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Patrick Henry: Demagoguery and Propaganda

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Modern historians often claim that Patrick Henry tended toward demagoguery and propaganda in his 1775 Speech to the Second Virginia Convention. I agree with these modern historians on the basis of Henry’s constant use of emotional appeals (pathos) and rhetorical devices such as parallel syntax, allusions, and irony to name a few. While he did have ethical (ethos) and logical (logos) appeals, the majority of Henry’s word choice and sentence structure showed that his speech was made up of emotional appeals that included both demagoguery and propaganda. Throughout his speech, Henry predominantly appeals to the passions of common people.

The purpose of this speech was to encourage the Virginians to prepare for war against the British. Demagogues generally fabricate or exaggerate violent incidents to provoke public fear and indignation as Henry did throughout his speech. An example of this would be when he states, “They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.” Henry emphasizes that the British have brought their armies and navies solely for the purpose of subjugating the colonists and that there could be no other reason for their actions.

This is further exemplified when he says, “These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments which kings resort.” Here Henry is playing on the Virginians fear of being enslaved as a form of pathos further showing that Henry tended toward demagoguery and propaganda. Henry’s use of allusions, both biblical and mythical, additionally illustrate his use of pathos. The first of these is seen when Henry alludes to the Odyssey, “We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts.” The reason he uses this allusion is to show that if the people of the convention do not ‘open their eyes’ to the impending conflict with the British, they will have to face the terrible consequences just as the sailors in the Odyssey did by listening to the siren’s song and ultimately sailing to their deaths or getting turned into pigs by the evil sorceress Circe.

Later he goes on to say, “Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things with which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?” Here he is probably echoing Jeremiah 5:21- “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.” Just as Jeremiah is calling his people foolish, Henry is calling the people who wish to ignore the obvious problems with the British fools. Near the end of his speech Henry alludes to Jeremiah 8:11- “For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace,” when he says “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace.”

This quote is showing the irony of the fact that the men are crying for peace yet they get no closer to achieve peace while simultaneously using repetition as a rhetorical device. Thus it can be seen that the use of these allusions, along with the others throughout his speech not mentioned in this paper, and their emotional appeal all link into Henry’s lean toward demagoguery and propaganda. Henry also uses pathos when he says, “Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love?” He ensures his audience that they have done everything in their power to prevent war and that it is the only option left.

Henry then goes on to say “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The War is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” Not only is he committing a fallacy by making it seem like only two alternatives can be considered- in this case, the Americans fight in order to obtain freedom or America submits to being enslaved by the British- but he is also using parallelism and pathos to stir up his audience which is propaganda and demagoguery, respectively.

In conclusion, I agree with modern historians’ charges that Patrick Henry tended toward demagoguery and propaganda in his address to the Second Virginia Convention. This was conveyed through analyzation of Henry’s word choice in quotes of his speech showing his use of rhetorical devices such as allusions, irony, and parallelism which in turn illustrate his sentence structure. Lastly, Henry’s constant and consistent use of emotional appeals and misleading information add to prove that he did infact to tend toward demagoguery and propaganda.

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