Patrick Henry's Speech, June 14, 1788

From Virginia Convention (1788). Debates and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia Convened at Richmond, June 1788. Richmond: Enquirer-Press, 1805. 281-283.










      Mr. Henry.-Mr. Chairman-It is now conferred that this is a constitutional government. There is not a single federal feature in it. It has been alleged within these walls, during the debates, to be national and federal, as it suited the arguments of gentlemen. But now when we have heard the definition of it, it is purely national. The honorable member was pleased to say that the sword and parts included everything of consequence. And shall we trust them out of our heads without checks and barriers? The sword and purse are essentially necessary for the government. Every essential requisite must be in congress. Where are the purse and sword of Virginia? They must go to congress. What is the name of your country? The Virginia government is but a name. It clearly results from his last argument that we are to be consolidated. We should be though unwise indeed to keep 200 legislators in Virginia, when the government is in fact gone to Philadelphia or New-York. We are as a state to form no part of the government. Where are your checks? The most essential objects of government are to be administered by congress. How then can the state governments be any check upon them? If we are to be a republican government it will be consolidate, not confederated.

      The means, says the gentleman, must be commensurate to the end. How does this apply?----All things in common are left with this government. There being an infinitude in the government, there must be an infinitude of means to carry it on. This is a sort of mathematical government that may appear well on paper but cannot sustain examination, or be safely reduced to practice. The delegation of power to an adequate number of representatives; and an unimpeded reversion of it back to the people at short periods, form the principal traits of a republican government. The idea of a republican government in that paper, is something superior to the poor people. The governing persons are the servants of the people. There the servants are greater than their masters; because it includes infinitude, and infinitude excludes every idea of subordination. In this creature has destroyed and soared above the creator. For if its powers be infinite, what rights have the people remaining? By that very argument despotism has made way in all countries, where the people unfortunately have been enslaved by it. We are told the sword and the purse are necessary for the national defense. The junction of these without limitation in the same hands, is, by logical and mathematical conclusions, the description of despotism.

      The reasons adduced here today have long ago been advanced in favor of passive obedience and non-resistance. In 1688, the British nation expelled their monarch for attempting to trample on their liberties. The doctrine of divine right and passive obedience was said to be commanded by heaven , was inculcated by his minions and adherents. He wanted to possess without. . .the sword and the purse. The attempt cost him his crown. This government demands the same powers. I see reason to be more and more alarmed. I fear it will terminate in despotism. His objection of the abuse of liberty is denied. The political inquiries and promotions of the peasants is a happy circumstance. A foundation of knowledge is a great mark of happiness. When the spirit of inquiry after political discernment, goes forth among the lowest of people, it rejoices my heart. Why such fearful apprehensions? I defy him to shew that liberty has been abused. There has been no rebellion here, though there was in Massachusetts. Tell me of any country which has been so long without a rebellion. Distresses have been patiently borne in this country, which would have produced revolutions in other countries. We strained every nerve to make provisions to pay our soldiers and officers. They, though not paid, and greatly distressed at the conclusion of the war, magnanimously acquiesced. The depreciation of the circulating currency very much involved many of them, and thousands of other citizens in absolute ruin; but the same patient fortitude and forbearance marked their conduct. What would the people of England have done in such a situation? They would have resisted the government, and murdered the tyrant. But in this country so such abuse of power has taken place. It is only a general assertion unsupported, which suggests the contrary. Individual licentiousness will shew its baneful consequences in every country, let its government be what it may.

      But the honorable gentleman says responsibility will exist more in this than in the British government. It exists here more in name than anything else. I need not speak of the executive authority. But consider the two houses-the American parliament. Are the members of the senate responsible? They may try themselves, and if found guilty on impeachment, are to be only removed from office. In England the greatest characters are brought to the block for their sinister administration. They have a power there, not to dismiss them from office, but from life, for malpractices. The king himself cannot pardon in this case. How does it stand with respect to your lower house? You have but ten; whatever number may be there, six is a majority.-Will your country afford no temptation, no money to corrupt them? Cannot six sat places be found to accommodate them? They may after the first congress take any place. There will be a multiplicity of places. Suppose they corruptly obtain places. Where will you find them to punish them? At the farthest parts of the Union. In the ten miles square; or within a state where there I a strong hold. What are you to do when these men return from Philadelphia? Two things are to be done. To detect the offender and bring him to punishment. You will find it difficult to do either. In England the proceedings are openly transacted. They deliver their opinion freely and openly.-they do not fear all Europe. Compare it to this. You cannot detect the guilty. The publication from time to time is merely optional in them. they may prolong the period, or suppress it all together under pretense of it being necessary to be kept secret.

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