Word of the Day: Bifurcate

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, courtesy of WordThink.com, is bifurcate, a verb that means to “Divide into two branches or forks.” According to www.etymonline.com, the word entered the English language in the “1610s, from Medieval Latin bifurcatus, from Latin bi- ‘two’ (see bi-) + furca ‘two-pronged fork, fork-shaped instrument,’ a word of unknown etymology.” There is, of course, an adjective from the past participle bifurcated, meaning divided into two branches.

On this day in 1775, Patrick Henry gave a speech before the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, at St. John’s Church. The issue at hand was the growing tension between the colonies and the British homeland. The English were imposing taxes without allowing the colonists representation in the Parliament, and the colonists were not at all happy about it, or, at least, some of the colonists.

To those attending the Second Virginia Convention, he said, “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 these war-like 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.”

He finished the speech in this ringing way: “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!”

Those last seven words are, of course, some of the most famous words in the history of the USA. But for some in the audience, the rhetoric fell on unlistening ears. They were Royalists, and they weren’t about to change. This is a fact of the American Revolution that we sometimes forget, that many colonists were against the Revolution. These colonists were okay with the treatment they received at the hands of the British. There was a real divide in the colonies leading up to the war, a real bifurcation of the people.

A similar thing has been happening over the decades in the contemporary USA. Some of the people are okay with corrupt, self-serving politicians in the nation’s capital who promise to take care of them. No matter how many scandals there are—Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and on and on–, many Americans seem to think that they can trust the political elites in Washington to play nice.

But some Americans do not trust the politicians and bureaucrats in either party. They are the other side of the fork. They, like Patrick Henry, cannot escape the wisdom born of their experience, in this case the experience of a powerful federal government filled with politicians and bureaucrats who almost always put their own interests ahead of the people whom they purport to represent. These politicians and bureaucrats promise to care for us, but at what cost. As for me, in this bifurcated country, give me liberty or give me death.

The image is of an 1851 painting of Patrick Henry’s most famous speech by Peter F. Rothermel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Resolves).

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