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Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Why does Patrick Henry use rhetorical questions in his speech?

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Patrick Henry uses rhetorical questions to stress the desperation of the colonists' circumstances and to persuade his audience that war is the only option they have left.

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Rhetorical questions are made to stress a point or create a dramatic effect rather than raise inquiries to be answered. They are commonly used in speeches and debates in the hope of inspiring further dialogue on a matter. In Patrick Henry's famous speech to the Second Virginia Convention, he uses rhetorical questions to stress the desperate circumstances of the colonies in order to convince his audience that they must go to war with the British if they ever want their lot to improve.

The most famous rhetorical question in the speech concerns the colonists' ability to rule themselves. The British told the colonists they were too weak to rule themselves, and the colonists were reluctant to go to war for fear that they were indeed too weak to stand up to the British in an armed conflict. Henry fires back at this with a series of rhetorical questions:

But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? 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?

Now, Henry did not actually want or expect an answer. Instead, he wanted to stress that for the British and for the timid, there would never come a day when they judged the colonies to be strong enough. And once the British have disarmed and achieved complete surveillance over the population, chances of a successful revolution would plummet. Therefore, the best they can do is take advantage of the time they have and start fighting now.

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Why did Patrick Henry use rhetorical questions in his "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. As such, it's inevitably a very important component of public speaking, especially during periods of great political tumult. Patrick Henry's famous speech to the Virginia Convention certainly falls into this category. Quite a large number of delegates to the Convention still thought it possible to reach some kind of amicable settlement with the British. Henry's speech was a largely successful attempt to disabuse such men of what he regarded as their naivety. 

Rhetorical questions are not posed to glean opinions; rather they're a way of forcing each member of a speech's audience to ask themselves the question being raised:

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

Ask yourself this question, says Henry, if the British really want peace, then why are they sending more ships and troops to America? Henry emphatically answers his original question in the negative, but he's also hoping that some of the waverers in the Convention will arrive at the same conclusion.

"The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! 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?"

Henry's using a clever rhetorical strategy here. He's presenting his audience with a fait accompli. The war has already begun; the only question now is what are we going to do about it. Are we going to just stand around doing nothing, or are we going to fight?  Do we want a nice easy life at the cost of being slaves? Using such black-and-white rhetorical questions to frame the issue presents the assembled delegates with a stark choice and makes it hard for them to oppose Henry's radical position.

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Why did Patrick Henry use rhetorical questions in his "Speech to the Virginia Convention"?

In the relatively brief 1775 "Speech to the Virginia Convention," Patrick Henry poses over twenty rhetorical questions to his audience.  Generally, a rhetorical question is not asked because the speaker expects an answer; instead, the question is asked to try to engage the listener and emphasize a particular point. 

What Henry was hoping to accomplish in the speech was to persuade the members of the House of Burgesses and the Virginia colony as a whole to declare war against Britain. Others who spoke that day were advocating continued negotiation with Britain, but Henry believed negotiation had been tried for too long and was yielding no change in how the colonies were treated.

Throughout the speech, Henry repeats the point that the situation the Virginia colony is in is enslavement to a foreign master. He uses many metaphors and images of chains, and in his final rhetorical question asks the assembly: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" He is appealing to the dignity and masculinity of the men of the assembly in hope that they will consider Britain's treatment a personal affront.

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