He is credited with having swung the balance in convincing the convention to pass a resolution delivering Virginian troops for the Revolutionary War. Among the delegates to the convention were future U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The speech was not published until the Port Folio printed a version of it in 1816. The version of the speech that is known today first appeared in print in Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, a biography of Henry by William Wirt, in 1817. There is debate among historians as to whether, and to what extent, Henry or Wirt should be credited with authorship of the speech and its famous closing words.
Whatever the exact words of Henry were, there can be no doubt of their impact. According to Edmund Randolph, the convention sat in silence for several minutes afterwards. Thomas Marshall told his son John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, that the speech was "one of the most bold, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered."Edward Carrington, who was listening outside a window of the church, requested that he be buried on that spot. In 1810, he got his wish. And the drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, George Mason, said, "Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention, and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them." More immediately, the resolution, declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain, passed, and Henry was named chairman of the committee assigned to build a militia. Britain's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, reacted by seizing the gunpowder in the public magazine at Williamsburg--Virginia's equivalent of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Whatever the exact words of Henry were, "scholars, understandably, are troubled by the way Wirt brought into print Henry's classic Liberty or Death speech," wrote historian Bernard Mayo. "Yet . . . its expressions. . . seemed to have burned themselves into men's memories. Certainly its spirit is that of the fiery orator who in 1775 so powerfully influenced Virginians and events leading to American independence."
There have been similar phrases used before Henry's speech. The play, Cato, a Tragedy, was popular in the Colonies and well known by the Founding Fathers, who would quote from the play. George Washington had this play performed for the Continental Army at Valley Forge. It contains the line, "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death" (Act II, Scene 4). The phrase "Liberty or Death" also appears on the Culpeper Minutemen flag of 1775.
The phrase appears in other nationalist contexts.
A popular (and possibly concocted) story in Brazil relates that in 1822, the emperor Dom Pedro I uttered the famous Cry from [the river] Ipiranga, "Independence or Death" (Independência ou Morte), when Brazil was still a colony of Portugal.
In March 1941 the motto of the public demonstrations in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia against signing the treaty with Nazi Germany was "Better grave than slave" (Bolje grob nego rob).
During the Indonesian National Revolution the Pemuda (youth) used the phrase "Merdeka atau Mati" which means Independence or Death.
More recently, in China, Ren Jianyu, a 25-year-old former college student "village official" was given a two-year re-education through labor sentence for an online anti-CPC speech. A T-shirt of Ren's saying "Give me liberty or give me death!" (in Chinese) has been taken as evidence of his anti-social guilt.