Study Guide

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Analysis

By Patrick Henry

  • Rhetoric

    Pathos

    While it totally sounds like the name of one of the Three Musketeers, pathos refers to a type of rhetoric that appeals to emotion to provoke a response.

    And, man, does Patrick Henry ever appeal to emotion by pointing again and again to the fact that taking up arms against Great Britain is a big deal, or as he puts it, a question of "awful moment" (4).

    Are you leaning in, listening closely? That's what Henry wants.

    Henry talks about hope, that best and worst of all emotions. He says, "it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope" (8) before concluding,

    In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. (42-43)

    Did you just feel your heart crash into your stomach? We bet Henry's listeners did too.

    But wait. There's still a chance to regain our liberty.

    [W]e must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left to us! (44-46)

    Henry's really winding up now to his main call to action.

    Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? (69-70)

    Feeling a little twinge of guilt? You should be. And that twinge is going to grow into a full-blown guilt attack in a second.

    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! (73-75)

    Yeah, Henry's really setting the example here. And if you don't go along with it, you're going to look like kind of a jerk.

  • Structure

    Speech

    Obviously, we know this is a speech because it was delivered orally by Patrick Henry to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23rd, 1775. (Plus, you know, it appears on so many "Greatest Speeches Ever" lists.)

    But Henry was a classically trained speaker, meaning he had been taught to structure his work according to the rhetorical traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome. His listeners, most of them also trained in this way, would have expected nothing less. Classical rhetoric included as many as seven parts, but not all speeches include all parts.

    So let's check out the parts of Henry's speech.

    How it Breaks Down

    Exordium (or Introduction) (Sentences 1-7)

    Henry addresses the President of the Convention and states that he's going to put forth some arguments about why he disagrees with some members on some important points. He says he feels it's his duty.

    Narration (A Story About How We Got To This Point) (Sentences 8-41)

    Henry summarizes the history of the past decade, describing how every effort at diplomacy has failed and how Great Britain has imposed a military occupation on the American colonies. He says that all attempts at reconciliation have come to nothing.

    Proof (What I'm Trying to Prove) (Sentences 42-46)

    Armed resistance is the only course left if we want to maintain our freedom and honor, dagnabbit.

    Refutation (Why My Opponents Are Wrong) (Sentences 47-64)

    Henry talks back to those who say the colonies are too weak to take on Great Britain. He ends with a classic "Come at me, bro!"

    Peroration (Or Just the Conclusion, If You're Not Feeling Fancy) (Sentences 65-75)

    The conclusion is meant to provoke a powerful emotional response in listeners that leads them to take decisive action. Henry says that other people are already fighting. Why aren't we? That final, famous, go-down-in-history sound bite wraps up his argument: he's willing to die for liberty.

  • Tone

    Righteously Angry; Determined

    Henry is angry, but he's right to be angry (at least from his own point of view). He's also definitely going to do something about the things that are making him so angry. Let's listen in:

    Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings. (7)

    Henry continues:

    For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it. (12)

    If the worst is coming, which Henry thinks it is, he's going to meet it head on. You (his listeners) should probably do the same.

  • Writing Style

    Formal; Classical; Emphatic

    We'd expect no less from a classically trained rhetorician like Henry (or for that matter, from one like St. George Tucker, who reconstructed the speech for William Wirt's biography of Henry). (Check out our description of the "Classical Structure" for more about the speech's construction, and check out "Key Figures" for Tucker's and Wirt's roles in the construction of the speech.)

    Within the classical structure, we've got some massive formality going on. Just check out the length of some of these sentences. Within those sentences, the clauses are piled upon clauses for emphasis.

    Check out these bad boys:

    We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. 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. (40-41)

    Oof.

    Also, anytime somebody says "sir" constantly, we can call it formal. What can we say? It was a formal time, at least in the halls of government. And by "halls of government," we mean anywhere a bunch of rebels could safely meet.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Henry didn't write this speech down. He didn't even write down any notes, and he certainly didn't give the speech a title. He just got up and said his piece, making every other speechmaker everywhere look like a total amateur…because Patrick Henry was just that amazing.

    Later on, other people started calling it "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" (exclamation mark included) in reference to the last and most famous line. The whole speech is about the necessity of fighting (and hey: maybe dying) for liberty, so it's pretty appropriate.

    Plus, it sounds way more metal than just "Give Me Liberty."

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Let's consider the first two sentences because, like the rest of the speech, they're 100% amazing. But they're striking for a reason apart from their sheer awesomeness: these lines are intensely polite. (For a fuller discussion of the entire first paragraph, check out the "Structure" section).

    MR. PRESIDENT: 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; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. (1-2)

    We'll say this for the 18th century: their political speeches had a whole lot more courtesy than ours today, even if politicians were more likely to come to physical blows afterward. (The duel is a phenomenon we're not sad to see go the way of the dodo bird.) It was customary for speakers to address the leader of the convention, so that's what Henry does. (See our discussion of Peyton Randolph in "Key Figures" for more on Mr. President.)

    The meat of these first two sentences is directed at those who disagree with Henry. Notice he doesn't attack them, because attacking people is no way to get them on your side. Instead, he talks about the respect he has for them and says that good people can disagree. That's the way to get people to listen.

    Hear that, today's politicians?

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Ugh. We can't even handle ourselves when we hear these closing lines. They're just so good.

    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! (73-75)

    Do those words give you chills? If not, check your pulse. You might be a sentient robot.

    Compared to the opening lines, there's a completely different feel to this final mic drop. Henry has worked himself up into a frenzy—these lines reference the freedom versus slavery motif he's been running through the whole speech, then they reference God (who, remember, is on Henry's side). Finally, they declare death preferable to living under the yoke of tyranny.

    All of Henry's major points are summed up in these final lines, and they bring out a huge wellspring of emotion in listeners that are intended to lead them to agree with Henry and vote his way.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    We'll shoot straight, Patrick Henry-style. The toughest part about this speech is the archaic language: the language they used back in the 18th century was a little over-the-top. (Also, there's some posturing before Henry gets to his point…but you are, after all, reading a political speech.)

    If you can get past these issues, you're home free. The ideas in the speech aren't all that complicated. Henry's basically saying, "Hey. Diplomacy's failed. Britain's gunning for us, so we'd better gun back."

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Sirens (9)

    Historical and Political References

    The British Ministry (15, 29)
    The throne (40, 41)
    Parliament (40)

    (Check out the "Glossary" for more about these.)

    Pop Culture References

    Liberty or Death (75) from Cato, A Tragedy, a play popular in Colonial America and especially among the Founding Fathers

    Biblical References

    "[…] having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not" (11) This reference could be to Deuteronomy 29:4, Jeremiah 5:21, Ezekiel 12:2, Mark 8:18, or Romans 11:8. It's a fairly common theme.

    "Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss." (18) This refers to Judas' betrayal of Christ and appears in Matthew 26:48, Mark 14:44, and Luke 22:48.

    "[…] and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us" (57) This is a reference to God's protection of Israel in II Chronicles 32:8.

    "The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone" (57) This is a reference to Ecclesiastes 9:11.

    "Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace." (66) This is a reference to Jeremiah 6:14.

    "Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle?" (69-70) This is a reference to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:6.

    References to This Text

    This is a tough one because Patrick Henry didn't make up the concept of "Give me liberty or give me death!" He just made it into an amazing catch phrase.

    That idea (you got two options: liberty or death) has been around for millennia, at least since the Greeks started thinking seriously about personal freedom and the Romans had their whole Republic vs. Empire thing. When somebody references "liberty or death," we can't be sure they're referencing Henry, because the idea wasn't originally his. With that caveat, let's consider some possible references.

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Despite the fact that Henry wasn't referring to literal slavery in this speech, the idea of death as preferable to slavery shows up in almost every American abolitionist text and slave narrative of the 19th century.

    Historical and Political References

    "Liberty or Death" was the slogan on the flag of the Culpeper Minutemen later in 1775.

    Pop Culture References

    Check out this t-shirt at Hot Topic.

    If you can't get enough American Revolution, try the vintage video game.

  • Trivia

    Patrick Henry became the first American politician to refer to voters as "fellow citizens." We're not surprised: it reflects his belief in democracy and his love of classical-style speech-making. (Source)

    Unlike most of his fellow Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry never held a national political office. Patrick Henry: homebody supreme. (Source)

    Time magazine included "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" on their Top Ten Greatest Speeches list. That's quite an accomplishment for a speech that was made up decades after the fact. Hey, some things get better with time. (Source)

    St. George Tucker received a pretty embarrassing wound at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse: he ran into a runaway soldier's bayonet. Ouch. (Source)

    St. George Tucker and William Wirt both enjoyed writing comic literature when they weren't lawyering and judging. (We bet they loved lawyer jokes.) (Source)

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