May 11th, 2014

lindisfarne gospels

Parsing Patrick Henry

Most people have heard quoted the words of Patrick Henry’s speech in 1775, “Give me liberty or give me death!” This is one of the great quotes in American oratory and is instantly recognized in allusion or quotation. But to appreciate the whole of Henry’s speech requires one not only to understand the issues of the day leading up to the American Revolution, but also to recognize and understand Henry’s own allusions and quotations. I count eight of these. The first is from classical literature, the other seven from the Bible. (Two generations later, I would expect at least one from Shakespeare, but his reputation hadn't yet, in 18th Century America, earned him the place he would be accorded in the 19th.)

The likelihood that someone would encounter the classical story in an American public school is fairly good, even today. But that is only one of eight allusions and quotations I find in Henry's speech. If you don’t know the Bible – and unless you go to Church, and that regularly -- you probably won’t pick up on the other seven. Which is to say that a working knowledge of the Bible is necessary for all persons in order to understand English and American literature and history, quite apart from knowledge of the Bible as a matter of devotion and discipleship.

Here, then, is the speech, followed by my notes upon it.Collapse )