The likelihood that someone would encounter the classical story in an American public school is fairly good, even today. But that is only one of eight allusions and quotations I find in Henry's speech. If you don’t know the Bible – and unless you go to Church, and that regularly -- you probably won’t pick up on the other seven. Which is to say that a working knowledge of the Bible is necessary for all persons in order to understand English and American literature and history, quite apart from knowledge of the Bible as a matter of devotion and discipleship.
Here, then, is the speech, followed by my notes upon it.
No man, Mr. President, thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very honourable gentlemen who have just addressed this House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful of those worthy gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before this House is one of awful moment to the country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom, or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts (1). Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation (2)? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience (3). I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I should wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the members of this House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss (4). Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies?
No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope.
If we wish to be free -- if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending -- if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained -- we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts (5) is all that is left us!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? 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 (6), and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone (7); it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. 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.
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace (8). 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!
(1) The allusion here is to the Odyssey, where the sirens lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks. Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) stopped the ears of his crew with wax so they would not be tempted, but had himself bound to the mast with his ears unstopped so he could hear the sirens’ song. The illusion of hope in the political struggle is thus a siren’s song. Henry then mixes his metaphor by referring to Circe – usually termed a nymph or enchantress rather than a siren -- who turned the crewmen of Odysseus into swine, replacing their human nature (and therefore, their reasoning power) with the nature of mere beasts. Henry is saying that hope will make people do unreasonable things, things against their best interests, which make them like beasts which are fit only to labor for other human beings or be slaughtered for food.
(2) The great passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 says that the people of Judah have grown dull in heart. Their eyes see, but do not perceive, etc. Because of this, they are becoming incapable of turning to God and preventing the destruction of their kingdom. Preventing the invasion and conquest of their country by outsiders is what would be considered “temporal salvation.” Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted or alluded to in Mark 8:18 and Matthew 13:15, as well as Acts 28:27. Similar passages to Isaiah’s are in Jeremiah 5:21 and Ezekiel 12:2.
(3) Psalm 119:105 says, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." Henry's appealing to experience rather than revelation shows his hearers that he is being reasonable in Enlightenment terms, rather than theoretical. His use of the Bible throughout shows a willingness to quote from the well-known text for his own purposes as much as to echo the Bible's original meaning.
(4)The reference to being betrayed by a kiss is to Judas identifying Jesus in this way in order to mark him for arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Cf. Matthew 26:48, Mark 14:44.
(5) The more usual formula in the Bible is the Lord of Hosts or Lord God of Hosts, which occurs some 261 times in the Old Testament, and which had entered into the liturgy and hymnody of the Church long since. “Hosts” in this sense means “armies,” and the picture is of a God who commands armies of angels to establish his rule (and to fight for those he favors). In both England and America at the time of the settlement of North America, the idea of God being on “our” side, fighting to maintain “his” people, was a common one.
(6) Once again, this is a very common idea from the Bible, that God rules the destinies of nations. Cf. Psalm 47:8, “God reigns over the nations . . .” Psalm 22:28, “ . . . for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations . . .” Psalm 267:4, “for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth . . .” etc.
(7) This is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 9:11, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong . . .” Henry could count on his audience to recognize it; however, he misapplies it to his purpose. Henry says that those who are vigilant, active, and brave can win the battle even if they are not as strong as their enemies – which is true enough – though the disillusioned writer of Ecclesiastes says that it’s all a matter of chance, as “time and chance happeneth to them all.” In effect, Henry is saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” casting the words of Ecclesiastes in a more hopeful light than the original author intended.
(8) This is a reference to Jeremiah 6:14 (echoed in Jeremiah 8:11 and Ezekiel 13:10), “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Henry is again comparing Americans in their fearful desire to avoid conflict with Great Britain to the people of ancient Judah who thought appeasing the Babylonians would prevent them from conquering the kingdom.