Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.”     Patrick Henry

July 16, 2006

Patrick Henry on the Constitution

by Brad Warbiany

I was talking recently about Patrick Henry. When I was looking into some of his history, I found this speech. Patrick Henry was an anti-Federalist, against the Constitution and a centralized consolidated Government.

Perhaps this excerpt will explain why:

You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.

. . . . .

The distinction between a National Government and a Confederacy is not sufficiently discerned. Had the delegates who were sent to Philadelphia a power to propose a Consolidated Government instead of a Confederacy? Were they not deputed by States, and not by the people? The assent of the people in their collective capacity is not necessary to the formation of a Federal Government. The people have no right to enter into leagues, alliances, or confederations: They are not the proper agents for this purpose: States and sovereign powers are the only proper agents for this kind of Government: Shew me an instance where the people have exercised this business: Has it not always gone through the Legislatures? I refer you to the treaties with France, Holland, and other nations: How were they made? Were they not made by the States? Are the people therefore in their aggregate capacity, the proper persons to form a Confederacy? This, therefore, ought to depend on the consent of the Legislatures; the people having never sent delegates to make any proposition of changing the Government. Yet I must say, at the same time, that it was made on grounds the most pure, and perhaps I might have been brought to consent to it so far as to the change of Government; but there is one thing in it which I never would acquiesce in. I mean the changing it into a Consolidated Government; which is so abhorent to my mind. The Honorable Gentleman then went on to the figure we make with foreign nations; the contemptible one we make in France and Holland; which, according to the system of my notes, he attributes to the present feeble Government. An opinion has gone forth, we find, that we are a contemptible people: The time has been when we were thought otherwise: Under this same despised Government, we commanded the respect of all Europe: Wherefore are we now reckoned otherwise? The American spirit has fled from hence: It has gone to regions, where it has never been expected: It has gone to the people of France in search of a splendid Government–a strong energetic Government. Shall we imitate the example of those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid Government. Are those nations more worthy of our imitation? What can make an adequate satisfaction to them for the loss they suffered in attaining such a Government for the loss of their liberty? If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose Government was founded on liberty: Our glorious forefathers of Great-Britain, made liberty the foundation of every thing. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their Government is strong and energetic; but, Sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation: We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty: But now, Sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country to a powerful and mighty empire: If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your Government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together: Such a Government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism: There will be no checks, no real balances, in this Government: What can avail your specious imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances? But, Sir, we are not feared by foreigners: we do not make nations tremble: Would this, Sir, constitute happiness, or secure liberty? I trust, Sir, our political hemisphere will ever direct their operations to the security of those objects. Consider our situation, Sir: Go to the poor man, ask him what he does; he will inform you, that he enjoys the fruits of his labour, under his own fig-tree, with his wife and children around him, in peace and security. Go to every other member of the society, you will find the same tranquil ease and content; you will find no alarms or disturbances: Why then tell us of dangers to terrify us into an adoption of this new Government? and yet who knows the dangers that this new system may produce; they are out of the sight of the common people: They cannot foresee latent consequences: I dread the operation of it on the middling and lower class of people: It is for them I fear the adoption of this system.

Can anyone point out where he has been mistaken? We’ve gone exactly down the road he foretells. It is these excesses of our Constitutional system, excesses that Patrick Henry predicts, that we as classical liberals are railing against. The only difficulty is determining how to reverse the trend. How do we demolish a Splendid government in favor of a simple one?

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3 Comments

  1. I find this reflexions arae vewry intresting and may be translated to analyse the reasons why referenda ii France and Holland, about European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, failed. Many interestant points of reflexion may be derived from an attentive reading of Henry’s paper without, perhaps, accepting all his particular arguments.
    Josep Verde Aldea
    Former Vice President of the European Parliament

    Comment by Josep Verde — July 18, 2006 @ 7:38 am
  2. Carnival of Liberty LIV

    The Carnival of Liberty is posted here, NOW!

    Trackback by Ogre's Politics & Views — July 18, 2006 @ 1:25 pm
  3. [...] I submitted my post over at The Liberty Papers, Patrick Henry on the Constitution. If you want to see what one of our eloquent founding fathers (and an anti-Federalist) had to say about the Constitution, head on over. [...]

    Pingback by The Unrepentant Individual » Carnival of Liberty LIV — July 18, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

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