By EARL WATT
• Daily Leader
The road to declaring independence was rocky, controversial and not accepted by every colonist in the mid-1700s.
While relations with the British crown were strained, many believed that being a citizen in a British colony came with some restrictions, and they were willing to accept them.
Others cared little about governmental issues altogether.
Then there were those who believed in the freedom of man. There were those who tried to negotiate with British representatives only to be turned away again and again on issues of representation, taxes and commerce.
What happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, 231 years ago today, was not an immediate whim of a group of rebels looking to separate from England. It took years of frustration and actions before a group of 56 men representing all 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence which officially began the American Revolution.
In opposition to British policy, hostilities between colonists and the British military had been brewing for years, mostly in the northern colonies.
The Boston Massacre took place March 5, 1770, six years before the Declaration.
Three years later, the Boston Tea Party was another colonial act of rebellion against British rule.
Still, there was a line that the colonists would not cross when opposing the British specifically in the southern colonies.
But in an address to the Virginia House of Burgesses March 23, 1775, a failed storekeep and farmer turned lawyer made an impassioned plea that became the rallying cry and illustrated the extent that the Americans would go to secure their freedom.
While no text of the speech exists, Patrick Henry’s words have become a part of the fabric of America.
“Give me liberty, or give me death.”
The phrase removed neutrality as a choice, and the colonists across the eastern seaboard made the decision to take up arms and risk their lives for liberty.
As skirmishes began to escalate, and with public speeches using Patrick Henry’s example, the American Revolution had a voice and a vision.
One month after his speech, the Shot Heard Round the World was fired near Lexington, Mass., and on July 4, 1776, the colonists declared independence from British rule.
The radical views of freedom that Henry was able to share led to his election as the first governor of Virginia as an independent commonwealth.
He had a profound effect on those who heard him speak.
“His eloquence unlocked the secret springs of the human heart, robbed danger of all its terror, and broke the keystone in the arch of royal power,” one attendee reported.
After the Revolution, Henry continued to serve in leadership roles, and originally opposed the Constitution as giving too much power to the federal government. He became a supporter of the anti-federalist movement and spoke of the dangers of a strong central government. Henry was continually asked to serve the public and served a second stint as governor of Virginia.
He also eased his opposition to a federal government and supported Washington as president for a second term in 1793.
Henry died of cancer in 1799, still an ardent supporter of state’s rights and a limited federal government.
When he died, he left an envelope sealed with wax to be shared with future generations. While the words have not garnered the immortality of his famous speech in 1775, they did offer a heed of warning for Americans that would follow.
After pointing out how his resolutions opposing the Stamp Act helped ignite the flame of freedom, Henry wrote:
“Whether (liberty) will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader! whoever thou art, remember this; and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.”