transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Where is the antithesis in Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention?

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Antithesis in Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention can be found in its most famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” This is an example of antithesis because it contrasts two completely opposite conditions, liberty and death. Given the framing of such a stark choice, it's inevitable that on Henry's terms, all freedom-loving Americans would rather be dead than live without liberty.

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In his powerful, dramatic speech to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry wants to instill a sense of urgency in his listeners. The time for vacillation is over; there is no longer any point in trying to compromise with the British. Instead of relying on the British to protect their liberties, the Americans must be prepared to fight for them—to the death, if necessary.

This stark choice is designed to make Henry's audience realize just what is at stake. There is no longer any middle position that can be adopted; there are only two choices: liberty or death. In this antithesis, Henry is putting forward two radically distinct visions of America's future before his listeners and demanding that they choose between them.

Suffice to say, Henry has already made his choice; he'd rather die fighting for liberty than live in chains. And he wants the members of his audience to do likewise—to take up arms in defense of American liberty against a power that has so frequently and blatantly violated it.

Henry's use of antithesis is particularly skillful, as it simplifies the matter at hand to such an extent that subtlety and nuance are no longer options. If Americans cannot live in liberty, they at least must be prepared to die for it.

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There are two major elements of antithesis in Henry's speech (as reconstructed by Wirt): first, Henry presents an argument directed toward contradicting those of the other men who have spoken at the convention. While most argue optimistically about reconciliation with Britain, Henry argues that such a position is impossible. This sets up the second major element of antithesis: Henry's famous proclamation, "give me liberty or give me death."

Henry completely rejects the possibility of reconciliation with Britain. Thus, there are only two options left: success or failure in war against Britain. Because Henry sees the options as slavery (in submitting to Britain) or freedom (in successfully asserting independence), and because Henry refuses to accept this kind of "slavery," the only options left were liberty and death.

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Antithesis, broadly defined, means juxtaposing opposing ideas. Patrick Henry's speech is based on an either/or premise, which can be summed up in antithetical terms as fight or die. He sees no middle ground between a war for freedom from Great Britain or being ground down under the heel of tyranny. A specific example of antithesis in his speech is as follows:

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

In the question above, the British assembly of "fleets and armies," instruments of war, is antithetical to ideas of "love and reconciliation." Henry is saying that the British are clearly preparing for war, no matter what they may protest to the contrary, and therefore, the colonists need to be prepared as well.

In the same vein, Henry states the question of war against Great Britain in antithetical terms as a choice between "freedom or slavery."

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Antithesis is defined as a particular kind of literary device that organizes sentence structure in such a way that the sentence presents two opposing ideas in a grammatically parallel way. One really famous example is Neil Armstrong's statement as he stepped onto the moon's surface; he said, "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." Perhaps one of the most famous examples of antithesis is Patrick Henry's final line of his speech: "Give me liberty or give me death!" Such a statement implies that there is no middle ground—there are no other alternatives. He is unwilling to accept anything less than liberty, and he will fight to the death to win it. It's really an incredibly powerful rhetorical tool when used in this way. He makes it sound like the colonists really only have a choice between liberty and death, so which will they choose? The obvious, and unspoken, answer is liberty, of course.

Antithesis, defined as the arrangement of two opposing ideas side-by-side in order to contrast them, is pretty close to the definition of another literary device called juxtaposition.

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Antithesis can be defined in the following three ways: as opposing ideas in short phrases, as opposing ideas expressed in parallel structure, and as overall opposing ideas.

I have provided an example for each type of antithesis from Henry's speech.

  • Antithesis as a figure of speech in which two opposing ideas are contrasted is often expressed using parallel structure, as in this speech's famous concluding words: "give me liberty, or give me death!"
  • Antithesis can also be expressed as a contrast of two things, such as when Henry speaks of the colonies' situation as "nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery."
  • Henry delivered his argument on March 23, 1775 to the Virginia House of Burgesses after several other speakers who preceded him spoke of the need for continued diplomatic negotiations between the colonies and Great Britain. His overall argument, then, which advocated going to war, was the antithesis of what others were advocating that day.

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