On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry gave a speech at the Second Virginia Convention. It’s a speech that’s been praised throughout the history of our country. Although the exact words were not recorded, William Wirt’s version in his biography of Patrick Henry was largely thought to capture the substance of the speech, so his version is the one that’s usually cited when discussing Patrick Henry’s speech.
Near the beginning of the speech, Henry says,
“The question before the House is one of awful moment to this 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.”
So whatever terrible thing that is happening to Patrick Henry and his compatriots is comparable to slavery. What is this terrible thing?
“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.”
Oh, okay. It’s the threat of subjugation that has Patrick Henry worried. That’s fair. Next section gives us more info on why Henry is worried:
“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 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?”
So this threat has been going on for a while. And their oppressors are pretty powerful. So even if they were to fight against the British, why does Patrick Henry think America could win?
“There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”
Oh, okay. Higher power. Makes sense having God on your side would give you a chance at winning.
“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.”
More allusions to slavery. And a prediction that terrible things will inevitably come if everything continues in its present course. Got it.
“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 line people memorize. Also the end of the speech. Nice! Very passionate. Very effective. Good job! People are going to remember what Henry said for centuries afterward and it will fill them with patriotic zeal – a reminder that America stands for FREEDOM!
Okay, cool. Now let’s look at David Walker’s Appeal. Near the beginning, he asks these questions:
“Can our condition be any worse?–Can it be more mean and abject? If there are any changes, will they not be for the better, though they may appear for the worst at first? Can they get us any lower? Where can they get us?”
Oh wow. Something terrible is happening. Sounds like whatever evil Patrick Henry was arguing against. What could it possibly be?
“And as the inhuman system of slavery, is the source from which most of our miseries proceed, I shall begin with that curse to nations, which has spread terror and devastation through so many nations of antiquity, and which is raging to such a pitch at the present day in Spain and in Portugal.”
Oh! Wow! So the majority of Walker’s issues lie with literal slavery – the very antithesis of freedom, as Patrick Henry would agree. Well, as someone born in America, land of the free, makes sense that Walker would be against that. And, like Henry, Walker believed that God is a God of justice who would fight for the oppressed:
“In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, having his ears continually open to the cries, tears and groans of his oppressed people; and being a just and holy Being will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed, and arrest the progress of the avaricious oppressors.”
Walker also made predictions if the oppression in his day continued in its course:
“The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. They shall have enough of making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us in the manner which they have. No doubt some may say that I write with a bad spirit, and that I being a black, wish these things to occur. Whether I write with a bad or a good spirit, I say if these things do not occur in their proper time, it is because the world in which we live does not exist, and we are deceived with regard to its existence.—It is immaterial however to me, who believe, or who refuse–though I should like to see the whites repent peradventure God may have mercy on them, some however, have gone so far that their cup must be filled.”
A call to fight for justice. A belief that justice will prevail. Not so different from Henry. So, what did slavery look like? Why was slavery so terrible that even Patrick Henry – a slaveholder in his day – felt how terrible it is? According to Walker:
“I will give here a very imperfect list of the cruelties inflicted on us by the enlightened Christians of America.–First, no trifling portion of them will beat us nearly to death, if they find us on our knees praying to God.–They hinder us from going to hear the word of God–they keep us sunk in ignorance, and will not let us learn to read the word of God, nor write–If they find us with a book of any description in our hand, they will beat us nearly to death–they are so afraid we will learn to read, and enlighten our dark and benighted minds –They will not suffer us to meet together to worship the God who made us–they brand us with hot iron–they cram bolts of fire down our throats–they cut us as they do horses, bulls, or hogs–they crop our ears and sometimes cut off bits of our tongues–they chain and hand-cuff us, and while in that miserable and wretched condition, beat us with cow-hides and clubs–they keep us half naked and starve us sometimes nearly to death under their infernal whips or lashes (which some of them shall have enough of yet)–They put on us fifty-sixes and chains, and make us work in that cruel situation, and in sickness, under lashes to support them and their families.–They keep us three or four hundred feet under ground working in their mines, night and day to dig up gold and silver to enrich them and their children.–They keep us in the most death-like ignorance by keeping us from all source of information, and call us, who are free men and next to the Angels of God, their property!!!!!! They make us fight and murder each other, many of us being ignorant, not knowing any better.–They take us, (being ignorant,) and put us as drivers one over the other, and make us afflict each other as bad as they themselves afflict us–and to crown the whole of this catalogue of cruelties, they tell us that we the (blacks) are an inferior race of beings! incapable of self government!!–We would be injurious to society and ourselves, if tyrants should loose their unjust hold on us!!! That if we were free we would not work, but would live on plunder or theft!!!! that we are the meanest and laziest set of beings in the world!!!!! That they are obliged to keep us in bondage to do us good!!!!!!–That we are satisfied to rest in slavery to them and their children!!!!!!–That we ought not to be set free in America, but ought to be sent away to Africa!!!!!!!!–That if we were set free in America, we would involve the country in a civil war, which assertion is altogether at variance with our feeling or design, for we ask them for nothing but the rights of man, viz. for them to set us free, and treat us like men, and there will be no danger, for we will love and respect them, and protect our country–but cannot conscientiously do these things until they treat us like men.”
It was much, much worse than Patrick Henry ever alluded to in his speech. It was an evil that, if you were to look at it full in the face… what else is there to do than break down in tears? Surely, such an impassioned pamphlet – in the land of the free, home of the brave – must have stirred the people to fight against such a great evil in the same way Patrick Henry’s speech did? Evil is evil, and America is all about fighting oppressors, right?
Hah! No. Instead, what America mostly saw was an incendiary writing calling for slave insurrections. They focused on sections like this:
“If you commence, make sure work–do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you–they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition–therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. Now, I ask you, had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children? Look upon your mother, wife and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty; in fact, the man who will stand still and let another murder him, is worse than an infidel, and, if he has common sense, ought not to be pitied.”
…I have to ask, how is the above paragraph much different than Henry saying, “We must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!”
To be fair, to some people Walker’s Appeal did have the same affect as Henry’s speech. Frederick Douglass went as far as to say, “Walker, a colored man, whose appeal against slavery startled the land like a trump of coming judgment, was before Mr. Garrison or Mr. Lundy [in advocating for an Anti-slavery movement].” But by-and-large, even those people who worked towards ending slavery wanted to distance themselves from this appeal. But, why? Why does it not get the same recognition as Henry’s speech? Especially today? Does it not advocate for the inherent worth of every human being? Isn’t America all about freedom for everyone?