March 23:  Classical Argument Day

On this day in 1775, Patrick Henry delivered one of the most memorable and most important speeches in American history.  The speech was delivered at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, to the 120 delegates of the Second Virginia Convention, which included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  

The question at hand was whether or not to mobilize military forces against the British.  Some held out hope for peaceful reconciliation with Britain, arguing against the motion to use force.  Henry, a 38-year old lawyer and politician, listened respectfully, then rose to give what is probably the best know call to arms in the history of rhetoric.  

In making his argument, Henry drew upon the classical arrangement of an argument, dating back to Aristotle and Cicero:

The Introduction (Exordium) – The Reason for Relevance

The Context (Narration) – The Context of the Controversy

The Thesis (Partition) – The Architecture of the Argument

The Evidence (Confirmation) – The Explanation of the Evidence

The Counterclaims (Refutation) – The Consideration of Counterclaims

The Conclusion (Peroration) – The Finish With a Flash

As we read Henry’s speech, we can break it into the six-part structure and examine how each part relates to the whole.

Exordium (Paragraphs 1-2):  Instead of beginning with a claim, the exordium seeks to win the attention and good will of the audience. Here Henry’s focus is on showing he is trustworthy and credible.  Notice how he shows respect to those who have spoken before him, while at the same time establishing his own forceful and confident voice:

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. This is no time for ceremony.

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, 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.

Narration (Paragraphs 3-8 ): In the Narration a speaker gives the context for the argument.  Notice how Henry provides background on the issue at hand. Also, notice how instead of making declarations, he more subtly guides his audience to join in his conclusions through the use of rhetorical questions:

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. 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. Is this the 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? 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.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. 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. 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? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.

I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.

And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer.

Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. 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!

Partition (Paragraph 9):  In the Partition, a speaker presents the thesis, the core argument being made.  Notice how Henry clearly and forcefully states his claim, not just once but twice:

In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. 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! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

Confirmation and Refutation (Paragraphs 10-12):  In the Confirmation, a speaker supports the central argument with reasoning, proof, and evidence; in the Refutation, a speaker anticipates opposing claims and attempts to rebut them.  Notice how Henry builds his case for taking action and how he rebuts the case for inaction. Notice also how in addition to appealing to the logic of his audience, he uses powerful imagery to move his audience emotionally:

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. 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? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three 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.

Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. 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.

Peroration (Paragraphs 13-14):  In the Peroration, a speaker presents the grand finale by summarizing the case and by attempting to move the audience to action by appealing to emotion.  Henry has constructed and arranged his entire argument to culminate in a single dramatic crescendo:

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!

Today’s Challenge:  Classical Arguments, Classical Choices

What are some examples of the kinds of fundamental choices people must make in their lives, such as to marry or to stay single, to go to college or to get a job out of high school, to join the military or to remain a civilian?  Brainstorm a list of at least 10 possible choices a typical person might make.  These may be monumental, life-altering choices, or they may be simple choices that an individual must make on a daily basis.  Select one of the key choices that you feel strongly about and construct a classical argument using Henry’s speech as your model.  Arrange your speech to include each of the six elements of the classical argument, and like Henry, make sure to end with a climactic peroration. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannot make it acceptable. –Marcus Tullius Cicero

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