English 137 H
27 September 2013
Give Me Rhetoric or Give Me Death
Many have heard the antithesis in Patrick Henry’s famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” but not many realize that Henry’s use of antithesis is not solely in the last line of his speech. The charged speech delivered at the Virginia Convention on May 23, 1775, is, in fact, riddled with antithesis, among other rhetorical devices. By presenting two polar opposite scenarios, Henry challenges his audience to think about their situation, and take action against the great evil that is Great Britain.
Patrick Henry’s speech is one that grows in passion as it progresses. In the beginning of his speech, Henry appeals to logos and ethos, to establish himself as a worthy rhetor when he opens up his speech with the words, “No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism.... But different men often see the same subject in different lights.” By saying this, he first clarifies that he is a patriotic man, not unlike his audience in the Virginia Convention, and attempts not to offend his audience with any differing views his speech may present. He goes on to say that he does not mean any disrespect as he speaks his beliefs freely, but instead his speech is his moral responsibility to his country and to God, and therefore he must speak. Henry uses kairos to take advantage of the “awful moment” in the colonies at the time to introduce his first antithesis when he says, “I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” Henry hints (and not subtly) that the rule that Great Britain has over the colonies has become tyrannical, and encourages his audience to listen to his side of the debate because “it is the only way that [they] can hope to arrive at the truth.”
This truth, says Henry, is essential to know, no matter the cost. He goes on to increase the emotional appeals of his speech when he calls his audience not to shut their eyes against this truth, however painful, because false hope will “[transform them] into beasts.” By comparing these lies to the “song of that siren”, Henry creates an allusion to Greek mythology by comparing Great Britain to tempting sea nymphs that draw sailors in with a beautiful song of fantasies only to kill them. This establishes pathos to open the eyes of Henry’s audience to the “truth” that is right in front of them. This leads into another use of antithesis when Henry pleads his audience not to be part of the numbers who “having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not”. This antithesis makes a generalization that people who do not agree with Henry do not use their sensory organs, and while it may not be true, it is still successful in motivating listeners to believe Henry’s claims.
Patrick Henry’s next antithesis is more vague, but arguably more powerful than his previous antitheses. Henry introduces it with an appeal to logos: “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” Henry looks to the betrayals and failed attempts at peace in the past to make assertions about the future of the colonies. Henry tells his audience not to be deceived by Great Britain’s false promises or bullied by Great Britain’s lack of challengers. He even compares Great Britain to Judas Iscariot, the infamous betrayer of Jesus, when he tells his peers to “[s]uffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.” Because the colonies were so revolved around religion, this allusion is extremely successful in making an enemy of Great Britain.
Now that the enemy has been clearly established, Henry introduces a series of rhetorical questions aimed to stimulate his audience such as: “Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years.” The rhetorical questions prompt the audience to connect the issues that Henry is calling to light to their own lives. There is a high chance of these connections because the attendees called the very convention Henry is speaking at to debate solutions to the problems that Henry is calling to light; once made, these connections will give Henry more credibility. Henry then goes on to explain even more terms the colonies have exhausted by saying, “[w]e have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have petitioned.” Through this repetition of every attempt at peace that the colonies tried in the past, Henry conveys the tedious and unsuccessful peaceful measures that the colonies have taken in the past. Logically, the next step must be “the storm which is now coming on.” This drawn-out antithesis of past and future functions as Henry’s transition to his stance on the actions that the colonies must take.
In the climax of the speech, Henry issues a simple but debilitating hook: “There is no longer any room for hope.” Henry calls for his audience to reject the false hope that has blinded them so that they can realize the means to freedom. And these means require that “[they] must fight! I repeat it, sir, [they] must fight!” Henry asks his audience, “But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?” Though Henry does not claim to be a violent man, he realizes that they must rise up together and fight before Great Britain abuses its power to cripple them. With this, he destroys false hope by placing it side by side with the colonies’ harsh reality, creating yet another antithesis. Henry then uses the antithesis of weakness and strength to convince his audience that they can, indeed, fight. He uses pathos by saying, “They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with such a great adversary.” This emotional appeal curdles the blood of patriots and excites the colonies to overcome a typical ‘underdog’ story, but Henry then expounds on this by assuring his audience that God is on their side. Because, after all, when they are “armed in the holy cause of liberty,” nothing can stand in their way from making “a proper use of those mean which the God of nature hath placed in [their] power.” With God on their side, Henry declares to his peers that they will not fight their battles alone, but instead, God will be their greatest adversary. So with this in mind, Henry presents his audience with a choice; a reiteration of the antithesis introduced at the beginning of the speech: freedom or slavery. Henry welcomes the war because “[t]here is no retreat but in submission and slavery!” Because of every point Henry previously made, the war is “inevitable,” and it is pointless to fight against what must be.
In the dramatic culmination of the speech, Henry explains that the peace that many men were hoping for is a false hope. Not only is the war certain, but it has already begun; their “brethren are already in the field!” They cannot idly wait for this conflict with Great Britain to work itself out; if they do, the chains of their slavery will be forged. So in light of all of this, Patrick Henry delivers his concluding and most famous line, “give me liberty or give me death!” Henry makes it clear that he is willing to fight for his freedom and would rather die than miss this opportunity.
Throughout Patrick Henry’s speech, his strategy lies in the presentation to his audience of a series of options: false hope or reality, past or future, weakness or strength, freedom or slavery, and liberty or death. The polar opposites expressed in these antitheses make it clear what the audience should choose. At the end of the speech, fighting is not only the reasonable option, but also the only option. The underlying pathos, logos, ethos, rhetorical questions, and allusions further motivate the audience to take action in the fight against Great Britain. The flawless use of these rhetorical devices aid Henry marvelously in his fight against Great Britain and his fight for freedom.