I was taking a Saturday morning class at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a public speaking class and most of my classmates were police officers, both local and state. They were taking this course as part of their educational requirements for promotion. They were a friendly group, yet I had no doubt that they would handcuff me and shove me into their police cruisers if I were arrested. Most were big, strong, and formidable.
Our assignment for this particular Saturday morning was to recite a small portion from a famous speech. I had chosen the last part of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Most of the cops were not particularly gifted in their ability to do dramatic readings. Many tended to speak in monotones, as if giving a police report.
My turn came. I got up, walked to the lectern, and glanced at my speech. I had triple spaced it and marked it up according to its high and low points for voice inflection and volume. I was ready. I loved this speech.
I almost knew my lines by heart. I began reading, making sure that I looked out at my audience as if I were talking directly to them.
“They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary.”
Heads popped up. The tone of my voice and Patrick Henry’s words had their attention.
“But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”
This normally boisterous group was silent and still. There was tension in the room. Patrick Henry’s words seemed to mesmerize them. I raised my voice and paused at certain key moments of the speech.
“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!”
My voice was rising. “Our chains are forged! Their clanking can be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!”
I suddenly lowered my voice to a loud stage whisper. “I repeat it, sir, let it come!”
I had the rapt attention of my audience. They didn’t move a muscle except for a widening of their eyes. I paused to let the words sink in.
“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!”
I looked at the faces of these tough cops. They looked like deer caught in the headlights.
“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 had the feeling that my audience was about to rise up. They seemed tense, but remained still. It was time for me to speak one of the most famous lines in American history.
“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
I said these last words making eye contact with one of the biggest and toughest cops. There was a pregnant moment of silence. Then everyone burst into applause.
Later, as the class was breaking up for the morning, the big and tough looking cop told me that my reading of Patrick Henry’s speech had given him goose-bumps. Some other cops standing nearby told me that it had the same effect on them.
It’s good to know that the power of well-chosen words, spoken with passion, can move people. Patrick Henry knew it, and delivered a burning fuse that ignited the American Revolution.
On that Saturday morning in Boston those cops and I felt just a momentary tremor of its power.