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Rhetorical Devices in Speech to the Second Virginia Convention

Appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos: Patrick Henry layers impassioned exclamations, scathing denunciations, and masterful rhetoric into a short six-minute speech. As a practiced lawyer and orator, Henry understood the power of rhetoric to appeal to others and employed all three rhetorical appeals in his speech. Initially, he appeals to ethos by establishing his credibility and asserting his devotion to the well-being of the country. Next, he appeals to pathos through evocative and emotional imagery. Finally, he appeals to logos with fact-driven reasoning. In addition to the Aristotelian appeals, Henry also employes “hypophora,” a rhetorical method whereby the speaker asks a question and answers it immediately. By posing a series of questions in quick succession and immediately providing responses, he stokes revolutionary sentiment.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in Speech to the Second Virginia Convention:

Text of Henry's Speech

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"Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

The rhetorical technique Henry uses here is hypophora, commonly called a rhetorical question, in which a speaker poses a sequence of questions followed by an immediate response. One effect of this technique is to stir an audience to action. Since Henry speaks with such passion, these rhetorical questions drive him to greater and greater heights of agitation before he finally erupts with his infamous exclamation. The force of such emotion is contagious and serves as a pathos appeal to his audience.

"Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded;..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

With the use of parallel structure, Henry reiterates each of his points and highlights how the British have wronged the Americans. This list also employs asyndeton and anaphora in the repetition of “our” at the beginning of each phrase. The vitriolic barrage of insults serves to further compound his point and rile up his audience in his favor.

"We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Here, Henry appeals to his audience’s emotions by laying out all the ways that Americans have tried to ameliorate their relationship with the British: they have petitioned, remonstrated, supplicated, and prostrated. Using asyndeton and anaphora, whereby Henry speaks without conjunctions between the clauses and with the repetition of the phrase “we have,” he expounds his points with storm-like rage. This repetitive technique creates an emphatic, rhythmic quality that powerfully condemns the British.

"Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? ..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible make reference to eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear to describe God’s followers who do not attend to his teachings. Henry alludes to these passages (Isaiah 6:10, Jeremiah 5:21, Ezekiel 12:2, Matthew 13:15, Acts 28:27, and Romans 11:8) to compare his audience to such ignorant disciples. With this rhetorical question, Henry encourages his audience to remain vigilant.

"Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Throughout the speech, Henry equates the loss of liberty with slavery. By doing so, he sets up a choice between peaceful subjugation and violent revolution, with no middle ground. If the colonists are willing to live in chains, then they can avoid a war. However, in one of the most famous lines of rhetoric in American history, Henry provides his answer to that choice: a life without freedom is not worth living. He shifts “the question before the house” away from whether or not to engage in armed conflict with Britain and instead posits a much simpler choice: liberty or slavery, life or death. By establishing “liberty” and “death” as the only outcomes, Henry asserts that the colonies must fight since a life without liberty is not an option.

"we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

This is Henry’s call to action to the assembly and his answer to the “question before the house.” Up until this point, Henry has been outlining the injustices that the British have inflicted upon the colonists. He has painted the colonists as long-suffering peace-seekers who have been repeatedly disrespected and rebuffed. In his call to arms, he employs the first-person plural pronoun “we” to indicate unity and the word “must” to indicate that fighting is no longer an option but rather a necessity. Henry has explained all of the ways that American liberty has been infringed upon. Now he appeals directly to the sense of patriotism of his listeners by stating that they must take up arms and defend their rights.

"Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?..."   (Text of Henry's Speech)

Henry uses a rhetorical question to highlight the aggression of the British government and the improbability of a peaceful end to the mounting tensions. The colonies had, up until this point, emphasized peaceful reconciliation and desired to remain a part of the British empire if the Intolerable Acts were addressed satisfactorily. The response by the British was to either outright ignore their appeals or, as seen in the case of the House of Burgesses, remove even more rights. They also increased their naval presence after the Boston Tea Party, leading to increased friction. By sarcastically questioning the peacefulness of Britain’s intentions behind their military escalations, Henry indicates that hostilities are imminent and that the time for peace is over.

"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.

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