What does Patrick Henry's ''Speech to the Second Virginia Convention'' tell you about life in the United States at the time it was written?

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aklass eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several recurring themes in Patrick Henry's stirring Speech to the Second Virginia Convention. First, he warns against hope as an excuse for inaction. He points to the "insidious smile" with which the Crown responded to the latest petition from the colonies. He points to a decade of nonviolent struggle to no avail, and his frustration speaks to the colonists' frustration at their inability to enact changes in the policies of the Crown.

He refers to "warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land" and a "martial array" of British troops and ships recently arrived to assist in quelling the unrest. No doubt the arrival of these "warlike preparations" was intended to be a show of British strength, but they instead inflamed the passions of the American rebels.

They certainly inflamed Patrick Henry, and he questions their use:

I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motives for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.

The British military presence in the colonies and the repeated denials of peaceful entreaties have only reinforced anger at the yolk of the Crown on the dissatisfied colonials. Henry's speech is a call to arms. In the next month, the first battles, those at Lexington and Concord, would be fought. Patrick Henry's speech is a detailed explanation of the mindset of the colonists as they went to war for their freedom. King George III was unwilling to listen to reason, and had already stationed his military in the colonies in preparation for the coming conflict. Henry's speech is a call to violence: "Give me liberty, or give me death!"