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Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Student Question

To what extent does Patrick Henry's 1775 speech reflect a consensus on the American Revolution's causes and limits?

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If Henry's speech had reflected a consensus, there would have been no need to make it. His speech was aimed at persuading the majority of the Virginia House members to raise a militia. While revolutionary sentiment ran high in Virginia, there was far from a consensus for resisting the British with armed force. Indeed, this speech was given more than a month before the events of Lexington and Concord, and at this point, most Virginians, including such luminaries as Peyton Randolph and Landon Carter, still counseled moderation. The real tipping point for Virginia revolutionaries came after Lexington and Concord, in November 1775, when the governor, the earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising freedom to slaves that agreed to join him in suppressing the rebellion. This accelerated the formation of the revolutionary committees and militia that pushed the revolution forward in the colony. But even at the height of the war, as historians Woody Holton and Michael McDonnell have shown, little consensus existed. As McDonnell puts it, especially in the western counties, "disaffection and discontent in Virginia at times reached critical proportions," especially when patriot leaders "persuade, entice, or coerce men into military service." While the divisions in Virginia were never as pronounced, or bloody, as they were in North and South Carolina, it is difficult to say that a consensus for revolution existed in the colony. There was a significant Loyalist population as well as a large group of common people who simply hoped the struggle would pass them by. While increasing numbers of Virginians from all levels of society would have heartily agreed with Henry at the time of his speech, he was still viewed by most as a radical and a firebrand. 

The sources I used for the above are both important works in the historiography of revolutionary Virginia, and the Revolution as a whole. The first is Michael McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and the second is Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Basically, they emphasize the contested nature of the Revolution in Virginia, especially when one looks outside the planter class.

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