by Diane Rufino
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered one of the most important speeches in our country’s history. Attending a meeting of the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Henry intended to present a proposal to organize a militia in every Virginia county. The Convention met at St. John’s Church rather than the Capitol in Williamsburg because of opposition from England’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore and his Royal Marines. Suspicious of the oppressive taxes and coercive policies of George III and fearful of the build-up of British forces in the colonies, Henry proposed raising independent militias “to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those further violations with which they are threatened.” Not everyone at the Church appeared to agree with him. At that point he rose, and with his wrists crossed like that of a slave, he delivered a speech so eloquent and so fiery and so ringing in defense of liberty that it has been recognized as the colonists’ call for independence:
“The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country…. 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 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. 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. 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. 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 free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if 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!
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………..
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!”
Patrick Henry is one of most important Founding Fathers. It is very likely that we wouldn’t have pushed for our independence from Great Britain if it weren’t for Henry’s fiery speech that night on March 23, 1775 and for his constant pleas to the colonists to stand up for their God-given liberties. Once our independence was won, he refused to represent Virginia at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he was suspicious of the type of government that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had in mind. In fact, in declining to go, he stated: “I smell a rat in Philadelphia.” He caught wind that Madison and other members of the Virginia delegation and Hamilton as well intended not to modify the Articles of Confederation, as their invitation stated, but rather to scrap them and start from scratch.
But what most people don’t know is that Patrick Henry was a staunch anti-Federalist. He believed that Americans and the States would ensure their own demise if they ratified the US Constitution. He joined other famous Americans in publicly criticizing it. Those other Americans included Richard Henry Lee, who was an early President of the Continental Congress (under the Articles of Confederation) and then more famously the delegate from Virginia who presented the formal resolution to the Congress calling for a Declaration of Independence, NY Governor George Clinton (who so aggressively opposed the Constitution that the state of NY refused to ratify it), George Mason, of Virginia (who was so disappointed with the final draft of the Constitution that he refused to sign it), Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and Robert Yates, a NY judge and friend of Clinton. In general, the anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution because they were much less optimistic than the Federalists about the ability of civic virtue and the system of checks and balances to keep the national government in check. Because they lost the battle over ratification of the Constitution, very little attention is paid to the anti-Federalists.
In response to the criticisms of the Constitution by the anti-Federalists – published as a series of essays under such names as Cato (Clinton), Brutus (Yates), The Centinal, and the Federal Farmer (Lee) – James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, to give proper assurances that the criticisms were unfounded. [It is ironic that those who supported the Constitution were called the “Federalists” yet those who criticized the Constitution for not protecting States’ rights enough were called “Anti-Federalists”]. Henry didn’t trust the assurances.
Patrick Henry, one of my favorite Founding Fathers because of his honesty, passion, and sheer devotion to the exercise and protection of fundamental liberty, opposed the US Constitution openly and aggressively. He was concerned about the consolidation of federal authority and especially the power concentrated in the office of the President. A particular concern was the President’s authority and command over the armed forces. Henry predicted that a president could use the military “to run roughshod over the republic.” (Lincoln and the Civil War!!) He was highly skeptical of the broad taxing power delegated to the Congress. He believed the Constitution allowed the government to control the governed, with little ability and no obligation to control itself. And he argued that the Constitution effectively ignored the essential role of the States.
Furthermore, Henry always wondered whether Americans had the moral fiber to safeguard the freedom secured by the American Revolution. By 1776, he saw a moral depravity that concerned him, and he believed it would eventually set the stage for tyranny. The delegates of the Constitutional Convention, he argued, foolishly assumed that all politicians would be virtuous men. He criticized many of the Founders and drafters, Christian republicans as they were, for not realizing that this assumption was a fatal flaw.
“Nothing could check a national government entrusted with vast military might and the unlimited authority to tax…… Our human rights and privileges are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this Constitution,” he wrote. What he meant by this, as he often stated, was that the Constitution represented an outright repudiation of the American Revolution.
As an alternative to all the States ratifying and binding themselves to document that he believed would destroy liberty and ultimately establish a tyrannical government, Patrick Henry proposed that States establish sectional confederacies (multiple republics). He further supported this approach because it was his firm belief that the Constitution would give special treatment to Northern states over Southern states and the latter would forever be prejudiced in representation and legislation. Another little known fact is that Henry proposed secession in 1788, certainly for Virginia, and for other states as well.
Benjamin Harrison, one of the most conservative of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, from Virginia, was also critical of the new Constitution. He said that although the collection of States had its share of problems, the Constitution would “prove worse than the disease” (one of the “diseases” was the Constitutional Congress’ lack of enforcement power). Even Thomas Jefferson expressed reservations about the Constitution. He thought it was too “energetic” a proposal. In a letter he wrote to James Madison from France, he said: “I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” [Luckily for us, Jefferson was successful in finally convincing the writers of the Constitution to draft a Bill of Rights to set definitive limits of the government on individual rights].
In opposing the Constitution and its ratification, Patrick Henry believed he was defending the ideals of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. He argued that America had just fought for their independence from an abusive political regime (the British monarchy and Parliament) and now Madison and Hamilton were intending to put the newly-free nation back under a strong central government, with a strong executive. He argued that we were trading one tyrant for another. To Henry, this was a repudiation of all the liberties that he and the other patriots had fought for. As he explained: “A monstrous national government was not the solution…. Many had to die to be free from such a regime.”
In an opening speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, Henry pleaded: “A wrong step now will plunge us into misery and our republic will be lost.” In one of his very last public speeches, given at the same Convention, he delivered this heartfelt message: “Liberty is the greatest of all earthly blessings. Give us that precious jewel and you may take everything else. There was a time when every pulse of my heart beat for American liberty and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American. But suspicions have gone forth publicly – suspicions of my integrity – that my professions are not real. 23 years ago, I was supposed a traitor to my country. I was then said to be a bane of sedition because I supported the rights of my countrymen. I may be thought suspicious when I say that our privileges and rights are in danger. But, Sir, a number of people of this country are weak enough to think these things are true…. My great objection to this (new) government is that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights.”
Lloyd J. Matthews, “Patrick Henry’s ‘Liberty or Death’ Speech and Cassius’ Speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Virginia Historical Society), Vol. 86, No. 3, July 1978. Referenced at: http://www.jstor.org/pss/4248229
Thomas Kidd, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, 2011, Basic Books