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Archive for March, 2012

On March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry delivered a speech that shifted the political tide in Virginia, leading the House of Burgesses to pass a resolution that troops from the colony would serve in the Revolutionary War.  Not only did the speech capture the imaginations of those in attendance, but it has been celebrated widely through history for the declaration, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

Saint-John's Church, Richmond, Virginia, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sadly, the full text of the speech did not survive, but in 1815 William Wirt made an effort to reconstruct its contents through correspondence with the men who were present at the time.  He published his results a year later in The Life and Character of Patrick Henry. One possible reconstruction suggests that the speech concluded as follows:

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!

The final line became a rallying cry for the war, and it is even reported that those in attendance took up the call and shouted it upon the conclusion of the speech.  Of course, all wars have an opposing side, and the following document expresses outrage at Henry’s open and unlawful rebellion.

A broadside in opposition to Patrick Henry from May 1775. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more primary sources relating to iconic moments in American History and the Revolutionary War at Opening History.

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On March 14, 1794, Eli Whitney was granted a patent for a modern mechanical cotton gin that he had created the year before.  Short for cotton engine, this machine pulls cotton fibers from their seeds in a fraction of the time it would take to do manually.  The growth of the cotton industry in the southern United States is attributed to this invention.  Despite the fact that it was intended as a labor-saving device, the mechanized production of cotton also increased the dependency on plantation agriculture and slavery to harvest the supply.  In the 19th century, cotton became a dominant economic force, and the cotton gin is often listed as one of the factors in the changing social, economic, and political atmosphere that eventually led to the American Civil War.

Engraving of a thread mill and cotton gin from the latter half of the 19th century. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

You can find out more about patents, inventions, and their social effects through Opening History.

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