How History is Really Written

For the next two weeks I’m filling in for a high school social studies teacher.  I originally wanted to teach social studies, so I’m having a lot of fun during this time, although I have to keep reminding myself they’re typical high school students and not a history nerd like me.

Remember Winston Churchill’s quote, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”?  I’m trying not to miss a chance to explain how things really come about.  For example, I ran across another tidbit from our friends at The Writer’s Almanac about Patrick Henry.  He was a spellbinding speaker, but when he finished, people would exclaim “That was great!  What did he say?”  Or as Thomas Jefferson put it —

“His eloquence was peculiar, if indeed it should be called eloquence; for it was impressive and sublime, beyond what can be imagined. Although it was difficult when he had spoken to tell what he had said, yet, while he was speaking, it always seemed directly to the point. When he had spoken in opposition to my opinion, had produced a great effect, and I myself had been highly delighted and moved, I have asked myself when he ceased: ‘What the devil has he said?’ I could never answer the inquiry.”

So, in the days before recording tape and TV, how did we get his most famous speech [“Give me liberty or give me death!”] delivered on March 23, 1775?  History’s secret is we probably didn’t.  As The Writer’s Almanac reveals —

So although Henry’s speech at the Second Virginia Convention is so famous, no one is sure what he said. It wasn’t written down until 1816, by Henry’s biographer, William Wirt. Wirt talked to people who had been present at the speech and had them reconstruct it, but they were relying on their memories, not even notes.

According to one of Wirt’s sources, in what has become the accepted text of Henry’s speech, he ended with these famous words: “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!”

From The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, March 23, 2015.

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