Speech to the Virginia Convention by Patrick Henry

Speech to the Virginia Convention book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Speech to the Virginia Convention Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Analysis

Rhetorical Devices

Ethos

One of Patrick Henry’s hallmarks as a speaker was his ability to persuade through common language. In his “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” Henry eschews intellectual posturing and presents himself as a simple man who speaks his mind in the service of his country. For Henry, speaking out about the need for revolution is an obligation that he owes “to God and [his] country.” He promises to speak “freely” and “without reserve,” appealing to ethos by casting himself as an honest patriot.

Henry also builds ethos by appealing to a sense of American brotherhood and establishing shared values with his audience. He pays respect to those who spoke before him before presenting his dissenting opinion. By using the pronoun “we” when referring to the other delegates at the Second Virginia Convention, Henry appeals to their sense of camaraderie. He openly professes his devotion to the colonies, calling on his countrymen to come together to defend “the holy cause of liberty” that they share as “brethren.”

Pathos

Henry creates pathos by appealing to his audience’s patriotism and love of liberty. In discussing the warships that the British have positioned off the coast, Henry paints a vivid image of “the chains which the British Ministry have been so long forging.” Chains evoke images of imprisonment, emphasizing Henry’s assertion that the choice of whether to go to war marks the difference between “freedom and slavery.” Henry returns to the chain imagery at the end of the speech, claiming that “their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston.” His words evoke the sound of impending subjugation as it draws near.

Henry uses pathos to evoke pride and indignation from his audience. From the outset, Henry acknowledges the patriotism of his audience. They are all American politicians and dignitaries, united by their love for the thirteen colonies. By evoking a sense of brotherhood in his listeners, Henry ignites their pride in their homeland. He then details the ways that the British have disrespected and oppressed the colonies, stirring righteous indignation and anger in his fellow delegates. Henry suggests that going to war is not just a matter of protecting liberty but also of upholding their pride as Americans.

Logos

Henry appeals to logos by citing the tumultuous history between Britain and the colonies. He reminds his audience that they have tried a number of diplomatic solutions and that Britain has rebuffed or ignored all attempts at compromise. According to Henry’s logic, no solution will be reached unless the colonists attempt something different. He further questions why, in the supposed absence of an enemy in “this quarter of the world,” Britain is moving weapons and ships towards North America. The logical conclusion is that they are preparing for an armed conflict. Henry asserts that under such circumstances, the colonies have no reason to remain loyal.

Rhetorical Questions and Hypophora

Henry structures his speech around a central rhetorical question: Should the thirteen colonies go to war? In his view, the choice is to either pursue freedom through revolution or suffer slavery through passivity. By framing the decision in binary terms, Henry asks his audience what they are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain peace. The rest of the speech serves as a justification for Henry’s answer to his own question: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

One variety of rhetorical question Henry uses is hypophora: the act of asking a question and then immediately answering it. Henry uses hypophora to reinforce his claims and inspire his audience to action.

  • Henry uses rhetorical questions as a way to anticipate his opponents’ counterarguments. By acknowledging the common belief that the colonies were not yet equipped to defeat the British, Henry turns the argument back on his detractors: if the colonies are not ready now, when will they be? Henry dismisses conservatism as...

(The entire section is 1,369 words.)