SONG: Whilst Happy in My Native Land (1713) The Last Words of James Ings

Lyrics and music to 'Whilst Happy in May Native Land.' The song contains the line: 'Give Me Death or Liberty' which were the last words of James Ings.
National Library of Scotland
Give me Death or Liberty! The Last Words of James Ings.T
Ruby Daniel

‘Give Me Death or Liberty!’

One thing that I was struck by the story of the Cato Street conspirators, was how quickly they had been forgotten.

This seemed ironic when the conspirators had chosen to base themselves in Cato Street.  Nobody has ever mentioned the uncanny appropriateness of the street name.  The man who this street was named after, Cato was an individual who had become immortal by choosing to die in the cause of freedom.  Cato had defied the authoritarian rule by Julius Caesar to uphold the principles of a Roman Republic.  Without the liberty that the republic gave Cato’s honour meant he had to choose death and took his own life:

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.” – Cato Letter’s, NO. 15 “Of Freedom of Speech”

Cato’s defence of republicanism was popular amongst the men who were the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution.  ‘Give me Liberty of death’ was Patrick Henry’s rallying cry against the Redcoats. He had taken these words from the 1713 play, Cato, a Tragedy.    It 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).

Whilst Happy in My Native Land.’ 

The music and lyrics for the song that James Ings sang in his last moments came from that 1713 play. The tile of the song, was ‘Whilst Happy in My Native Land.’  It was a seditious song that rallied Britons to rise up in defence of the rights given to them by Magna Carta. ’ 

It’s a song that has been totally forgotten but its links to James Ings were uncovered by actor David Benson at the British Library.  He was able to use the song in his one man show on the Cato Street Conspiracy that he performed in the Duke of York pub in Harrowby Street on the day of the bicentenary of the Cato Street Conspiracy.

You can see from these words why Ings chose to sing them.  I am grateful to my daughter Ruby Daniel that she agreed to sing them for me so that we could bring them to this website.

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