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Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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What rhetorical devices does Patrick Henry use in his speech?

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In his famous "Speech to the Virginia Convention," Patrick Henry uses the rhetorical devices of ethos, pathos, and logos throughout the speech, as well as rhetorical questions, allusion, metonymy, juxtaposition, oxymoron, metaphor, and parallelism.

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Patrick Henry's famous "Speech to the Virginia Convention" was delivered to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. Among those present at the convention were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Henry's speech was instrumental in persuading the delegates at the convention to pass a resolution authorizing Virginia to raise a militia to fight in the Revolutionary War.

The speech was not recorded verbatim by anyone at the time it was given, and there is no known record of the speech in Henry's own hand. However, the extant version is replete with rhetorical devices.

The use of rhetorical devices in the speech begins in the first paragraph with concessions and flattery—an appeal to pathos, or emotion—made to those delegates at the Convention. Henry refers to the delegates as "very worthy gentlemen" as he prepares to convince them to wage war with Britain.

Henry also speaks about different men viewing the same subject "in different lights," using "lights" to symbolically represent truth, spirituality, and righteousness in the eyes of God. This appeal to higher authority is an example of ethos.

Henry's use of pathos is notable in an emotional either/or fallacy ("I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery"), in his juxtaposition of "freedom" and "slavery," and in his comparison of "the magnitude of the subject" with "the freedom of debate."

Henry's use of the words "freedom" and "slavery" seems ironic almost 250 years later. Even though Henry was opposed to slavery, at least in principle, he nevertheless owned up to 67 slaves during his lifetime and gave freedom to none of them.

Further use of ethos is apparent in Henry's direct references to "truth," "great responsibility," and to "God and our country." Henry closes the first paragraph by using metonymy—"the majesty of heaven," as a substitute reference to God—and by juxtaposing the higher authority of God, which Henry invokes, with the authority of "earthly kings," specifically the king of Britain.

Henry's appeals to pathos and ethos continue throughout the speech, supported by his use of rhetorical questions, oxymoron ("insidious smile"), biblical allusions ("one lamp" and "suffer not"), an allusion to the Odyssey ("listen to the song of the siren"), and the biblical allusion/metaphor of Judas betraying Jesus ("suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.").

Interestingly, Henry's speech contains remarkably few appeals to logos, which hinge on logic, reason, common sense, and clear, specific evidence. Appeals to logos occur in the second paragraph ("I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it") and in the third paragraph ("I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past").

Even what appears to be an appeal to logos in the first sentence of paragraph nine ("if we make a proper use of those means") is arguably more of an appeal to pathos ("we are not weak") and to ethos (“those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power").

In Henry's final appeals to ethos (in calling on fate to determine his destiny) and pathos (in his use of the parallel structure) are apparent in the stirring final line: "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

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What are some literary devices found in Patrick Henry's Virginia Convention speech?

In his speech to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry's aim is to win over his audience to his point of view, and accordingly he uses many rhetorical devices commonly used to increase an orator's powers of persuasion.

At the beginning of the speech, he uses anaphora to suggest to his audience that he is a reasonable man and aware of the broad picture—"different men often see the same subject in different lights." Anaphora is a form of parallelism in which the same words are repeated at the beginning of successive phrases. Other examples of this in this speech include "We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated . . . " and the subsequent sentence "Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances . . . " The most famous example of this type of parallelism comes in the closing line, "give me liberty or give me death!" which is also, arguably, an example of apostrophe, or appeal to "Almighty God."

Another form of parallelism, epistrophe, can be seen in such phrases as "The War is inevitable and let it come! I repeat, sir, let it come." In epistrophe, the same words are repeated at the ends of successive phrases in order to emphasize that part of the phrase.

Henry also makes great use of rhetorical questions in this speech. In several places, he strings one rhetorical question after the other ("Are fleets and armies . . . ? Have we shown ourselves . . . ?" "Is it that insidious smile . . . ?" etc). A rhetorical question in itself is a device intended to foster a sense of agreement and accord between speaker and listener; in asking one after another, the questions have a cumulative effect; it becomes increasingly obvious to the listener that there are numerous questions to which the answers must be obvious. This could also be considered an example of enumeratio (making a point by overwhelming the listener with detail).

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What are some literary devices found in Patrick Henry's Virginia Convention speech?

Henry uses several metaphors in his Virginia Convention speech. For example, he refers to "the song of the siren" who will transform people into beasts. This is a metaphor in which the colonists who listen to the British king and his attempts to quell rebellion are similar to the members of Odysseus's crew who listened to the siren and were lured away from their homes and from what they knew was true. This is also an allusion, or a reference to Greek literature. He then compares the colonists to people who, though they have eyes, "see not," and though they have ears "hear not." In this metaphor, which uses repetition (of the word "not"), the colonists are compared to people who are willingly blind and deaf, ignoring the reality of their situation with regard to the British throne. He also compares the king's reception of the colonial petition to "a snare to your feet," which is another metaphor that compares the reception of the petition to a trap. He later says that if the colonists retreat from their cause, they will be in chains, which will be heard clanking on the "plains of Boston." This is another metaphor in which the colonists' submission to the British king is compared to being chained. The last line of the speech, "give me liberty or give me death" is an example of parallelism, or the use of the same grammatical structure in different parts of a sentence. 

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What are some literary devices found in Patrick Henry's Virginia Convention speech?

There are, of course, many literary devices used in this famous speech.  Here are a few of these devices:

  • Allusions.  This is when a writer or speaker refers to some character or passage from a source that all listeners would know.  Henry, for example, alludes to an incident in the Odyssey when he says

We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts.

Henry also alludes to the Bible in lines such as

Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?

  • Henry uses rhetorical questions.  These are devices where a speaker asks a question that is not meant to be answered -- the speaker is just trying to use the "question" to make the listeners think.  An example of this is

 Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?

  • Perhaps the most famous line in the speech may be an example of hyperbole -- where a speaker exaggerates in order to make a point.

 Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

(This is also an example of apostrophe since Henry is addressing someone not physically present at the time.)

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What are some examples of figurative language in Patrick Henry's "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention” is full of highly effective rhetorical devices, including the following:

  • Alternation of long sentences and short sentences, so that the short sentences receive greater emphasis. A good example of this technique involves the first three sentences of the address. The initial sentence is long; the second sentence is even longer, but the third sentence is emphatically abrupt: “This is no time for ceremony.”
  • Frequent use of metaphors, or implied comparisons. Thus, thinking is compared to seeing (“We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth”); experience is compared to a lamp (“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience”); and so on.
  • Personification, as when he compares false hopes to the song of a siren.
  • Allusions, as when he echoes the Bible (Mark 8:18) when he speaks

of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not . . . .

  • Numerous rhetorical questions, as when he asks,

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?

  • Emphatic repetition, as when he says of British war preparations that “They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other.”
  • Use of single-word sentences for emphasis, as when he asks,

Have we anything new to offer on the subject? Nothing.

  • Use of anaphora, or repetition of the same words at the beginnings of sentence, clauses or phrases, as when he declares:

We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne . . .

or when he asserts that

Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded . . .

  • Listing or cataloging, as when he refers to “the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

These are just a few of the methods that Henry uses with such skill.

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List at least three rhetorical devices that Patrick Henry used in his “Speech in the Virginia Convention.”

Patrick Henry makes use of several allusions—indirect references to an event, text, person, etc.—in order to borrow the weight and emotional tenor of the original. He asks the president,

"[...] I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss."

Henry refers to the disciple, Judas, who, in the Bible, betrayed Jesus Christ for thirty pieces of silver. He identified Jesus for his persecutors by kissing Jesus on the cheek; thus, we say "betrayed with a kiss" to describe a great and terrible act of betrayal. In using this allusion, Henry raises to a Biblical level that betrayal perpetrated by the English government of the colonists.

Henry also uses logos, appeals to the audience's logic, in order to convince them of his position. He says,

"For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth—to know the worst and to provide for it. I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past."

This is quite a logical position, that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, if the British monarchy has been deceptive in the past, one's experience with it ought to prepare one for a similar deceptiveness in the future.

Henry also uses rhetorical questions, questions for which no answer is expected because it should be clear within the minds of hearers, to great effect. These questions are phrased in such a way that the audience will be inclined to answer in the way Henry would wish. For example, he asks,

"Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. 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. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer on the subject? Nothing."

This is quite effective because Henry knows that his audience will have to answer these questions for themselves in a particular way, and so they even begin to convince themselves of the truthfulness of his arguments as they listen.

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