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Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry
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In 1775, Patrick Henry made his speech to an audience of Virginia legislators to convince them that Virginia should join the War of Independence. Identify and discuss three main points Henry uses to support his argument. Then, explain why these points were appropriate to convince his audience to join the war.

One main point seems to be precedent. According to Patrick Henry, the British have always mistreated them. There’s no reason to suspect that they will start treating the colonies more justly in the future. A second key point is community. Henry talks about the war effort as if the colonies are a family. A third prominent point is freedom. He seems intent on convincing the audience that they are fighting for their liberty.

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As you might already know, there is no authoritative record of Patrick Henry’s rather famous 1775 speech. There are no known transcripts or notes of his speech. What we know about his speech comes from his biographer William Wirt. The main points might be Henry’s, they might be Wirt’s, or they might be a combination of the two.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s start to identify the possible primary arguments.

One central argument seems to be precedent. As Henry says, “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” The past, according to Henry, indicates that England will continue to mistreat the colonies unless they are forcefully put down.

Citing past behavior seems to be a common tool for politicians trying to persuade others to engage in war. When George W. Bush made the case that America should go to war with Iraq, he cited Iraq’s past. Like Bush, Henry seems to be saying: if the enemy has always been the enemy, it won’t stop being the enemy in the future.

Another key argument seems tied to unity or togetherness. At one point, Henry exclaims, “Our brethren are already in the field!” Here, Henry appears to be using the nation-as-family trope to persuade people to participate in the war.

According to historian Howard Zinn, politicians throughout history invoke family to pressure people to yield to certain policies or actions. Zinn, however, believes countries "are not communities.” Henry, of course, thinks otherwise.

A third point used by Henry is not so much a point as a rhetorical device. Think about the famous ending: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Henry seems to be making the point that a life lacking freedom is worse—or no better—than death. Such a formulation could encourage people to possibly die for their alleged liberty.

Yet the last phrase is also hyperbole. It’s dramatic and sensational. It might stir up feelings in the audience. It could inspire them to fight.

When going to war, numerous politicians employ hyperbole to help convince their country that it’s a good idea. You might consider Bush’s “axis of evil” designation as another example of how a politician uses hyperbole to rouse people into fighting a war. “Evil”—like “liberty” and “death”—can be quite a dramatic word.

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Three points Patrick Henry made in his speech to the Virginia Convention were that diplomacy had failed, Britain was preparing to use force against the colonies, and there would be no better time to take up arms against Great Britain.

Henry's argument that diplomacy had failed would ring true for the other delegates. He points out that the colonies had been trying to persuade the British government for ten years to hear their arguments. So many petitions and letters had been sent that there could not be anything new to say. Those who wanted a peaceful solution would have to take this to heart. When he asks, "What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted?" his listeners would try to answer that question in their minds and would concede that they would only be reiterating what had already been argued multiple times.

Henry also points out that the British ships and soldiers that were obvious to everyone could only mean one thing. He declares that Britain had no enemy in that part of the world that would justify the build-up of armed forces. The men to whom he spoke knew this to be true, and when he suggests that the purpose of the "martial array" can only be to subjugate the colonies through force, they would have to provide a contrary answer or admit that military action was likely.

Having made those two points, Henry suggests that there is no purpose in waiting. More time would only result in Britain being able to amass more weapons and troops to use against the colonies, and the colonies would possibly lose any munitions and weapons they might have stockpiled. He states that they have "three millions of people" ready to fight and that more would come to help—presumably from other countries. The listeners would consider what purposed could be served by waiting if war was indeed inevitable. They would likely agree that their strength would dwindle as time went on.

Although Henry's speech was emotional, he incorporated facts and logic that his listeners would find hard to dispute.

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Three main points that Patrick Henry makes in order to support his argument:

1. There is no reason to think that England will treat the colonies more justly. When the first Continental Congress protested against new tax laws, King George III had only conditionally withdrawn the laws. Henry argues,

Our petitions have been slighted...our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne.
Let us not deceive ourselves, sirs. These are the implements of war and subjugation....

Henry argues that the colonists have always been mistreated, and they have been spurned every time through taxation, oppressive guards in their doorways, and other acts of subjugation. England has clearly demonstrated that it refuses to respect them.

2. The colonists have exhausted all avenues of diplomacy. 

We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on....We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated....

 "There is no longer any room for hope"; there is nothing that England does to give the colonists any reason for hope that they can live as free men.

3. If the colonists do not act, they will become so subjugated and oppressed that they will be unable to fight. They must act now because they will never be stronger than they are now; moreover, the time is ripe now.

There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations....The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave....Our chains are forged!....The war is inevitable.

Patrick Henry takes a great chance in scolding the members of the Virginia Convention for their disinterest in hearing the truth, but he encourages them with his three arguments, hoping to appeal to both their reason and love for their new land. Finally, he appeals to the desire in all men to be free with his most famous line, "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

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