transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Is "give me liberty or give me death" an example of parallelism?

Quick answer:

"Give me liberty or give me death" is an example of parallelism. Parallelism occurs when two parts of a sentence have the same or a very similar grammatical structure. In Henry's statement, a command is followed by a noun on either side of the word "or."

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Parallelism means that two parts of a sentence have the same or a very similar grammatical structure. This is true in Patrick Henry's statement, "Give me liberty or give me death." On either side of the world "or," which is the fulcrum or pivot of the sentence, a command "give me" is followed by a noun: "liberty" or "death."

Parallelism is used to emphasize a point and to make a statement easier to remember. Essentially, Henry's utterance boils down to a choice between "liberty" or "death." The two concepts are put into stark contrast and presented as opposites.

Technically, however, the statement is a logical fallacy. It is what is called the "false dichotomy" or "either/or" fallacy. In this fallacy, audiences are given just two extreme choices and told they must pick either one or the other.

Of course, in reality there was a spectrum of possibilities the Virginia colonists could have pursued—and were considering—in terms of what to do about the fighting between Great Britain and the northern colonies that had already broken out.

The colonists knew they were risking death, either on the battlefield or afterwards, if they were tried for treason by a victorious Britain for sending troops to support the rebel Americans. Henry is countering their fears in a dramatic way by implying that staying under British rule is worse than being dead.

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