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Historical Context in Speech to the Second Virginia Convention

The Virginia Convention: After British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, dismantled the House of Burgesses—the first legislative body of representatives in the American colonies—the Burgesses reconvened with the First Virginia Convention. During this first convention, which took place at the Raleigh Tavern in August of 1774, the Burgesses elected Peyton Randolph as the Speaker of the House and made several sweeping changes, including ending trade with Britain. Later, on March 20, 1775, the Second Convention met at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, in order to evade Lord Dunmore and the British army. At St. John’s, Patrick Henry swayed delegates to form a militia with his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. In addition, delegates elected a committee to prepare the thirteen colonies for war with Britain.

Lead-Up to the Revolutionary War: In an effort to repay the debt accrued during the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, British Parliament passed a series of laws that taxed American colonists. American colonists believed that these laws—including the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed basic goods—infringed upon their basic rights. During the Boston Tea Party of 1773, colonists protested Parliament’s tea tax by throwing 46 tons of tea into the Boston harbor. American colonists did not believe it was their duty to repay a war fought by the British, nor did they believe that British Parliament should tax them unduly.

Text of Henry’s Speech: Henry rarely wrote down his speeches, preferring to improvise, which has frustrated historical scholars. His “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” although not transcribed at the convention, was later reconstructed by biographer William Wirt, who began collecting information and witness testimony from various founders nine years after Henry’s death. Because of this, there is debate on how much of the speech should be credited to Henry and how much should be attributed to Wirt’s sources and his own rhetorical skill.

Historical Context Examples in Speech to the Second Virginia Convention:

Text of Henry's Speech

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"There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us...."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Here, Henry states that God will preside over the colonies by providing allies to help secure a victory over the British. Henry was correct about the raising up of “friends to fight our battles for us.” During the American Revolution, France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic would become American allies and provide necessary financial aid.

"when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Henry’s grievances against the British for quartering soldiers in American houses laid the groundwork for two major pieces of legislation in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Third Amendment to the US Constitution (1791). In the Declaration of Independence, the founders lay out a list of injustices forced upon the American people, including “Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” About fifteen years later, the Third Amendment would prohibit the quartering of troops without consent.

"gracious reception of our petition..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

In a passage that exudes irony, Henry mocks the British Parliament’s lackluster response to the American colonists’ “Petition to the King.” He describes it sarcastically as a “gracious reception.” The British Parliament’s neglectful response enraged Henry and the other founders. Only a few months later, the Second Continental Congress reacted to the King’s response with the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” written by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson.

"ten years..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Henry refers to the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on American colonists. Passed on March 22, 1765, this tax required American colonies to pay a tax on printed paper, including newspapers and legal documents. The purpose of the tax was to subsidize the costs of the British army in the colonies.

"to God..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Patrick Henry was an unapologetic and faithful Christian. Unlike several of the Founding Fathers—including Thomas Jefferson, who believed in the separation between church and state—Henry was adamant in his belief that church and state ought to be intertwined. In 1784, for example, he supported a “general assessment” bill whereby taxpayers paid a tax to a designated church. The bill did not receive much traction among his peers and was not passed. While the founders may have disagreed on the separation between church and state, they nevertheless supported the armed resistance against the British and many of them believed God would aid the American people. Henry’s steadfast Christian values are revealed throughout the speech in his use of biblical allusions and his direct calls to God for courage and strength.

"The question ..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

By 1775, war was nearly underway. Tensions mounted as Americans revolted against the “Intolerable Acts” and the British blockade in Boston harbor. The “question” Henry contemplates before the Second Virginia Convention is whether or not to enter into armed conflict with the British. His stance is made immediately clear: he suggests creating militias throughout Virginia. Henry attempts to persuade his fellow delegates to side with his revolutionary ideals.

"Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received?..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Henry is referencing the “Petition to the King,” a document approved by the First Continental Congress in October 1774. It reached British Parliament in January 1775 and was given little attention. In fact, King George never formally responded to the petition. Henry draws on the irritation colonial leaders felt towards this blatant disregard for their petition in this speech, which was given nearly two months after the petition reached Britain. The petition addressed the “Intolerable Acts,” which were passed after the Boston Tea Party as a way to penalize Massachusetts for the act of rebellion. The language of the petition offered colonial loyalty to the crown under the condition that Britain agreed to repeal the offending policies.

"Mr. President..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Henry is addressing the president of the Second Virginia Convention, Peyton Randolph. Randolph was an influential politician in Virginia from a prominent family with deep roots in the politics of the colony. He served as the speaker of the House of Burgesses until it was dissolved by the British. Due to his position as speaker of the House, he was elected president of the first three Virginia Conventions, which continued the activities of the House of Burgesses. Randolph was also the president of the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia, though illness kept him from fully performing his duties in both cases. He was known as a political moderate and he clashed with the more liberal Henry during their tenures as representatives of the House Of Burgesses. He was also the first to bear the title of “Father of the Country.”

"the magnitude of the subject..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

The Second Virginia Convention convened partly to address the failure of British Parliament to respond to colonial complaints about the “Intolerable Acts.” The Intolerable Acts were a set of laws passed by the British Parliament in 1774 as a reaction to the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Port Act closed Boston Harbor until the colonists repaid the king for the destroyed tea. The Massachusetts Government Act dissolved the Massachusetts Charter and brought the colony fully under British control. The Administration of Justice Act gave British officials the right to be tried on British soil, meaning that any colonists accusing British officials would have to travel to Britain for the trial as well. The Quartering Act, which went on to inspire the Third Amendment to the Constitution, gave the Royal Governors of the colonies the right to house British troops in the homes of colonists and in unoccupied buildings. The Intolerable Acts galvanized the American revolutionaries, who felt that the acts were unreasonable and oppressive. The refusal of the British government to address colonial grievances had a direct hand in the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

"I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony...."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Patrick Henry (1736–1799) had a reputation as a passionate and skilled orator who could translate lofty political discussions into common language. Henry’s speeches were famous for their impromptu nature and animated delivery. His candid speaking style and tendency to shape his rhetoric for the common man helped spread revolutionary ideals to the masses. By promising to speak “freely” and “without reserve,” Henry appeals to ethos by establishing himself as an honest, straightforward voice. He also establishes a sense of urgency by rejecting ceremoniousness in favor of plain, direct speaking.

"the House..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

“The House” refers to the House of Burgesses (1619–1776), Virginia’s legislative body and the first group of elected representatives in the colonies. The Virginia Conventions were devised after the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1774 to rebuke the representatives for their support of Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party. However, rather than accepting their disbandment, the delegates decided to continue meeting without British oversight; it is this group that Henry addresses as “The House.” The House of Burgesses continued meeting in this capacity until 1776, when it transitioned into the House of Delegates.

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