"We Must Fight!" The Private War Between Patrick Henry and Lord Dunmore

Virginia's Revolution was less the result of events than of personalities; less the product of a misunderstanding than of a mutual conviction that "After all, we must fight." Those were Henry's words, and when they are compared to Dunmore's December 24 reply to the King's rebuke, "these Virginians should be made to suffer the misery of which they themselves are the author," it is clear that Henry and Dunmore were of one mind about the inevitability of war. Had it not taken weeks for the Governor’s letters to reach London, he might have been stopped. Had Henry not been an oratorical force of nature, Virginians might have given peace a chance. But both men were effectively beyond recall, and what they achieved together, revolution and war, though it would later be ascribed to political differences, was actually the result of irreconcilable similarities in character aggravated by contempt on one side and a bottomless need for revenge on the other.

• • • 

Sallie [Henry] died in February of 1775. On March 23, Henry gave the greatest speech of his life to the Second Virginia Convention assembled at a safe distance from Lord Dunmore in St. John's Church in Richmond. William Wirt's mostly fictitious account of Henry’s "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech suffers as usual from its author's need to gild the oratorical lily. Even so, it is the essential point of departure for anyone who wonders how a mere speech could have started a revolution:

‘. . . 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 all 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 to us!'

• • • 

'The battle sir, is not to the strong alone; 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 was now mid-May. With Henry in Philadelphia, his Lordship found himself, like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, sitting out that "great gap in time" while his rival was away. Impatient, and growing more so by the moment, he still had not reduced Williamsburg to ashes. He decided to advance the cause of conflict and controversy by asking the city officials to join him in investigating the pilferage of muskets from the Magazine. In a later report to the House of Burgesses James Mercer described how the Magazine’s keeper had incurred his Lordship's wrath by observing that the muskets left on the floor by looters had no firing mechanisms.