“Give me liberty or give me death!”
Those words are etched into our minds from 4th grade social studies but did you know that you can actually hear those words while sitting in the very spot where this powerful speech happened in 1775? If you are visiting Richmond during the summer, the reenactment of Patrick Henry’s speech to the Second Virginia Convention is a must-do activity for your family.
The historic St. John’s Church is still an active Episcopal congregation in Richmond, VA. The church itself is available for daily, guided 25 minute tours on the hour and half hour and tickets can be purchased in advance here. Your costumed interpreter will lead you through the church and you can sit in the pews where the Virginia leaders held this important debate on Virginia’s, and the nation’s, path forward to revolution.
If you are visiting Richmond on a Sunday in the summer, however, the actual reenactment of the rousing Patrick Henry speech really brings to life this important historical event for your children. You can buy your tickets for the reenactment in advance here. Note that the reenactment is not recommended for children under 6.
The reenactment begins on Sundays at 1:30 pm and you should arrive at the front of the church by 1:15 pm. I recommend arriving even earlier to give yourself time to walk through the beautiful church yard to see some of the graves of famous Virginians (George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Eliza Poe, mother of Edgar Allan Poe).
Your guide will gather everyone at the church’s entrance around 12:50 and will begin a talk on the historical events that took place at the church. It was fascinating to learn that when the Second Virginia Convention met here, St. John’s Church was the largest building in Richmond!
Little ones may have trouble concentrating on this talk, given outside in the Virginia summer heat and humidity! There are plenty of walking paths to explore during the talk if someone gets restless. At 1:15, your group is led into the cool and air-conditioned church sanctuary. You will see several red “reserved” placards on the seats – these are for the actors. You and your children can actually choose to sit beside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Patrick Henry! We sat beside Edmund Pendleton and that really made an impression on my son! The church is small so there are no bad seats to be had.
After a brief introduction by the docents, the church’s organist will lead you in several military and patriotic tunes. Given the location, it is very inspiring!
After singing, the docent will set the stage for the reenactment about to take place. He will describe the tensions of 1775, why the Virginia leaders were meeting in Richmond instead of the colony’s capital in Williamsburg, and the general mood of the citizens at that time. Remember, this was mere weeks before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.
Then the actors enter – all dressed in 1770s clothing, including wigs. The illustrious group includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randloph, Robert Carter Nicholas, Benjamin Harrison V, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and of course, Patrick Henry. They take their seats and the convention begins.
The debate starts off right away and the audience is encouraged to participate by voting and commenting on the business. New business is considered and this is when Patrick Henry puts forth his resolution calling for the raising of a Virginia militia. The debate rages back and forth, between the more aggressive Patriots and the more cautious delegates. Grumblings are heard from many of the delegates when the opposing side speaks. Your head will swivel back and forth between the delegates as they burst forth in support or opposition! My son sat there with an enraptured look on his face and it truly felt like you were seeing history come to life!
George Washington gives an impassioned speech about agreeing to serve as the leader of this militia if approved. Thomas Jefferson, seated across the aisle from Col. Washington, provides reasonable arguments why this is needed. The more cautious members, such as Pendleton and Nicholas, call for delay and plead for cooler heads to prevail. The word treason is used and you can actually feel the tension that must have filled the room on that fateful day in March 1775.
At the end, the actor playing Patrick Henry stands up and delivers a passionate, heartfelt speech about the need to protect our right to liberty. When he reaches the famous, “Give me liberty or give me death!” line, you want to stand up and cheer right along with him!
After this rousing speech, a vote is taken and the audience, including you and your children, get to take part. My son loved voting and pretending that he was a part of the convention! After the vote passes and the meeting is adjourned, the actors take bows and leave to participate in a meet and greet with the visitors in the church yard. My son enjoyed interacting with them and asked questions like, “What happened to you during the war?” The actors are wonderful representations of their historical counterparts and their historical knowledge of each character is vast.
You can linger as long as you would like, take pictures with the actors, and visit the visitor center for books and other souvenirs.
Don’t miss the Patrick Henry Park across the street with his immortal words celebrated. Also be sure to ask a docent about Elizabeth Van Lew, the famous Union spy who was a member of the church during the Civil War. Her home was just across the street from the church, at the corner of East Grace and 24th Streets, and there is a historical marker there of interest.
The Historic St. John’s Church Foundation also does a great job with planning special events to bring history to life for children. The Marquis de Lafayette will be there on July 14th in honor of Bastille Day and my son, a devotee of “Hamilton” can’t wait to meet him. Be sure to check out the upcoming events page for more events, including author events and two reenactments held on July 4th.
This was an unforgettable hands-on way to learn about this important event in American history and will make the Patriot cause come alive with your children! If you can’t make it to Richmond to see the church, be sure to visit the foundation’s website for a virtual tour or for fun activities for your children to complete.
- Cost: $5/ticket for reenactment (held Memorial Day through Labor Day only); $8 for guided tour
- Recommended: ages 6 and up
- Reenactment lasts for one hour; plan to spend 30 minutes touring the church yard and visitor center
- Gift shop onsite
- Transportation: Parking is readily available on adjacent city streets
- Dining options nearby: Proper Pie Company, Patrick Henry Pub, Alamo BBQ (outside seating only), and Union Market are all within walking distance
- Nearby attractions include: Libby Hill Park for an amazing view, Chimborazo Park and Medical Museum, and the Edgar Allan Poe Museum
- Be sure to check out the other nearby Patrick Henry historical sites on the Road to Revolution website
- Download the Virginia History Trails app to learn more about these sites while visiting Virginia
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- Patrick Henry (graphic novel)
- Patrick Henry (Revolutionary War Leaders series)
- Mystery on Church Hill (The Virginia Mysteries)
- Susanna’s Midnight Ride (author will be visiting St. John’s Church in July, 2019)
- Liberty or Death: A Story about Patrick Henry
- DK Eyewitness American Revolution
- American Revolution: A Nonfiction Companion (Magic Treehouse)
- 6 and up:
Have you been to the reenactment held at St. John’s Church? What was your favorite part?