A lot was happening in the Colonies during the summer of 1776. On July 2nd, the legal separation of the 13 Colonies from Great Britain occurred when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence — declared by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.
Congress then turned its attention to the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining the decision. The document had been prepared by a Committee of Five; thirty-three year old Thomas Jefferson was the lead author. The Continental Congress debated, revised the wording, and ratified it July 4th.
John Adams — an American patriot who would go on to serve as the second president of the United States (1797–1801) — wrote to his wife, Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
For Founding Father Patrick Henry, July 4 was also an important day, explains historian and Colonial reenactor Ray Baird, who is based in Richmond, VA. “On the evening of July 4, we can imagine that Patrick Henry was celebrating with his friends and family, for on the next day he will be sworn in as the first governor of a free, independent — and newly armed — Virginia,” Baird says.
Baird continues: “Little did Mr. Henry know that he would serve three consecutive one-year terms. In fact, for his famous ‘Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death’ speech, and the many other fiery speeches that he gave in his career, he came to be known as the voice of the American Revolution.”
What was it like to live during this exciting time in American history? Scroll down for a fascinating history lesson by Baird, who shares the impassioned monologue he gives weekly to visitors at historic St. John’s Church in Richmond, VA — the site of Henry’s infamous speech. And be sure to watch our interview with Ray Baird on GratefulAmericanTV.com.
GRATEFUL AMERICAN™ HISTORY LESSON
Historian and reenactor Ray Baird brings the American Revolution to life each week at historic St. John’s Church in Richmond, VA — the site of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech. Anyone can have a front-row seat to the performance that is enjoyed by thousands annually. Scroll down to read Baird’s explanation of our nation’s early history.
Close your eyes and imagine coming to Virginia for the first time. It is 1607.
I don’t know what you have heard about religious freedom, but it didn’t exist — not in Virginia. We were Englishmen, very proud Englishmen.
We were not running away from England; we were bringing England with us. We wanted to be treated as Englishmen, with the same rights and privileges as if we had stayed in England.
To ensure that was the case, we brought with us the First Virginia Charter, which guaranteed our English liberty. It also told us what we had to do, and how we had to do it. For our first 150 years in Virginia, England’s rulers let us keep to ourselves — not out of generosity, but because England had her own problems with a variety of other countries, given the wars she was having with Spain, France, Scotland, and Ireland.
Indeed, during this century and a half, Virginia began to grow — not into a military power, but economically. We were producing crops and products, exporting them by ship, and trading them with a good portion of the world.
Most importantly, Virginia began electing representatives who stood up for our rights. We called them the House of Burgesses. These men created, passed, and enforced our laws — and we got pretty used to having those guys, our guys, telling us what to do.
Then, in 1763, things start to change.
England defeated the French in the French and Indian War, which in England was called the Seven Years War. Regardless of what you call it, the fact is that England was heavily in debt at this point, and we all know how governments try to get out of debt, don’t we? They raise taxes!
Here’s the million-dollar question: Did England have the right to tax the Colonies? Is it the people we elected, the ones who know us and have our best interests at heart, who should make the rules? Or is it a Parliament that sits 3,000 miles away?
The King was convinced he could do what he wanted. So in 1765, the British Parliament passed something you may have heard of — the Stamp Act.
American newspapers reacted with anger and predictions of the demise of journalism because the Act attempted to tax every single piece of paper that would pass through your fingers — not just newspapers and letters, but also a pack of playing cards and a set of dice. The Colonists didn’t take kindly to this idea and protested and boycotted the Stamp Act.
The Stamp Act had a big impact on another man: Patrick Henry (shown below).
The year was 1765, and this young country lawyer from Hanover County in Virginia got angry. Very angry. He had just been elected to his first term in the House of Burgesses, and he wasn’t having anything to do with England’s idea that they could tax the Colonists. His battle cry became, “No taxation without representation.”
Unfortunately, the British didn’t care. Soon after the Colonists shut down the Stamp Act, England issued the Townshend Acts. Named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Act taxed just about every single thing the Colonists owned — from food and clothing to building materials, sugar, and tea.
More boycotts and protests ensued, until finally came the biggest insult of all — the British Parliament refused to repeal the tax on tea.
Now you know where I’m going with this story. A bunch of guys who called themselves the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Native Americans and went down to Boston Harbor where they tossed 350-400 cases of the King’s favorite tea into the water.
Stop and think what that might have been like if you were alive that day.
It’s cold in Boston on Dec. 16, 1773. But many people believed they had no choice but to show defiance of the Tea Act that had been put into place earlier that year, on May 10.
As you can imagine, the British government was not happy, and neither were the 13 royal governors who had been appointed by the King to govern the Colonists. In fact, the Massachusetts governor is now not only mad, he’s embarrassed because that’s the King’s tea floating in his Colony’s harbor.
Someone had to pay.
More British ships began appearing in Boston Harbor. They were loaded with soldiers, cannons, and guns. Lots of guns.
The King upped the ante by issuing an even worse law for the Colonists called the Intolerable Acts, which were meant to punish the Massachusetts Colonists by taking away their right to self-govern. Although Parliament hoped these measures would make an example of Massachusetts and reverse the trend of Colonial resistance to parliamentary authority that had begun with the 1764 Sugar Act — the Patriots viewed the Acts as an violation of their rights.
And they weren’t going to put up with it.
That’s where Patrick Henry stepped in. Called the voice of the American Revolution, he and other Virginians (including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) knew that if England could take away the rights of their brothers and sisters in Massachusetts — it could happen in Virginia.
They began organizing a revolt.
Here’s where Lord Dunmore takes center stage. As I mentioned, Virginia’s capital is now in Williamsburg, and the man in charge is the King’s appointed royal governor, John Murray. The 4th Earl of Dunmore, Murray was known to the Colonists as Lord Dunmore, and he held all the power in Virginia, including the ability to bring the House of Burgesses to session — and to dismiss them at his pleasure. As you can imagine, Dunmore didn’t like what he heard in the streets of Williamsburg. People were talking badly about the King, calling him a fool and a tyrant.
Dunmore fretted about the growing solidarity between the people of Massachusetts and Virginia. When the Burgesses declared a day of fasting and prayer to support the people of Massachusetts, Dunmore promptly told the Burgesses, “I could have you all arrested for treason, but instead, go home. You’re dismissed, and you’re not allowed to meet anymore.”
Dunmore thinks he’s killing two birds with one stone — but those boys didn’t go home.
Instead, they walk straight up Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street and file into Raleigh Tavern. They order a few drinks, and start talking about politics.
What they decide that night changes history, for they aren’t going to go home quietly, but instead they begin to organize the Second Virginia Convention in a spot far away from Dunmore’s watch — Richmond, a small town of about 600 people.
They sent some scouts up to find a building suitable to meet in, and a few weeks later they found a little church, shaped like a “T,” that was the largest building in Richmond: St. John’s Church.
It was perfect, not just because of its size, but its distance from Williamsburg. St. John’s was a two-day horseback ride from Williamsburg. If Lord Dunmore was going to put them in jail, it would take him a couple of days to get his troops together, and another couple to get them up to Richmond. By then, the delegates would have gotten the word and scattered, so meeting at St. John’s provided safety as well.
Fast forward to March 20, 1775.
Into St. John’s Church walks Richard Henry Lee from Westmoreland County, a gentlemen from Fairfax County by the name of Colonel George Washington, and a young lawyer from Albemarle County by the name of Thomas Jefferson.
What happened when the session began?
- Click here to learn more about the Second Virginia Convention.
- Click here to learn more about Founding Father Patrick Henry.
- Click here to watch our interview with Sarah Whiting and Charles Wissinger, who bring history to life at Richmond’s St. John’s Church.