transparent portrait of Patrick Henry superimposed on an American flag

Speech to the Virginia Convention

by Patrick Henry

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Speech to the Virginia Convention Themes

The main themes in “Speech to the Virginia Convention” are freedom and slavery, God and divine right, and courage and endurance.

  • Freedom and slavery: Patrick Henry stresses the American colonies’ choice between remaining subservient to Britain or seizing independence.
  • God and divine right: Henry invokes the will of God, claiming that the cause of American independence is divinely ordained.
  • Courage and endurance: Henry instills in his audience courage for the inevitable and looming conflict with Britain.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Freedom and Slavery

One of the overriding themes in Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention is the struggle for freedom in a colonial context. In particular, Henry views the American colonies’ adherence to British law as a state of subservience. Henry is an artful rhetorician, and he returns again and again to the idea of “liberty,” which he sees as something to be achieved through struggle. The question, he says, is a simple one of “freedom or slavery,” and if the assembled group continue to listen to the “siren” call of hope, they will be the equivalent of “beasts.”

Words such as chains and snare underscore the idea that the American nation as it stands is an enslaved nation, suffering under the “subjugation” that is the absolute last resort of kings. Elaborate and sustained imagery depicts the British motherland as a forger of chains and irons that will now continue to “bind” and “rivet” the burgeoning American nation in place for as long as it allows. Henry returns to this image again toward the end of his speech, emphasizing the idea that the American nation is allowing itself to be bound in chains for the sake of “peace.” According to Henry, this is not an indignity the American people should so “supinely” endure, as it is the equivalent of allowing themselves to be enslaved.

God and Divine Right

It must be remembered that at the time at which this speech was given, the divine right of kings to rule was an idea that had not yet been discredited. Many of those whom Henry addressed believed that it would be unpatriotic to rebel against the king. In part, this would have been because they believed the king was appointed to his position by God. A king is God's representative on earth. This idea was diluted after the English Civil War, which saw Charles I beheaded and removed from power, but it was not eradicated. As such, in order to convince his audience that the cause of fighting Britain is just, Henry must refer repeatedly to God—and to the idea that a “just God” would support the destiny of the young American nation. He must convince his listeners that a rebellion against Britain is not a rebellion against God.

Henry repeats the idea that the fight for liberty is a “holy cause” and that to champion this right is to use the skills and tools God has put at the disposal of those living in the colonies. God, Henry suggests, will support this battle. He also makes Biblical allusions, including to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas with a kiss. He is keen to cast the British government as being on the side of Judas, whereas the Americans seeking liberty are on the side of God.

Henry allies himself and the agitators with those who are able to open their eyes and ears and reach true salvation, rather than those who are simply concerned with temporary relief and assurance. He underlines the fact that, far from representing an act of treason, his own determination to free himself from British rule is actually an attempt to revere “the Majesty of Heaven,” who is, and should be, more important to the gathered assembly than any king on earth could ever be. Henry is essentially establishing a dichotomy between the King of England and the King of Heaven. He expects his listeners to ally themselves with the latter rather than the former.

Courage and Endurance

Patrick Henry is speaking to an assembly of dissenting colonists who have already tried for many years to make their voice heard, and he acknowledges this fact repeatedly. He underscores the numerous petitions and struggles through which the American people have already pushed, and he stresses that these petitions have been received with “fleets and armies.” As Henry states, arguments have been ongoing for over ten years, and to expect these arguments to eventually come to a conclusion that is favorable to the American people would be self-deception.

Henry uses rhetorical devices such as accumulation to underscore the extent to which the American people have endured and persisted in their demands for justice. He says that they have “petitioned,” “remonstrated,” “supplicated,” and “prostrated,” words that remind the gathered audience that proper legal routes have been followed and that the American people have offered all due respect to the king, but with little success. He therefore calls upon those listening to “fight” instead, as this is the only recourse left to them.

He uses martial language to indicate that this struggle is now a battle—one that has already been escalated into a war by the British king. He warns of a future in which there will be a British guard stationed in every American house. More directly still, he argues that there can only be liberty or death: there is no third option. As such, he is calling upon the courage and strength of the gathered assembly to join him in fighting this pitched battle against a government that has ignored for years the petitions of its so-called citizens.

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