Martial blood and a spirit of liberty ran in their veins from a long string of border wars with England. This went as far back as William Wallace. Now they made up the perfect border-guard on America's western frontier.
There is a quote to the effect that Patrick Henry was a Quaker in religion, but the very Devil in politics. It is hard to imagine a youth who sat at the feet of Presbyterian preacher Samuel Davies adopting a religion as radical as the Quakers'. The subject warrants further research and I'd invite any knowledgeable readers to comment in the dialogue box at the bottom of this page.
But patriot that he was, did you know that Patrick Henry opposed ratification of the US Constitution? That's right -- he fought it tooth and nail just 13 years after releasing the sound bite above.
He bitterly opposed James Madison in the Virginia ratifying convention. And very effectively too. Madison complained that "I could speak for an hour and Henry would undo everything that I said by simply raising an eyebrow."
How could anybody be so unpatriotic as to speak a negative word about the US Constitution? Where did Patrick Henry go wrong? Did he go wrong?
Patrick Henry was a leader of the AntiFederalists during the debate over ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He was animated by a spirit of liberty characteristic of the frontier region of western Virginia and later of the AntiFederalists.
It is clear from his speeches that Patrick Henry did not argue on the basis of the broken covenant, as did many of the AntiFederalists. For example, Isaac Kramnick writing for the "New York Times" in an article critical of the "religious right" makes this observation:
"In 1787, when the Framers excluded all mention of God from the Constitution, they were widely denounced as godless, which is precisely what it is. Its opponents challenged ratifying conventions in nearly every state, drawing special attention to the stipulation in Article VI, Section 3: 'No religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.'"
Patrick Henry did not attack Article VI, Section 3 in any of his 24 speeches at the ratifying convention. If Samuel Davies was a formative figure in Patrick Henry's thinking, as many have asserted, the theology of Davies deserves further study. To what extent was he infected with the Scotch-Irish rationalism that had been imported to America by John Witherspoon?
Witherspoon's reformed theology was tainted by the Scottish realism/rationalism of the right-wing Enlightenment centered in Scotland. Thus, his political philosophy was based primarily on natural law and social contract theory, rather than the law of God.
These connections could in part explain Patrick Henry's rationalistic attacks on the Constitution, in contrast to many of the other AntiFederalists. Again, readers are invited to comment in the space below.
All of the stateman's powers, honed over the course of a lifetime, coalesced in the three weeks of the Virginia Ratifying Convention. Henry was 52 years old at the time of the convention. His keen insight into the principles of civil government was ignited by his passion for liberty in a prolonged display of oratory.
Patrick Henry quickly emerged as leader of the AntiFederalists at the convention. The AntiFederalists could never have come as close as they did to blocking ratification apart from Henry's oratory.
His voice occupied almost a quarter of the floor time. Although supported by Mason, Grayson, Monroe and other AntiFederalists, the brunt of the battle fell on his shoulders. As he struggled in vain for the liberty of future generations of Americans, it truly was Patrick Henry's last stand. The AntiFederalists and their cause have been largely forgotten.
You can read the full text of any of Patrick Henry's 24 speeches at the Virginia Ratifying convention here. Or you can read our summaries and excerpts from key speeches below.
Patrick Henry Speeches In the
Links to the heart of his 24 speeches appear below. They stand as a testimony to modern-day AntiFederalists and Federalists alike.
June 4, 1788: In this opening address he summarized his major argument against a
June 7, 1788: Mr. Henry enlarges on the theme that the dangers put forth to justify the new government are largely contrived. "Sir, it is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers," he chides, "Fear is the passion of slaves." He rehearses the benefits of freedom enjoyed by the Swiss and Dutch under a confederacy. On the other hand the dangers attending adoption of the new government are very real, including the doubling of taxation and the unlimited power granted by the "sweeping clause," or "elastic clause" as it is known today.
June 9, 1788: In this lengthy speech Mr. Henry expands on the dangers that inhere to the proposed constitution. At the same time it offers no advantages over the confederacy. The dangers include checks & balances in name only, direct taxation on individuals replacing requisition of the states, removal of defense to the national level, secrecy, and the supremecy of national laws. "I look on that paper as the most fatal plan that could possibly be conceived to enslave a free people, he concludes, "If such be your rage for novelty, take it...."
June 14, 1788: Patrick Henry's three speeches this day on behalf of the AntiFederalists shed light on the inevitable corruption that would be spawned by the proposed constitution. In the first place the members set their own pay, rather than the state legislatures. "They may therefore indulge themselves in the fullest extent," he prophesied, "They may make their compensation as high as they please." Second, the powers of both sword and purse are granted to Congress, which is an open invitation to tyranny. And thirdly, the publication of proceedings is left indefinite (from time to time), which interjects secrecy into the ordinary affairs of government.
June 16, 1788: Two of Patrick Henry's shorter speeches on this day were devoted to the army and to the militia. He decried the despotism of the power to maintain a standing army, here granted to Congress. "If Congress shall say that the general welfare may requires it, they may keep armies continually on foot...This unlimited authority is a most dangerous power: its principles are despotic." The power to call forth the militia to quell insurrection is likewise granted to Congress, thereby neutering the states. These powers under the Constitution relate to the advisability of Christian young men volunteering to serve in the United States military.
June 24, 1788: At the conclusion of his second speech the day before adjournment, Patrick Henry spoke as one peering into the tribunal of heaven. As he made these visionary utterances, the heavens were rent as if to solemnize and ratify his words:
"I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it [adoption of this system] is pregnant. I see it. I feel it. I see beings of a higher order anxious concerning our decision. When I see beyond the horizon that bounds human eyes, and look at the final consummation of all human things, and see those intelligent beings which inhabit the ethereal mansions reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which, in the progress of time, will happen in America, and the consequent happiness or misery of mankind, I am led to believe that much of the account, on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide. Our own happiness alone is not affected by the event. All nations are interested in the determination. We have it in our power to secure the happiness of one half of the human race. Its adoption may involve the misery of the other hemisphere."
[Here a violent storm arose, which put the house in such disorder, that Mr. Henry was obliged to conclude.]
June 25, 1788: In his final speech, Patrick Henry summarized the momentous issues that were about to be decided.
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