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"Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" Rhetorical Analysis

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Patrick Henry's Revolutionary Speech
  2. Establishing Trust and Confidence
  3. Empowering the Audience
  4. Instilling Fear and Urgency
  5. Stirring Up Anger for Persuasion
  6. Conclusion: The Lasting Impact of Henry's Speech

Introduction to Patrick Henry's Revolutionary Speech

During the late 18th century, a large-scale revolution swept across North America, eventually forming the United States. One of the most prominent advocates of this revolution was a man named Patrick Henry, who gave a defining speech at the Second Virginia Convention, pushing many to revolt against the British Crown. This convention was attended by many important figures including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Furthermore, this convention was attended by members that did not necessarily side with Henry’s ideology. Considering those circumstances, it was crucial that Henry used various oratory tactics to win them over. The strategic use of language, tone and imagery in Henry’s speech not only postures Henry as a confident, it also empowers his audience with confidence, sparks anger, promotes urgency, and provokes anger, which all in all further urge his audience in favor of the revolt.

Establishing Trust and Confidence

Throughout his speech, Henry postures himself as a trustworthy, respectful, and confident speaker. A significant example of this is when Henry states “Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason and an act of disloyalty towards the Majesty of Heaven”. This implies that although he fears offending his audience by giving his controversial opinions, but it is God’s intention that he does so. By saying this, he borrows credibility from a higher power, making him appear more trustworthy to his audience. Along with using borrowed credibility, Henry also displays an assertive tone when he exclaims “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”, while he also uses an either-or fallacy to mislead his audience into agreeing with him. Apart from re-emphasizing that he is acting on behalf of God when he exclaims “Forbid it, Almighty God!”, his use of the assertive phrase “Give me liberty or give me death!” echoes his self-assured tone by displaying the two absolutes, presenting himself as a confident figure among his hesitative audience. Besides borrowed credibility and an assertive tone, Henry also lowers himself to his audience to show subservience in parts of his speech. Through the statement “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience”, Henry shows humbleness as he claims “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided”, but also steadfastness by the response to the previous claim “and that is the lamp of experience”. Using borrowed credibility from a higher power, an assertive tone, and a clear display of subservience, Henry emits confidence and postures himself as a trustworthy speaker. This combination of ideas allows him to be more agreeable and credible, which confirms his credibility in the eyes of his audience.

Empowering the Audience

Not only does Henry establish himself as confident speaker, he empowers his audience to be more confident as well. One tactic Henry uses in order to gain this emotional appeal is through his use of premising, and an instance of this is as he says “Is this part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? 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?”. Henry uses rhetorical questions at the end to lead his audience into agreeing with him. By premising that the audience must be either blind or deaf to not agree with him, he logically concludes that his audience must take his side. “Sir we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us”. By incorporating Christian references and ensuring the power of the American people, Henry uses confidence to persuade his audience to revolt. Henry claims how the American people are invincible since they are “armed in the holy cause of liberty”, which promotes strength in confidence in his audience. Henry goes on to say that the American people aren’t weak if they make a proper use of this current opportunity and take a leap of faith to rebel against the British. Additionally, the use of definitive and assertive words such as “are” instead of shallow and suggestive words such as “perhaps” and “might” further displays his confidence and provokes confidence from the audience. Furthermore, Henry continues this use of assertive language in the following instance “If we wish to be free – if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending– if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!”. By employing a tone abundant in strong words and exclamations such as “abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained” and “we must fight!”, Henry not only explains why they must fight this war, but also uses this strong and bold language to provide confidence for his audience, as people are more likely to agree with a confident and assertive speaker rather than a passive and hesitant speaker. Besides using a self-confident tone to empower the audience, Henry also premises that if the audience “wishes to be free”, they “must fight”, which logically concludes that the audience must agree with Henry, further bolstering his overarching purpose of gaining his audience’s approval.

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Instilling Fear and Urgency

After proving his confidence and instilling trust in his audience, Henry continues to push toward his purpose by generating fear in the minds of his audience. He begins by stating how “They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging”, whilst recalling that the British troops in American territory. The mention of chains prompts the audience to subconsciously think of slavery and oppression. Henry uses the words “bind” and “rivet” to enhance this imagery, thus creating a horrifying vision of an enslaved America in the minds of the audience, instigating the presence of fear. A second example is when Henry asks a series of rhetorical questions, “But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”. Henry provokes a sense of fear among his audience through these questions. Henry then proceeds to instill fear among his audience by using connotatively loaded words such as “chains”, “clash”, and “clanking” to describe the repercussions of submission, which subconsciously reminds the audience of the inevitable imprisonment and slavery. By using connotatively charged wording, Henry successfully leads the audience into associating submission with slavery, building up fear. All these examples logically guide the audience into fearing submission to the British.

Alongside with generating fear, Henry also promotes a sense of urgency. An example of this is when Henry conveys urgency by stating that the war has already begun and that it is too late to back out. Henry knows that some of his audience still hold on the idea that America could make peace with Britain, so he shatters this mindless illusion by exclaiming “It is now too late to retire from this contest”. This suggests that the time for negotiations has passed and that the time to revolt is now or never, encouraging the audience to act urgently. Another instance of urgency is when Henry asks “But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”. He speaks about the possibility of a future in which there is strict surveillance. After all, it would be significantly more difficult to form a rebellion if they were held under strict surveillance. This implies that if they were to revolt at all, they must do it now, putting a sense of culpability and urgency onto the minds of the audience. These excellent tactics of encouraging urgency ultimately drive many members of Henry’s audience to agree with his views.

Stirring Up Anger for Persuasion

Henry demonstrates a final strategy in his attempts to win over his audience when he actively and passively stirs up anger amongst his audience. An example of this in when Henry juxtaposes his previous statement “We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne” with the statement “Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne!”. Henry clearly lists reasons of how the British government has been ignoring and neglecting them, which provokes rage and a sense of unjust from his audience. Another instance of his attempts to enrage his audience is when Henry says, “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land”, as this allusion to the Judas figure in the Bible who betrays the Christ figure with a kiss not only paints a figurative image of betrayal in the audiences’ mind, it also helps incense the flame of anger from the audience through the description of the betrayal the British is committing while appealing to a higher authority, and this helps stir up anger by pointing finger at the British and allowing the audience to side with Henry. A final example of the provocation of anger is when he alludes to the epic ‘The Odyssey’ in the statement “We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that sire till she transforms us into beasts”. Besides displaying an image of an educated speaker, this allusion mainly achieves the purpose to excite anger in the audience as the “siren” is an allusion to the sea creatures in ‘The Odyssey’ that would lure sailors them to death, and in Henry’s speech, he portrays the British as the “siren”, thereby sparking rage in his audience, allowing them to be easily persuaded. These exemplary attempts evoked hostility amongst towards the British from his audience, which ultimately assisted in helping Henry achieving his goal of winning his fence-sitting audience over.

Conclusion: The Lasting Impact of Henry's Speech

Overall, Henry effectively establishes himself as a confident and trustworthy speaker and successfully convinces his audience to agree with his views through his advocation of fear, anger, confidence and urgency amongst his audience. His oratory strategies were incredibly effective despite his young age compared to his audience, and history proves that his speech was an absolute success. Although his credibility was somewhat weakened by his relatively young age compared to his audience, Henry’s repeated allusion to Christianity, which was a uniting factor among the audience, along with a well-built, self-confident tone, made it incredibly effective and empowering. Perhaps more importantly, was Henry’s use of emotional appeal, as he adeptly manipulated his audience to fear the British and promoted urgent action. Henry, through examples of British neglect and apathy, immersed his audience in a wave of anger and rage towards the British Crown while urging his audience to act quickly. These various tactics of persuasion ultimately synergized and effectively convinced his audience to start a revolution against the British, as proven by the surge of battles mere months after Henry’s speech.

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