Give Men Liberty Or Give Me Death

In the late 18th century, Great Britain levied deeply unpopular taxes on its colonies in order to pay for the Seven Years War, or the French and Indian War as it was known in North America. Despite what your teachers told you, the taxes were not mainly for the defense of the thirteen North American colonies. They were also to pay for the subsidies to Prussia, who fought Austria, Russia, Saxony, and France on the continent nearly by itself. The “Golden Cavalry of Saint George”, the nickname for British gold in lieu of soldiers to its allies, was over four times what the British paid for the defense of the Thirteen Colonies. After the Seven Years War, Britain’s debt was nearly three quarters of its gross domestic product. The Thirteen Colonies weren’t the most prosperous in the British Empire (the sugar plantations of the West Indies held that honor), but they were the most resilient and could absorb and weather new taxes, if they chose to do so.

The taxes were unpopular because in the colonial charters the legislatures and governors of the Thirteen Colonies had sole authority to tax their people. If the colonial legislatures wanted to raise a tax, that was no problem, they could be replaced if it was too onerous. And they did levy taxes for defense against the French and Indians along the frontier. But there was no recourse if Parliament levied taxes directly i.e. taxation without representation. It didn’t matter if it was for defense or not. British military protection of its colonies was the price the Crown and the Parliament paid for their loyalty. That Parliament taxed them directly was considered double-dipping and a violation of their charter at best, and a violation of the unwritten social contract of empire and their basic human rights as Englishmen at worst. As the thinking went, if Parliament could disregard one of the main tenets of a colonial charter, where would their tyranny stop? Nowhere, if Ireland was any example. Ireland was a ready made case study of direct British Parliamentary rule, and American colonists had no wish to endure that.

The taxes at the end of the French and Indian War sparked widespread discontent among the colonists, and most were quickly repealed, such as the infamous Stamp Tax which placed a levy on all printed paper. The Stamp Act was especially loathed, as it was not only a tax, but it was also an indirect suppression of free speech, a human right that all Englishmen enjoyed. However their repeal did not include the tea tax because Parliament wanted to prove the point that they could tax the colonies directly at will despite their charters. Parliament figured that Englishmen loved their tea too much, and would endure the tax and subsequent higher price. Parliament would get their tax precedent and the colonists their tea. Parliament was wrong.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 led directly to further coercive laws by Parliament to bring the “petulant” North American colonists to heel. They included the Quebec Act which extended the province of Quebec south to the Ohio River to keep the colonies from expanding west (which was ignored), and the aptly named Coercive Acts aka the “Intolerable Acts”. There were four Coercive Acts: the first closed the port of Boston to trade, the second forbade meetings and gatherings in Boston, the third forbade the detaining of British soldiers in the colonies for crimes committed, and the fourth called for the quartering of British troops in private homes.

By March 1775, the colonies seethed under these laws and rebellion was all but assured between King George III’s Great Britain and his thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. This was particularly true in New England whose residents were all but in open war against the Crown.

On 23 March 1775, the forcibly disbanded Virginia House of Burgesses defiantly met at St John’s Church in Richmond. During the debate on whether to raise Virginia’s militia to help the patriots in New England, a fiery 40 year old lawyer, Patrick Henry, got up to speak. Patrick Henry was a natural orator who spoke without notes or preparation. As he reached the crescendo of his eight minute discourse in favor of Virginians taking up arms against Great Britain, Patrick Henry concluded,

“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!”

The motion passed easily.

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