A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Give Me Liberty
Title: Give Me Liberty Speech By: Patrick Henry Date: March 23, 1775 Location: St. John’s Church - Richmond, Virginia Occasion: Resolution to arm the militia
One of the problems with this, like Socrates’ Apology, is that they were actually recorded long after the speaker’s demise. Plato is the actual author of Apology. There was no court reporter to take it all down verbatim. One can easily imagine Plato and a group of fellow philosophers musing after all was over, goblets of wine in hand, “Boy, that Socrates sure gave one hell of a last speech. We ought to write that down. Do you remember what he said exactly?”
This, Henry’s most famous speech, was reconstructed from listeners’ memories 15 years after his death - and 40 years after he gave it!
That could well explain such seemingly prescient phrases as: “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!” With the battle of Lexington and Concord still a month away, it’s either a remarkably accurate prediction, or, perhaps, a case of convenient memory.
Still, there is no doubt Henry was one of the most powerful speakers of his time. There is also little doubt this speech was memorable enough to make a lasting impression on those who heard it.
It is a speech rich in classical allusions - “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.” Can you see Henry as the successor to Diogenes? This time, not seeking an honest man, but the lessons of experience, and meeting with far greater success.
It is equally rich in Biblical allusions - “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.” In so doing, he was addressing his audience in terms with which they were intimately familiar. In other words, he was establishing that vital element by which to capture the attention of his listeners, audience identification.
He also resorts to one of the other elements that make an effective speech - repetition of one word to help his audience follow the points he wants to make. In this case “We” is the operative word. “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.”
Later, he resorts to the same device using a different word - “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 has placed in our power.”
Finally, he concludes with a stirring call to action - “Forbid it, Almighty God! -- I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
It is a rallying cry virtually every American schoolchild can recite. That stirring conclusion alone makes this speech worthy of inclusion in the Top Ten speeches of all time.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.