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 Henry use in his "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

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Henry is a figurative writer who uses several metaphors in his speech. He says, for example, that the colonists are listening to "the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts." The song of the siren is an allusion to Greek mythology and refers to beautiful women who lured sailors to wreck their ships by singing enchanting songs. Henry uses both an allusion and metaphor in this sentence, as he refers to the colonists' willingness to go astray by listening to the British.

Later, he says, "Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not." This is a metaphor in which he likens the colonists to people who will themselves to be deaf and blind, though they have the means to see and hear. In other words, he says the colonists are willing themselves to be ignorant by not paying attention to what the British are doing.

Using metaphors referring to slavery (as the educator above also notes), he says of the British army and navy, "They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging." He likens the restrictions of the British to chains that bind the colonists and limit their freedom. He then asks the following:

"Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?"

In this metaphor, he compares the colonists to people who lie on their backs and hug an elusive vision of hope while the British enslave them. These metaphors are both inventive and powerful.

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In his "Speech to the Virginia Convention," Henry returns repeatedly to the metaphor of chains and slavery to characterize the relationship between the colonies and Britain. He introduces the metaphor when he says, "They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging."

The second reference to enslavement is found in these lines:

"There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!"

Henry's last use of this metaphor is found in his final rhetorical question:

"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"

Many of America's founding fathers in the colonial period owned slaves, including House of Burgesses members and Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Patrick Henry even owned slaves. For these white landowners and powerful men to consider themselves slaves to Britain would have been abhorrent, and there is no small irony in the metaphor that Henry chose to appeal to their masculine pride and dignity.

The speech is filled with many other metaphors, such as the "gale that sweeps from the North," that represents the outbreaks of violence that have already occurred in Boston.

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