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The great crises in our history have produced great orations. A few of the greatest are here given in part. They fall naturally into two groups centering about the War of the Revolution and the Civil War.
“Patrick Henry began life as a failure. He had but meager opportunities for schooling, and quite failed to make the most of those he had; he was an inveterate truant, and knew more about the haunt of trout, and the best places for game, than he did about Latin grammar or arithmetic. He studied law, however, and was admitted to the bar in 1760. At first his speeches in behalf of his clients were flat failures, but, after a while, he cast off the artificial style that he had attempted to cultivate, and spoke in his own natural, impulsive, convincing way. His success was great and immediate. No jury could withstand him. He invariably won his cases — even the most hopeless ones. “It was not long before he was sent to the Virginia House of Burgesses, just at the time, 1765, when the matter of the Stamp Act was being discussed. The prevalent feeling was that the act should not be
resisted, but Henry startled everybody with his declaration that the act was unconstitutional and void, and should not be submitted to. It was in the excited debate following this declaration that he used the phrase suggesting the assassination of George III, which is quoted in every school history. His views conquered in the end, and his resolution was carried. He was a leading figure in the early legislatures, and was twice Governor of Virginia." He died at Red Hill, Virginia, in 1799.
This famous speech was made in the House of Burgesses of Virginia during those exciting days when the colonies were being driven by passion and resentment to the inevitable break with England. Its effect upon the Virginians and, when it became known, upon the other colonies was electrical.
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 5 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 an-10 guish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide
1 Siren, a beautiful but vicious sea nymph who by her music drew men to her home, and then by her magic arts changed them to beasts. Homer uses the myth in the story of Ulysses, and Milton in Comus utilizes it to illustrate the evil powers of uncontrolled appetite.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no 15 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 20 and the house. Is it that insidious 1 smile with which our petitions have 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 peti- 25 tion 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 30 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 35 gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it?
1 Insidious, tempting, deceptive. 2 Referring to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.
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 40 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 45 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 50 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 our
selves before the throne, and have implored its 60 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, 65 with contempt, from the foot of the throne.