What are some literary devices found in Patrick Henry's Virginia Convention speech?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his speech to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry's aim is to win over his audience to his point of view, and accordingly he uses many rhetorical devices commonly used to increase an orator's powers of persuasion.

At the beginning of the speech, he uses anaphora to suggest to his audience that he is a reasonable man and aware of the broad picture—"different men often see the same subject in different lights." Anaphora is a form of parallelism in which the same words are repeated at the beginning of successive phrases. Other examples of this in this speech include "We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated . . . " and the subsequent sentence "Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances . . . " The most famous example of this type of parallelism comes in the closing line, "give me liberty or give me death!" which is also, arguably, an example of apostrophe, or appeal to "Almighty God."

Another form of parallelism, epistrophe, can be seen in such phrases as "The War is inevitable and let it come! I repeat, sir, let it come." In epistrophe, the same words are repeated at the ends of successive phrases in order to emphasize that part of the phrase.

Henry also makes great use of rhetorical questions in this speech. In several places, he strings one rhetorical question after the other ("Are fleets and armies . . . ? Have we shown ourselves . . . ?" "Is it that insidious smile . . . ?" etc). A rhetorical question in itself is a device intended to foster a sense of agreement and accord between speaker and listener; in asking one after another, the questions have a cumulative effect; it becomes increasingly obvious to the listener that there are numerous questions to which the answers must be obvious. This could also be considered an example of enumeratio (making a point by overwhelming the listener with detail).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Henry uses several metaphors in his Virginia Convention speech. For example, he refers to "the song of the siren" who will transform people into beasts. This is a metaphor in which the colonists who listen to the British king and his attempts to quell rebellion are similar to the members of Odysseus's crew who listened to the siren and were lured away from their homes and from what they knew was true. This is also an allusion, or a reference to Greek literature. He then compares the colonists to people who, though they have eyes, "see not," and though they have ears "hear not." In this metaphor, which uses repetition (of the word "not"), the colonists are compared to people who are willingly blind and deaf, ignoring the reality of their situation with regard to the British throne. He also compares the king's reception of the colonial petition to "a snare to your feet," which is another metaphor that compares the reception of the petition to a trap. He later says that if the colonists retreat from their cause, they will be in chains, which will be heard clanking on the "plains of Boston." This is another metaphor in which the colonists' submission to the British king is compared to being chained. The last line of the speech, "give me liberty or give me death" is an example of parallelism, or the use of the same grammatical structure in different parts of a sentence. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are, of course, many literary devices used in this famous speech.  Here are a few of these devices:

  • Allusions.  This is when a writer or speaker refers to some character or passage from a source that all listeners would know.  Henry, for example, alludes to an incident in the Odyssey when he says

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts.

Henry also alludes to the Bible in lines such as

Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?

  • Henry uses rhetorical questions.  These are devices where a speaker asks a question that is not meant to be answered -- the speaker is just trying to use the "question" to make the listeners think.  An example of this is

 Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?

  • Perhaps the most famous line in the speech may be an example of hyperbole -- where a speaker exaggerates in order to make a point.

 Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

(This is also an example of apostrophe since Henry is addressing someone not physically present at the time.)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial