The Past to explain the origins and purpose of human life, to sanctify government institutions, to validate class structure, to provide moral example. Only in the past two or three hundred years, he said, has historical study developed "to see things as they really were."
Said historian John Thorn, "Historians have an obligation to embrace myth as the people's history."
Unlike countries whose founding myths developed during the course of centuries, the American mythos was created largely by one generation writing in the early 1800s, said Ray Raphael, author of Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past.
"About twenty years had to go by before people could forget how ugly the Revolutionary War was, " Raphael said. "As pressure built toward the War of 1812, people saw a need to develop in the younger generation a pride in their revolutionary heritage. They knew this experiment in republican government needed people who believe in it and are willing to defend it."
In 1790, Noah Webster wrote that "every child in America, as soon as he opens his lips . . . should rehearse the history of his country; he should lisp the praise of Liberty and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen who have wrought a revolution in his favor."