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Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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What is the tone of the "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

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The tone of the "Speech to the Virginia Convention" is one of measured defiance. On the one hand, Henry uses incendiary rhetoric to drive home his central point that the Americans must fight for their rights and their liberties against the British. On the other hand, he wants to persuade them of the rightness of his argument. Hence, his defiant tone is measured so that he can bring the other delegates around to his way of thinking.

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As Patrick Henry was doubtless aware, his "Speech to the Virginia Convention" constituted nothing less than an act of treason against the British colonial authorities. In openly inciting the Americans to armed rebellion, Henry was effectively making himself a criminal under colonial law—and a very dangerous criminal at that.

But as the tone of the speech quite clearly reveals, Henry is utterly unrepentant in his defiance of the British. The most famous words of the speech—"Give me liberty or give me death!"—perfectly encapsulate this defiant attitude. Henry is prepared to die for the cause of liberty and wants to persuade the other delegates of the justice of his cause.

At the same time, Henry's speech isn't simply a wild rant given by a demagogue or a political fanatic. It's a measured speech, a speech that uses rational persuasion, as well as pathos and violent rhetoric, to drive home its main points.

For instance, Henry refers to the build-up of British military forces, which he sees as an ominous threat, a sign that the British are willing to deal with the Americans' legitimate grievances by force. This is no violent rant; this is a carefully crafted argument designed to win over his audience, many of whom were still skeptical of the necessity of armed rebellion.

Yet it isn't very long before the tone of urgency and defiance reasserts itself with even greater force:

I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

After hearing these words, no one in Henry's audience would've been in the slightest doubt as to his message, because Henry's speech represents a complete fusion of tone and content.

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