Speech to the Virginia Convention Historical and Social Context
by Patrick Henry

Speech to the Virginia Convention book cover
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Historical Context

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 Second 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.

Build up to the Revolutionary War (aka Americans Hate Taxes)

Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second 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...

(The entire section is 501 words.)