transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Historical Context

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Patrick Henry and Authorial Authenticity

Patrick Henry (1736–1799) was a Virginian attorney, orator, and politician known for his passionate and incisive rhetoric. He served as a delegate in the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning in 1765 and quickly rose to prominence due to his oratorical skills and outspoken nature. He was a fierce opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765 and vocally protested against what he—and many others—perceived as unfair taxation by the British Parliament. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who had reputations as lofty intellectuals, Henry was largely self-educated and gifted at translating political discourse into accessible language. His fierce patriotism, devout religiosity, and fiery oratory helped spread revolutionary fervor throughout the colonies.

Though the text of “Speech to the Virginia Convention” is attributed to Henry, it was not formally transcribed until eighteen years after Henry’s death. Patrick Henry preferred to speak extemporaneously and rarely wrote down his speeches or much of anything about his life. William Wirt, Henry’s biographer, compiled a composite version of the speech from a number of interviews and witness testimonies. This has led to debates around authorial authenticity and whether the actual text of the speech can be meaningfully attributed to Patrick Henry. Most scholars contend that the text of the speech is likely a blend of Henry’s and Wirt’s words. However, though the words may be inexact, the themes and overall intensity of the speech are consistent with what little is known about Henry’s oratorical style.

Buildup to the Revolutionary War

Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention” was delivered on March 23, 1775—about a month prior to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Tensions between the colonies and Britain had grown increasingly tense throughout the preceding decade. The British government imposed a number of new taxes on the colonies in an effort to recoup their losses from the French and Indian War (1754–1763). This spawned a number of protests, as the colonists felt it was unfair that they were being taxed without being properly represented in Parliament. The issue culminated in the 1773 Boston Tea Party as disgruntled colonists dumped a shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest a new tax on tea imports. In retaliation, British Parliament passed a series of laws in 1774 known as the Intolerable Acts.

At the time of Henry’s speech, the colonies were faced with an important decision: continue bargaining with the British in an effort to overturn the Intolerable Acts or revolt. Many politicians were wary of entering into armed conflict with Britain, whereas others believed that war was inevitable. When it came time for him to speak at the Second Virginia Convention, Henry called for action: rather than continue to ineffectively petition the British regarding their grievances, it was time for the colonies to adopt a new strategy. When the time came to vote, Henry’s speech proved effective. By a narrow margin, the Second Virginia Convention officially resolved to begin preparing for war.

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