transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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What metaphors does Patrick Henry use in his "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

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Patrick Henry uses several metaphors in his “Speech to the Virginia Convention.” He compares the temptation to pretend that there is no danger to the colonists to the song of mythological sirens, creatures that lured men to their deaths. He compares past experience to a lamp or lantern that one can use to see down the figurative path of the future. He also compares British soldiers to slavers or jailers who oppress and subjugate the colonists.

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Patrick Henry uses many metaphors throughout his "Speech to the Virginia Convention." In one prominent example, he mixes a metaphor with an allusion when he compares the temptation for American colonists to "shut [their] eyes against a painful truth" to the "song of [the] siren." In ancient Greek mythology, the sirens were terrifying female monsters who lived on an island in the sea. When unsuspecting sailors would steer too close to the island, the sirens would sing a song that to lure the sailors to steer their ships onto the rocky shore, and they would die there. Thus, Henry compares the temptation to pretend that there is no danger in maintaining the status quo to a temptation that legendarily led to the deaths of those unsuspecting sailors.

Henry also uses a metaphor when he says, "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience." In this line, he compares experience to a lamp or lantern, something that would light one's way ahead, because he wishes to express the idea that the past (or experience) is the only guide one can have when trying to guess at one's future. We have no other basis on which to assume elements of the future than what has already happened in our past experience.

When Henry says that the soldiers sent by the British Empire to the colonies "are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging," he's not speaking of literal chains that bind the colonists. Instead, Henry's metaphor expresses the idea that Britain has sent armies to enslave, imprison, and control the colonists. The image of chains, which are typically used on slaves and prisoners, suggests that the colonists are not free men and women.

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What logic is employed by Patrick Henry in his "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

Early in his speech, Henry declares, "I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past." This is an entirely logical point; the future is unknowable, but in situations where a precedent has been established, conclusions can be drawn about the likely direction of events to come. Henry believes the British ministry will behave in predictable ways in the future based on how they have behaved in the past.

Henry also believes it would be naive to think Britain does not intend to use force against the colonies should they begin to rebel. To the people who believe that petitioning Britain is a legitimate strategy, he says,

"Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land."

His point is that the British navy and army are already in place in the colonies and that armed conflict is inevitable. To anyone deluded enough to think Britain might be quartering troops in the colonies and anchoring warships offshore as a show of force to anyone besides the colonies, Henry asks,

"Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies?"

Although it not customary to answer your own rhetorical questions, Henry feels compelled to inform his audience "No, sir, she has none."

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