transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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What emotional and logical appeals did Patrick Henry use in his Virginia convention speech?

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Patrick Henry was one of the leading orators of the Revolutionary generation, and in this speech, he certainly makes use of both appeals to reason and appeals to emotion. (Indeed, his argumentation here, even when it is logical, often has a highly emotional component to it.) He sees no room for compromise on this subject. This he establishes early on, when he declares it to be "a question of freedom or slavery." This, in itself, is a powerful piece of rhetoric: Henry frames this question around a clear bifurcation, organized around moral lines and extraordinary stakes.

Henry supports his position by referencing recent history with Great Britain:

Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.

This passage is simultaneously an appeal to reason and to emotion. It appeals to reason by way of its evidentiary nature. At the same time, however, his conclusion is blatantly incendiary in its effect. If it is established that Britain is preparing war against its colonies, this claim carries with it a highly emotional component, from which might arise feelings such as anxiety, outrage, fear, etc. Thus, this passage combines both pathos and logos to powerful effect.

He proceeds to further advance this argument, asking whether there can be any alternative explanation for Britain's recent actions. He answers in the negative.

For Patrick Henry, then, peaceful negotiations have already proven to be a failed solution. Moreover, however, in painting Britain as a tyrannical actor, he can frame armed rebellion as a moral choice.

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This speech, delivered on March 23, 1775, is of course full of emotional appeals, which were very much in keeping with Henry's rhetorical style. He began by characterizing the affairs confronting the committee as "events of awful moment," "a question of freedom or slavery," and of course concluded with his memorable phrase, "give me liberty or give me death!" So he was certainly employing pathos in his speech. But he also, as did many of his contemporaries, made an argument about the logical conclusion of British actions, one which suggested that "the conduct of the British ministry of the last ten years" offered no evidence that they would be responsive to anything but armed resistance. He claimed that the British had no interest in compromise, and that conciliatory appeals would do nothing but embolden the British:

Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope.

Even worse, Henry claimed that these actions, especially the dispatching of troops to Massachusetts, pointed logically toward the total subjugation of the American people:

I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? ...They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.

So while the tone of the entire speech is strident, even shrill, and it is no doubt full of emotional appeals, Henry also based his argument on a certain logic. The Americans, he argued, were no longer in a position where compromise had a hope of success. 

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