May 24, 2017

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

On May 24, 1995, five days after its official premiere in Los Angeles, Braveheart was released to theaters nationwide in the USA.

The movie stars Mel Gibson as the 13th century Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. He also directed it.

It was a major critical and box office success. And, it also generated a famous, oft-recycled and parodied movie quote.

It’s a line Gibson shouts to his men, just before they fight the much larger English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge:

       “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

That line is part of the answer Gibson gives after one nervous Scottish soldier suggests out loud that it might be better to retreat and live to fight another day.

Gibson responds by saying:

      “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!?! Alba gu bràth!”

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen Braveheart, you can view a clip of this scene online.

In Scottish Gaelic, “Alba gu bràth” (sometimes spelled Alba gu bra, Alba go bragh or Alba go breá) means “Scotland forever!”

The literal meaning of gu bràth in Gaelic is “until Judgment,” meaning the final Judgment day foretold in the Bible. The Irish, who also fought for their freedom against the English, have a similar term: “Erin go bragh” (“Ireland Forever”).

The inspiring speech Mel gives in the film is fictional, but Braveheart is based on true historic events.

William Wallace was a key leader of the Scottish rebellion against the English in the 13th century, during what’s called the First War of Scottish Independence.

At the bloody Battle of Stirling Bridge, fought on September 11, 1297, Wallace succeeded in getting his outnumbered followers to defeat the much larger English army they faced.

That battle, and the legends that arose about Wallace, encouraged the Scots to continue and ultimately achieve the goal of Scottish independence.

Unfortunately, Wallace didn’t live to see it. He was caught, tortured, disemboweled and beheaded before that came to pass, as is graphically depicted in Braveheart.

History buffs have noted that some things in Braveheart stray more than a wee bit from the facts.

For example, the Lowland Scots that Wallace led didn’t wear kilts, like they do in the movie.

And, the bridge that played a major role in the Battle of Stirling Bridge — by creating a bottleneck that prevented English troops from overwhelming the Scots — was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

But somehow, whenever I rewatch Mel’s rousing speech in Braveheart, those seem like nitpicks. Alba gu bràth!

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May 18, 2017

“Never play cards with a man called Doc” — and other advice from Nelson Algren…

Nelson Algren (1909-1981)
copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, the copyright date is also a book’s initial publication date.

Algren’s novel might have been released sooner if not for a dispute he had with his publishing company, Doubleday.

Doubleday had published Algren’s breakthrough book of short stories, The Neon Wilderness, in 1947.

In 1949 it published his blockbuster novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1950 and was later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra.

The next novel Algren wrote was A Walk on the Wild Side.

After reviewing its story about a drifter from Texas who, among other things, rapes a woman, works in a condom factory and then in a whorehouse in New Orleans, the editorial powers that be at Doubleday decided it was a bit too risqué.

As noted by book news journalist Frederick Babcock in his column in the Chicago Tribune on February 26, 1956, they told Algren to tone it down.

Algren made a few minor token changes. Doubleday pushed for more. Algren took a walk, so to speak, and gave the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy to publish. 

Newsclip about Nelson Algren, 1956Given the eventual lasting fame of the book and its title, you could say the editors at Doubleday make a big mistake. But in 1956 the novel was panned by critics and initial sales were low. Algren was so devastated he tried to commit suicide.

He survived. He continued to write and he taught writing at several universities. But he didn’t publish another book until 1962.

He didn’t write another novel until 1974. Titled The Devil’s Stocking, it wasn’t published until 1983 — two years after Algren died from a heart attack.

A Walk on the Wild Side has lived on as a book that continues to be reprinted and is now more favorably viewed by critics.

In 1962, it was adapted into a film with a star-studded cast, including Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck.

The title song for the film, scored by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Mack David, was nominated for an Academy Award and is on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film music.

In 1972, Lou Reed released his catchy song “A Walk on the Wild Side” (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson).

By that time those words were already a common idiomatic expression meaning to do things that are risky or morally questionable.

Reed’s song made the phrase even more famous and familiar to new generations.

Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side also includes his best known quote. It’s some memorable advice about certain things you should never do that shows up in many books of famous quotations:

       “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

These rules are imparted to the novel’s central character, Dove Linkhorn, by a career criminal named “Cross-Country” Kline, while the two are spending time in jail together.

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren Ace edition 1960Kline also shares other life lessons he’d learned with Dove.

Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he recites them:

      “But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work.
       “Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Not long after A Walk on the Wild Side was published, the first three rules mentioned by Cross-Country Kline in that excerpt began to be cited as a famous quote by Algren.

With slight wording changes, Algren often cited them himself in speaking engagements and interviews. He also used them in an essay titled “What Every Young man Should Know.”

Quote mavens like Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have pointed out that Algren probably didn’t coin the three famous rules himself.

They have both noted that an actor friend of Algren named Dave Peltz claimed to have created the rules. He said he wrote them down in a letter he sent to Algren.

Algren told biographer H. E. F. Donohue he got them from “a nice old Negro lady.”

In the foreword to the 1964 book Conversations with Nelson Algren, Donohue wrote:

“He [Algren] shunts aside all rules regulations and dicta except for three laws he says a nice old Negro lady once taught him: Never play cards with any man named ‘Doc’. Never eat at any place called ‘Mom’s’. And never ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.”

Several years ago, in a post on his “Black Cracker” blog, writer and musician Josh Alan Friedman recorded an additional rule of life Algren once mentioned to him.

Josh is the son of the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of cartoonist Drew Friedman. (He’s also one of my co-editors on an anthology of vintage men’s adventure stories, titled Weasels Ripped My Flesh!)

In July of 1964, Nelson Algren spent a week with the Friedman family at their rented summer house on Fire Island.

Josh recalled:

“Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the ‘Mrs. O’Leary’ character in my book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour...Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over.”

So, there’s one more sensible Nelson Algren rule of life to remember — while you avoid playing cards with anyone named Doc, eating at a place called Mom’s and sleeping with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own. Never turn the pot handles outward on the stove.

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May 12, 2017

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

May 02, 2017

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

On May 2, 1908, Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer registered the copyright for the new song about baseball they’d written together.

Naturally, they hoped it would become popular. But they could never have imagined that it would go on to become one of America’s three most frequently-played songs, along with “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Norworth wrote the lyrics for the song while riding on a subway train in New York. Von Tilzer wrote the music.

They took the title from a line in the chorus: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The story of how this famous song was written has been told in many books and on many websites.

According to Norworth’s account, the inspiration for the song came to him while riding the subway in Manhattan. At one of the stops, he saw a sign advertising that day’s baseball game at the Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants played.

At the time, Norworth was a popular performer for the Ziegfeld Follies and an ambitious lyricist. He wasn’t a baseball fan and had never been to a major league game.

However, he knew baseball fans were excited that year about the pennant race between the Giants, the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When he saw the sign advertising the game at the Polo Grounds, he suddenly realized that it might be good timing for a song about baseball.

While still on the train, Norworth took out a pencil and a piece of paper and rapidly scribbled the lyrics that came to his mind. (That piece of paper is now part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library’s collection.)

Norworth took his lyrics to Tin Pan Alley music publisher and songwriter Albert Von Tilzer. Von Tilzer set the lyrics to a waltz tune he’d been writing and on May 2, 1908, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was copyrighted by Von Tilzer’s York Music Company.

That year, several versions of the song were recorded, including one by Norworth and his wife, singer and actress Nora Bayes.

The best selling version was by Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet. It became a huge hit (the biggest of Murray’s career) and gave the song its initial nationwide fame.

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” remained a highly popular song for the next several decades, but its even wider modern fame began in the 1970s, when the beloved baseball sportscaster Harry Caray made it a tradition to sing the song during the seventh inning stretch.

Today, most Americans know the chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” even if they’re not baseball fans:

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”

If you’re not familiar with the verses of the song, you may not know that the story they tell is about a female baseball fan who insists on having her boyfriend take to her a ball game on their weekend date.

In the 1908 version, Norworth named this “baseball mad” bachelorette Katie Casey. Here’s the original first verse:

“Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
[sou is an old slang term for a coin]
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do…’”
[which she explains in the famous chorus]

In 1927, Norworth updated the lyrics of the song and renamed the young lady Nelly Kelley.

You can see the full lyrics of the 1908 and 1927 versions side-by-side in the Baseball Wiki entry about “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

If you want to know all the facts and trivia about this grand old song, there’s a book for that. In fact, there are two: Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (2008), by Andy Strasberg, Robert Thompson and Tim Wiles and Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song (2009), by Amy Whorf McGuiggan.

There are also several books for children that feature the song, including one by Carly Simon that includes a CD album of classic baseball songs 

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April 07, 2017

The origins of the “The Domino Effect”…

Contrary to what many sites on the Internet say, President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not coin the famous Cold War term “the Domino Effect.” 

He did use the phrase “falling domino principle” in a famous press conference on April 7, 1954.

Journalists at the time dubbed this “The Domino Theory,” which later came to be referred to as “the Domino Effect.”

The political concept encapsulated by those terms — the idea that if one country fell to the control of Communists, then nearby countries could follow — was a major foundation of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War years, which lasted from 1947 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This concern was initially raised by President Truman’s Undersecretary of State, Dean Acheson.

In 1947, the government of Greece faced threats from Communist insurgents and Turkey seemed to be falling under the sway of the Soviet Union. Acheson warned in various public statements that, if the “Reds” took over in Greece and Turkey, Communism would likely spread south to Iran and as far east as India.

To counter this threat, President Truman asked Congress to approve $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey and proposed an anti-Communist policy eventually referred to as “The Truman Doctrine.” 

“It must be the policy of the United States,” Truman explained in a high-profile speech to Congress, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

President Eisenhower, Truman’s successor, agreed with the Truman Doctrine’s goal of containing the spread of Communism. And, early  in his first term in office, he was forced to consider the need to apply that doctrine to Southeast Asia.

By 1954, France was on the verge of losing control of its colony Indochina (later called Vietnam) to Communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh. Eisenhower and his administration worried that if Indochina fell to Communist control, other Southeast Asian countries would follow.

During a White House press conference on April 7, 1954, reporter Robert Richards of the Copley Press asked Eisenhower: “Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.”

Eisenhower famously responded:

“You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call ‘the falling domino principle.’ You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Eisenhower said this disintegration would lead to the “loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following.”

In many news stories, reporters referred to Eisenhower’s falling domino principle as “the Domino Theory” or as “the Domino Effect.” The latter was a term that journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop used in their popular syndicated newspaper column and claimed to have coined.

A month after Eisenhower made his famous remarks in 1954, Vietminh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated French troops at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

France soon ceded control of its former colony. And, under an agreement hammered out in Geneva, Indochina was partitioned into Communist-controlled North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam.

In the following years, Eisenhower provided economic assistance and weapons to the fledgling South Vietnamese government and sent in a small number of American military advisors.

During the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy significantly expanded U.S. economic and military assistance to South Vietnam and increased the number of military advisors there to more than 16,000.

These decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy set in motion a political and military domino effect that ultimately led to the Vietnam War.

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April 02, 2017

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

Open the pod bay doors Hal
On April 6, 1968, director Stanley Kubrick’s visionary science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released to movie theaters nationwide in the United States.

The film, developed from the short story “Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke, had its initial premiere in Washington, D.C. on April 2nd, followed by local premieres in New York City and Los Angeles.

On April 6th, with the film’s general release, movie audiences throughout the country first heard several memorable lines that are cited by many books and websites as being among the most famous movie quotes of all time.

The most widely-known (and spoofed) line from 2001 is spoken by astronaut David Bowman (actor Kier Dullea).

He says it to HAL, the sentient HAL 9000 computer on the US space craft Discovery One, which is on a mysterious mission to Jupiter. (The name HAL is short for “the H-euristically programmed AL-gorithmic computer.”)

It comes near the end of the movie, after HAL begins killing off the ship’s crew.

Bowman takes a small space pod outside to retrieve the body of fellow astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).

As Bowman returns to the ship, he asks HAL to let him back inside with the famous line: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

This leads to one of most chilling exchanges in movie history:

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) poster by Robert McCallDAVE:  Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
HAL:  I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
DAVE:  What’s the problem?
HAL:  l think you know what the problem is just as well as l do.
DAVE:  What are you talking about, Hal?
HAL:  This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
DAVE:  I don’t know what you're talking about, Hal.
HAL:  l know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that's something I can’t allow to happen.
DAVE:  Where the hell’d you get that idea, Hal?
HAL:  Although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
DAVE:  All right, Hal. I’ll go in through the emergency air lock.
HAL:  Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.
DAVE:  Hal, I won’t argue with you anymore. Open the doors!
HAL:  Dave...This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Dave uses a desperate maneuver to get back into the spaceship, without the helmet he’d left behind. He then heads determinedly to the room that houses HAL’s “brain,” and begins to shut down the rogue AI computer.

During the shutdown process, HAL senses what’s happening and utters one of the other famous lines from the film:

       “Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.”

As HAL’s mind goes, he begins singing the old song “Daisy Bell,” which he was taught by his programmers:

       “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do.
        I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.”

After HAL’s mind is fully gone, the minds of the movies’ viewers are blown away by the final scenes.

First comes the psychedelic “star gate” sequence, then a series of scenes showing Dave Bowman aging, dying, and finally being reborn as a shining “space baby.”

Would you like me to tell you what it all means?

I’m sorry, folks, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

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March 29, 2017

“The answer to everything…Life, the Universe, and”

In 2001, the brilliant British writer Douglas Adams left us Earthlings behind.

Before he left, however, he kindly informed us of the answer to the Ultimate Question — more specifically, the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

In case you missed it, here’s a brief overview…

The answer was first revealed on March 29, 1978, when the fourth episode of Adams’ radio creation The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

In that episode, Earthman Arthur Dent visits the planet Magrathea, where he meets Slartibartfast.

Slartibartfast tells Arthur he is one of the Magrathean planet manufacturers who helped design the Earth long ago, as a project for some hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings who happen to look like little white mice in our dimension.

Of course, Arthur Dent is a bit surprised to learn this. So, Slartibartfast plays an ancient tape recording for him that explains things. Sort of.

The narrator tells us that, millions of years ago, the mice (i.e., the hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings) “got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life, which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket — a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away — that they decided to sit down and solve the problem once and for all. And, to this end, they built themselves a stupendous supercomputer…”

The tape includes the initial conversations between computer technicians and the supercomputer, which they had named Deep Thought.

They ask Deep Thought if there is an answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” and, if so, whether Deep Thought could provide it.

Deep Thoughts answers:

“Yes…Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But I’ll have to think about it...the program will take me seven-and-a-half million years to run.”

Fast forward to seven-and-a-half million years later. The descendants of Deep Thought’s creators anxiously await the computer’s answer.

Deep Thought tells them what it is, after warning that they’re not going to like it.

He provides the answer in a series of lines that are interrupted by comments from the listeners. When Deep Thought’s lines are pieced together, they comprise one of the two most famous quotations from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the other being “Don’t Panic!”):

“The answer to everything…Life, the Universe, and”

The listeners are flabbergasted. Forty-two!?!

Yes, that’s it. The number 42.

Deep Thought helpfully explains:

“Now that you know that the answer to the Ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is forty-two, all you need to do now is find out what the Ultimate Question is.”

When asked if he can tell them what the Ultimate Question is, Deep Thought says ‘no.’

But, he adds, another computer can be built that will:

“A computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called…the Earth.”

If at this point you don’t understand the Ultimate Answer or the Ultimate Question, don’t panic.

Just listen to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, or read the book version, published in 1979. Or watch the BBC Television adaptation, first aired in 1981. Then you’ll probably also want to watch the  2005 movie version.

After all that, the Ultimate Question and the answer will make perfect sense. Sort of.

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March 23, 2017

“Give me liberty or give me death!” – famous words Patrick Henry probably didn’t say...

Currier & Ives depiction of Patrick Henry
In late March of 1775, the American Revolution had not yet started. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was still a few weeks away.

But, to a growing number of Americans, a fight seemed inevitable if Great Britain continued to try to enforce its oppressive “Intolerable Acts” and taxes.

Some of the more militant American political activists — such as Patrick Henry — had begun urging local colonial governments to create militias that could be mustered to defend against or attack British troops.

Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the time.

On March 23, 1775, at a meeting of that legislative body in Richmond, he gave an impassioned speech in favor of mobilization.

According to legend, Henry ended his speech with these famous words:

“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!”

Patrick Henry’s rousing address played a role in the House of Burgesses’ decision in favor of creating a Virginia militia. Henry himself was appointed a Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment.

However, no one knows exactly what he said in his speech on March 23, 1775.

Henry didn’t write down the speech or any notes about it at the time — or in the years before his death in 1799. Nor was any other written record made of the speech when he gave it in 1775 or during his lifetime.

So, why is the famous quote that ends with “give me liberty or give me death” attributed to Patrick Henry? And, why do many books and websites reprint what they cite as the “full text” of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech?

William Wirt The answer is: because another Virginia politician named William Wirt created his own reconstructed version of the speech in a biography he wrote about Henry and Wirt’s version became famous. 

Wirt decided to write the biography about five years after Henry died. Over the next ten years, he corresponded and talked with people who knew Henry, including some who were present when he made his moving speech.

One of them was Thomas Jefferson. Another was a judge named St. George Tucker, who gave Wirt extensive notes on what he remembered of the speech.

In 1817, Wirt’s book was published. He titled it Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

The version of Henry’s March 23, 1775 speech in that book was based heavily on Judge Tucker’s recollection. 

Obviously, of course, it would be impossible for anyone to recreate, word-for-word, any speech given 42 years earlier, based purely on other people’s memories.

Yet, what seemed to annoy a number of people who knew Henry much more than Wirt’s poetic license in recreating Henry’s speech was his overly idealized portrayal of the man.

Culpeper Minutemen 'Liberty or Death' flagJefferson called Wirt’s biography “a poor book” that gave “an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry.”

John Taylor, another Virginia statesman who knew Henry, called it “a splendid novel.” 

Comments from other contemporaries of Henry were even less kind.

Nonetheless, Wirt’s book was extremely popular and, over the years, his version of the speech that Henry gave on March 23, 1775 came to be thought of and portrayed as a real transcript — until modern historians and quote mavens began to look into it.

Experts on American history and quotations who have carefully studied the facts generally dismiss the idea that Wirt’s recreation of the entire speech is or could be accurate.

One researcher quoted in a post on the Colonial Williamsburg website concluded that “generations have been deceived into believing in the literalness” of the speech.

In The Yale Book of Quotations, Editor Fred Shapiro calls the text of the speech as reconstructed by Wirt “questionable.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier and many other well-researched books about quotations and language, summed up his verdict in an NPR radio interview in 2006. When asked if Patrick Henry actually said “give me liberty or give me death,” Keyes answered: “Unfortunately, he didn’t.”

Keyes said his conclusion is that “William Wirt…put ‘give me liberty or give me death’ in Henry’s mouth.”

Other experts think that Henry might have said “give me liberty or give me death” or at least uttered the phrase “liberty or death.”

Those are certainly memorable words. And, later in 1775, “LIBERTY OR DEATH” was used as a slogan on the flag of the Culpeper Minute Men Battalion, a unit of Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment.

However, the rest of the alleged final sentences at the end of the speech Henry gave on March 23, 1775 — and the “full text” of the speech reprinted by many books and websites — should probably be credited to either William Wirt or St. George Tucker instead of Patrick Henry.

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