Patrick Henry, “Speech Before Virginia Ratifying Convention”
Is his rejection of the Constitution grounded in radical or conservative
Henry begins by stating, “I have lived long enough to become an old-
fashioned fellow…” (1).
How does Henry view the duties of the citizen? He notes, “But, sir, suspicion
is a virtue as long as its object is the preservation of the public good, and as
long as it stays within proper bounds: should it fall on me, I am contented:
conscious rectitude is a powerful consolation. I trust there are many who
think my professions for the public good to be real. Let your suspicion look
to both sides. There are many on the other side, who possibly may have been
persuaded to the necessity of these measures, which I conceive to be
dangerous to your liberty. Guard with jealous attention the public liberty.
Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will
preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are
inevitably ruined,” (1). What does this require of us?
He argues it is spurious to accuse the present government of lacking energy, as it
has carried the nation through repeated crises and war (1).
He gets to his central suspicions in noting, “people losing their liberty by their
own carelessness and the ambition of a few. We are cautioned by the honorable
gentleman, who presides, against faction and turbulence. I acknowledge that
licentiousness is dangerous, and that it ought to be provided against: I
acknowledge, also, the new form of government may effectually prevent it: yet
there is another thing it will as effectually do — it will oppress and ruin the
Henry notes that it is artificial to place one’s faith in nothing but the ‘virtues’
of legislators, and argues, “we are told that we need not fear; because those
in power, being our representatives, will not abuse the powers we put in their
hands. I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection,
whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the
people, or by the tyranny of rulers. I imagine, sir, you will find the balance
on the side of tyranny,” (2).
In sum, his position is best captured in his saying, “My great objection to this
government is, that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights, or
of waging war against tyrants,” (2).
Henry fears the
represented by standing armies
, and posits, “This
acquisition will trample on our fallen liberty… Have we the means of resisting
disciplined armies, when our only defence, the militia, is put into the hands of
.. hither is the spirit of America gone? Whither is the genius of
America fled? It was but yesterday, when our enemies marched in triumph
through our country. Yet the people of this country could not be appalled by their
pompous armaments: they stopped their career, and victoriously captured them.
Where is the peril, now, compared to that? Some minds are agitated by foreign