A speech made by Patrick Henry during the Second Virginia Convention held at St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775, can be regarded as one of the most influential in the Revolutionary War discourse. Henry was a respected lawyer, known as one of the most outspoken opponents of British taxation plans (George, 2009). His address to the convention delegates also proved that he was a remarkable and persuasive speaker. According to Begley (2018), the closing words of his speech “Give me liberty, or give me death!” became a slogan of the Revolution. The fact that less than a month after the speech was made colonial militia and British troops engaged in the first short firefights demonstrated how impactful and motivational Henry’s words were. The present paper will analyze the speaker’s intentions and arguments in greater detail to evaluate the historical significance of his speech.
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Historical Context and Author’s Motivations
To comprehend Henry’s main motivations, it is pivotal to look at the historical context in which he addressed the convention delegates. Before the American War for Independence (1775-1783), the colonies were legally, politically, and economically dependent on Great Britain. As noted by Matthews (1978), the policies of George III were overly coercive, whereas the taxes he imposed on the colonies were extremely oppressive. The Crown’s politics were viewed by Henry and some of his contemporaries as a threat to the rights and liberties of colonial settlers.
In addition, the British military presence continued to increase in America. Henry said in his address, “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” (Wirt, 1817, p. 121). These words indicate that the situation with the British military presence was one of Henry’s major concerns. He did not believe that colonials and the Crown could maintain peaceful relationships and encouraged his audience to not deceive themselves thinking otherwise.
Henry addressed his speech to approximately one hundred twenty delegates of the Second Virginia Convention who gathered to discuss the ways to negotiate with the Crown. Among the attendees, there were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson along with several other Virginians who signed the Declaration of Independence afterward (Dunaway Jr., 1904). In this way, it is possible to say that his words primarily targeted political actors and leaders and aimed to inspire them for action.
Noteworthily, the convention members were divided into a conciliatory party and a party that believed in the value of more active measures. As stated by Dunaway Jr. (1904), even though both of them agreed that Britain was oppressive towards American colonies, they strongly disagreed about the methods to use to improve their position. It means that, unlike Henry, not all delegates believed that military preparations were the best solution and preferred using pacifist means instead. Henry’s goal was to persuade both parties that military preparations were a necessity.
The key message in Henry’s speech was that the colonies must fight against British oppression. Closing his address, he said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!” (Wirt, 1817, p. 123). This statement implies that no reconciliatory methods and further peace negotiations would help the colonies to protect their rights and liberties.
Henry insisted that without improving their military force, colonials will always remain submissive to the Crown and its tyranny. Moreover, he believed that it was high time to prepare for and engage in war with Britain since the attainment of independence could become even more difficult sometime after. For Henry, it was better to lose his life on the battlefield rather than tolerate British oppression, which could only aggravate if no active, preventive measures were undertaken.
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Effect of Henry’s Argument
Henry’s argument may be considered persuasive and very impactful because not only it was logically constructed but also was very eloquent and delivered with utmost passion. According to Matthews (1978), the orator’s speech was so successful that the Convention immediately adopted his resolutions. As noted by Cohen (1981), Henry’s words were so powerful that Colonel Edward Carrington who was standing by the window of St. John Church, when the speaker delivered his address, exclaimed that he wished to be buried there, on that historical site. Such a positive response emphasizes the importance of Henry’s speech in American history.
Henry’s address itself was relatively short but was undoubtedly rich in strong and witty claims. The famous closing line “give me liberty or give me death!” became a perfect culmination for the orator’s main ideas he wanted to convey to the audience (Wirt, 1817, p. 123). It is valid to say that those ideas were shared by many of Henry’s contemporaries. The final words of Henry’s speech merely reflected an already existing intense desire of colonials to seek independence and, thus, were received extremely well.
The speech delivered by Patrick Henry at the Second Virginia Convention proved him to be an exceptional orator. The significance of the speaker’s address to delegates is undeniable and, it is even possible to say, that it substantially influenced the course of historical events by inspiring leaders to take a more prompt and active approach towards resolving the problem of British oppression and unfair policies. This eloquent speech demonstrated that words indeed have the power not only to change the lives of individuals but also to affect the nations as a whole.
Begley, R. (2018). Patrick Henry’s ‘Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!’ speech. The Objective Standard. Web.
Cohen, C. (1981). The “Liberty or Death” speech: A note on religion and revolutionary rhetoric. The William and Mary Quarterly, 38(4), 702-717.
Dunaway Jr., W. (1904). The Virginia conventions of the revolution. The Virginia Law Register, 10(7), 567-586.
George, M. (2009). Patrick Henry: From strong statements to a strong cause. Web.
Matthews, L. (1978). Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech and Cassius’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 86(3), 299-305.
Wirt, W. (1817). Sketches of the life and character of Patrick Henry. Philadelphia, PA: James Webster.