Aristotle defined rhetoric as using all the available means of persuasion. Although not every speech is designed to persuade, let’s examine the rhetorical devices of a persuasive speech that has played a foundational role in our American experience: Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” He spoke to the Virginia House of Burgesses seeking to persuade them to organize a militia in order to fight against the British. (Link to the full speech)

Introduction: An Ethos of Experience

Using one of Aristotle’s pillars of persuasion (ethos or ethical conduct), Henry establishes his reasons for the issue upon his loyalty to the country and his desire not to be disloyal “toward the majesty of heaven.” Furthermore he draws on his personal “lamp of experience” to guide his thoughts. The other men in the audience (which included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson), by their own knowledge of Henry could determine if his claims to ethical purity were valid.

His speech also includes an appeal to his audience’s ethics. He gives his advice with the hope that, though some may disagree, he will be allowed to exercise his right of free speech: “. . . in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of debate.” Without a willingness to hear another side of the issue, we are challenged in today’s climate to face only resistance and shutting down opposing views, needless to say, not much of an ethical standard.


Henry proceeds to ask a series of question. For example, in response to the fleets and armies threatening the colonies, “Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?” And further, “What have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument?” Technically these are not rhetorical questions because Henry answers them. However, he strings the questions and answers together to build his argument. “What terms shall we find that have not been already exhausted?” These questions and answers build his argument to conclude: “Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer.”

Repetition of Words

According to Ward Farnsworth in Classical English Rhetoric, repetition of words was a standard rhetorical practice. Although Henry adds his own twist to the technique, it still holds power. “What 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; we have been spurned with contempt, from the foot of the throne.” He repeats each idea (italics are mine), and the effect, of course, was to convince his listeners that these attempts at averting conflict have not worked. The power of this device derives from repetition.

Reflecting the Opposition’s Argument

A common, effective technique in any persuasive argument is to mention the opposition’s argument in order to refute it. It gives credence to the speaker because the audience can know that he understands the opposition. In Henry’s case, the British think Americans are weak, and he uses their argument to challenge his fellow Virginians not to be frozen by irresolution and inaction.

An Image and an Allusion

He concludes with a challenging and almost ear-splitting image, “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!” He also alludes to a known literary masterpiece, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. As in Jeremiah’s day when some cried peace, peace where there was none, so here Patrick Henry sees that their situation is the same; there is no peace with the British. Thus in the face of submission to their demands, Henry commits to the cause of war. And despite what others may do, he says, “Give me liberty or give me death.”


Not only was Patrick Henry committed to the cause of the colonies, but he used his rhetoric to persuade his fellow Virginians to join the cause. It has been said that not all in the audience stood up, cheered, and enlisted in the militia, but even great rhetoric won’t convince some. However, such powerful rhetoric convinced some, challenged doubters, and delineated for history what were the issues of the day.

© 2023 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC

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