Speech to the Virginia Convention Themes
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 colony's 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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Themes

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" which is the absolute last resort of kings. Elaborate and sustained imagery depicts the British motherland as a forger of chains and irons which 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 towards 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 which 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...

(The entire section is 852 words.)