The Effects of Patrick Henry's Speech on the Unity of the Entire Nation

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Would America be the same country if it was not for some of our founding fathers and their contributions? If you take Patrick Henry out of the equation, the answer could very well be, ‘Yes’. Patrick Henry played a very prominent role in the success of America’s independence. Along with Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry helped create the Virginia House of Burgesses to resolve the tumultuous state of the colonies. In the early spring of 1775, Patrick Henry met with members of the second Virginia Convention to discuss the need for a military mobilization against the British. Henry spoke to fellow citizens of Virginia in Richmond at what is now St. John’s Church. He spoke with intimacy, fervor, passion, and showed an undeniable support to fight against the English government. His use of ethos, pathos, and logos effectively persuaded opponents and supporters of the Revolution to unite and fight British tyranny for American independence.

Henry begins his speech with messages of urgency that colonists are on the brink of turmoil with the British. He consistently denounces the King and his right to overlook the colonies. Henry believed that the colonies were too far away from Britain to be effectively managed and therefore, did not need foreign council. He points out that colonists have attempted peaceful argument for independence in vain for ten years allowing British to treat them with great injustice. Henry’s ultimate solution is to fight, and to start the fight fast. He states that war will be noble and that God is inherently on the colonist’s side. His last powerful words were reciprocated with the same urgency and fervor, as the Revolutionary war started just one month after at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

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Patrick Henry opens his speech to provide reason why colonists of differing opinions should come together as one. He states, “No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights (Henry).” Here, Henry instantly acknowledges the obvious differences in opinions that his fellow citizens may carry. He realizes that he must empathize and understand the needs and concerns for the people that disagree with him in order for him to make a connection. After establishing a connection with the colonists, Henry wastes no time to arrive at the point of his speech by saying, “The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country, and I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery (Henry).” Henry creates an ultimatum in which the colonists must make. By using the antonymic words, ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’, Henry creates a sense of fear to scare his audience and also provides a sense of hope for them to cling to. He also appeals to religion because of its sensitivity and relevance to the issue. Henry says, “Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason toward my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings (Henry).” Here, Henry clearly denounces the King of England by saying that the ‘Majesty of Heaven’ is always above him. By doing so, Henry effectively makes it seem that God is on the colonist’s side and that not fighting the British would be an act of treason and would offend God. Henry utilizes both rhetoric devices of ethos and pathos to stir emotions with the colonists by incorporating God in their conflict. The second paragraph of Patrick Henry’s speech acts as a refutation to his opponents that believe that armed conflict with Britain is not necessary. He states, “It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts (Henry).” Patrick Henry uses emotional strategies by saying that hope is just an illusion and that it will inevitably result in imprisonment. He also compares their future imprisonment to being locked up like beasts as a rhetoric device to instill fear.

While all of Patrick Henry’s famous speech utilizes the power of emotion to convince his audience the need for a revolution, he also uses reason and logic to persuade. He says, “I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves (Henry).” This line poses to underline why colonists that support the king are destined to be doomed and ruled by the British. Henry accomplishes this by using the appeals of logos to reveal the fallacies in their thinking. He continues to use reason and logic, fueled with emotion to show his fellow colonists why war with Britain is imminent. He then states, “Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation.” (Henry)

Here, Henry resorts to the appeals of logos to show colonists how Britain’s intentions are not noble and do not support the colonist’s wish for freedom. He asks the colonists why it is necessary for the King to have fleets and armies on their land if war was not what they sought. He uses detailed and emotional words such as, “darken our land” and “cover our waters” to add to his recurring themes of slavery and imprisonment. After explaining the apparent intentions of the British, Henry continues his speech using emotion and rational debate to appeal to his different audience members. Henry uses the fifth paragraph of his speech to once again refute the arguments of his opposition by saying, “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? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which God of nature hath placed in our power (Henry).” Henry directs rhetorical questions towards people that he disagrees with and then firmly answers those questions with strong statements of declaration. Henry closes his speech with his most famous and stirring words, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death (Henry)!” Henry brilliantly summarizes the points of his entire speech reintroducing the motifs of slavery and imprisonment and God’s favor for the colonists. These last words create an appeal to pathos as his intensity and dedication have the ability to place fear in his subjects. His final words, “give me liberty or give me death” show that he is willing to fight for liberty to the death and that until achieved, there is no compromise. Henry also uses these words to help support his themes of slavery and by comparing British tyranny to death.

While many historians still debate over the legitimacy of Patrick Henry’s speech, the effects that it caused were nothing less than revolutionary. His ability to craft his messages with supreme organization and rhetoric placed him at the forefront of America’s orators. Henry’s speech was not only delivered to his audience in Richmond, Virginia, but was spread throughout the entire nation, creating the first sense of nationalism for America. He effectively used the appeals of pathos and ethos to evoke fear but in a rational manner in attempts to stabilize his fellow citizens. It’s safe to say that Henry’s speech that day in Richmond had a large impact on its contemporary society, and without it, America could be a very different place.

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