The fiery orator who inspired patriots to rise up against British tyranny later hurled his verbal thunderbolts at George Washington and the U.S. Constitution.
The men who gathered in Richmond in June 1788 to decide whether Virginia would ratify the newly drafted United States Constitution were an incongruous group. Elegantly dressed planters in powdered wigs mixed uncomfortably with buckskin-clad frontiersmen carrying muskets and wearing knives or tomahawks in their belts. Patrick Henry, the most famous and formidable orator in America, stood apart from the other convention delegates in coarse black clothes made on his own loom and still covered with dust of the road. His piercing deep-set eyes gave him the solemn look of a priest who never smiled.
Thirteen years earlier, Henry had sounded the clarion call for the American Revolution in the Virginia assembly when he cried out, “Give me liberty or give me death.” George Washington applauded him then. But now Henry launched a rhetorical attack on Washington and other Federalist framers of the Constitution who believed the full promise of the Revolution could only be secured by the creation of a strong new central government. “Who authorized them to speak the language of ‘We, the People,’” Henry thundered. “The people gave them no power to use their name. That they exceeded their power is perfectly clear.”
Henry secured a place in the pantheon of America’s Revolutionary heroes for his stirring oratorical broadsides against Great Britain, but he is largely forgotten as the firebrand who also led the fight against big government after America gained independence. Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, warned of the spread of “anarchy and confusion” in the young republic and pressed for the establishment of a new federal government with broader authority over international and interstate commerce, interstate disputes, national finances and military affairs. Henry and other Anti-Federalists supported retention of a loose-knit confederation of states united only for defense against common enemies, and he argued that the failure of the Constitution to strictly define and limit national government powers would inevitably lead to the same kind of tyranny the patriots had fought against. “Congress will have an unlimited, unbounded, command over the soul of this commonwealth,” he predicted. Moreover, the president would have all but free rein to exercise “executive power.”
Henry refused to attend the Philadelphia convention but unleashed all of his rhetorical firepower in a last-ditch stand against the Constitution at the Virginia ratification convention. While Washington directed the counterattack from his plantation at Mount Vernon, James Madison, one of the principal architects of the Constitution, coolly orchestrated rebuttals to Henry’s theatrics during an epic debate that went on for 22 days. In one impassioned speech after another, Henry railed against the Federalists and the Constitution in explosive language that reverberates today in the protests of Tea Partiers and other opponents of big government and runaway taxation.
Henry was a native of the Piedmont region of central Virginia, a rugged rural frontier where men resented interference in their affairs by the distant state government controlled by wealthy eastern planters, and he had no intention of submitting to a new, even more powerful federal government. Henry was a farmer and self-taught lawyer with a gift for “talking a long string of learning.” His fame and fortune grew as he defended his neighbors against outsiders—most of them lawyers cloaked in fancy clothes and even fancier words—intent on grabbing up valuable farmland through foreclosures. Early in Henry’s career Piedmont farmers rewarded him by sending him to the state assembly, where in 1765 he rose to denounce the Stamp Act, Britain’s first-ever direct tax on America, and proclaimed, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”
Within weeks, news of Henry’s provocative proclamation spread across the colonies, with one newspaper after another denouncing the Stamp Act. “The alarm spread…with astonishing quickness,” he marveled, “and the ministerial party were overwhelmed. The great point of resistance to British taxation was universally established in the colonies.” Meanwhile, Henry reveled in his own sudden notoriety.
A decade later, with British troops and Massachusetts militia on the brink of open war, Henry again rose up in the state assembly and called upon his fellow Virginians to muster troops to support the patriot cause. “Our brethren are already in the field,” he cried out. “Why stand we here idle? I know not what course others may take, but as for me, Give me liberty! Or give me death.”
For his part, Henry never fired a shot against the British. But as the first wartime governor of America’s richest and most populous state, he provided the largest amount of aid to Washington’s Continental Army—15 battalions of troops; a manned, 70-ship navy; and enough food and other supplies to relieve the distress at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.
The ties that Henry and Washington had established during their common struggle against British tyranny all but snapped as anarchy spread across the American landscape following independence. Unpaid by Congress for their military service, thousands of soldiers returned to their farms penniless and faced foreclosures for not paying state property taxes. They took up rifles and pitchforks to defend their properties and attack debtors prisons and courthouses. In Massachusetts, former Captain Daniel Shays led more than 1,000 farmers in a rebellion that shut all the courts across the state in 1786. A mob of Virginia farmers shouting Henry’s call for “Liberty or Death” burned down courthouses in two counties; Maryland farmers followed suit, burning down the Charles County Courthouse. New Hampshire farmers marched to the state capital, surrounded the legislature and demanded forgiveness of all debts and the return of seized properties to their former owners.
In addition to tax riots, state governments faced conflicts with neighboring states over boundary lines and claims to western territories. “Different states,” War Secretary Henry Knox warned Washington, “have…views that sooner or later must involve the country in all the horrors of civil war. We are entirely destitute of those traits which should stamp us one nation.” Virginia’s delegate in Congress, Richard Henry Lee, agreed, and, on February 21, 1787, at his urging, Congress issued a call to all of the 13 states to send delegates to a convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
With Washington manipulating the proceedings, however, the delegates exceeded their congressional mandate and created an entirely new Constitution. It replaced the loose confederation of sovereign states with a strong federal government whose powers mirrored those of the British government the patriots had fought to overthrow. Like Parliament, the new Congress would have the sole power to declare war, and it would be able to tax the people to pay for it—without the consent of taxpayers or their state legislatures. What outraged Henry and other opponents of the Constitution even more was its failure to guarantee basic rights of free speech, religious choice, a free press and trial by jury—the last being a right that even the tyrannical British government had guaranteed for more than five centuries, since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.
Final passage of the Constitution required ratification by 9 of the 13 states, and by the spring of 1788 it was evident that the decisive battle would occur in Virginia. The stage was set for Henry, who arrived in Richmond in June brimming with confidence and prepared to stir men’s souls to rebellion.
When the ratification debate began, Henry took quick control of the floor. Six feet tall and about 160 pounds, he used his hands expressively, contorting his arms and shoulders to theatrical perfection, adding drama and excitement to every word. At the outset, he accused the authors of the Constitution of having staged a coup d’état by overthrowing the confederation and replacing it with a more powerful national government. “I would demand the cause of their conduct…even from that illustrious man who saved us by his valor.” The unmistakable reference to Washington drew gasps of outrage from Federalists.
As the debate proceeded, Henry scoffed at Washington’s claim that anarchy would ensue without the new Constitution. “I am not well versed in history,” he argued. “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.” Henry predicted that the Constitution would create “a great and mighty president with…the powers of a king” and give Congress the power of “unlimited…direct taxation” and powers “to counteract and suspend” state laws. Those powers in the hands of Parliament, he reminded the convention, had provoked the Revolutionary War.
Henry insisted that the majority of Americans opposed the Constitution, but had been “egregiously misled” by the Federalists. “This government has not the affection of the people, at present…and, Sir, you know that a Government without their affections can neither be durable nor happy. I speak as one poor individual—but when I speak, I speak the language of thousands.”
With that, the gallery erupted into whoops and cheers and Anti-Federalist delegates rose to their feet. Henry tried shouting over the crowd. “And Sir…And, Sir…” As the audience grew quiet, Henry smiled. “But Sir, I mean not to breathe the spirit nor utter the language of secession.”
Henry knew he had a tactical advantage as the debate proceeded. The Virginia state legislature was to reconvene on June 30, at which time most of the delegates to the convention would have to leave and take their seats as lawmakers. That meant the Federalists led by James Madison would have just four weeks to win ratification. In the meantime Henry and his allies were determined to talk the convention to death.
Henry took the floor on 17 of the 22 days, routinely making three speeches a day. He gave five speeches on two occasions, eight on two others and sometimes spoke for more than six consecutive hours. His speeches accounted for one-fifth of the oratory on the convention floor.
Madison and his band of skilled lawyers took turns stepping into the breaches to pick apart Henry’s vague assertions with specific facts about the troubled condition of the nation and the remedies provided by the Constitution. Standing barely 5 feet tall, Madison was like David battling Henry’s Goliath. He read in short feeble bursts from notes inside his hat, which he held like a bucket of water into which he was about to dip his head for apples. His voice was that of cold, albeit dull, reason and logic, arguing simply that the Constitution did not grant the new national government any powers beyond those spelled out in the document.
“The powers of the federal government are enumerated,” Madison explained. “It has…defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction.” In a reasoned, measured tone, he pointed out the contradiction between Henry’s demands for American navigation rights on the Mississippi and his opposition to a standing federal army to obtain and ensure those rights.
“Congress ought to have the power,” he said simply, “to provide for the execution of the laws, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.…Without a general controlling power to call forth the strength of the Union, to repel invasions, the country might be overrun and conquered by foreign enemies. Without such a power to suppress insurrections, our liberties might be destroyed by domestic faction and domestic tyranny be established.”
Henry was not prepared for the relentless Federalist counterattacks. Isolated in the Piedmont for so many years, with only periodic trips to Richmond to deal with mostly local issues, he had not set foot out of Virginia in more than 13 years and was less aware than Madison of the national and international problems facing all 13 states. Still a backcountry man at heart, he believed that states could endure like farmers on self-sufficient properties in the Piedmont, independent of their neighbors and united with them for only a handful of collective actions such as barter, defense against intruders and mutual aid after natural disasters. He had no reasoned answers to the arguments by Madison and other Federalists other than an emotional— albeit accurate—contention that ratification of the Constitution would strip states of their sovereignty and inevitably reduce individual liberties.
On June 24, with only five days left for delegates to vote the Constitution up or down—or adjourn without a decision—Henry made a last, desperate attempt to block ratification by igniting an explosive issue no one had dared address: the power of the new federal government to decree that “every black man must fight…that every black man who would go into the army should be free.” As looks of horror spread across the hall, Henry stared directly at Madison and demanded to know, “May they not pronounce all slaves free?” Without giving Madison a chance to respond, Henry roared his own answer, in words that would echo across the South for the next 75 years to justify secession: “They have the power in clear unequivocal terms and will clearly and certainly exercise it. As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids abolition.…This is a local matter and I can see no propriety in subjecting it to Congress.”
As shouts of anger spewed from the gallery, Madison stood to try to refute Henry, but Henry would not be silenced. After proposing a rapid-fire series of 40 amendments, including a bill of rights, his voice rose to a crescendo as he called on God’s wrath to punish the authors of the Constitution.
“He [Madison] tells you of important blessings, which he imagines will result to us and mankind in general from the adoption of this system,” Henry thundered. “I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant.
“I see it!
“I feel it!”
He spread wide his arms and quaking hands and looked to the heavens, playing the scene like the veteran actor he was. Outside the skies blackened suddenly and turned day into night. “I see beings of a higher order—anxious concerning our decision. When I see beyond the horizon…those intelligent beings which inhabit the ethereal mansions, reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which in the progress of time will happen in America….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 hemispheres.”
Lightning struck the ground outside, then an explosion of thunder shook the entire hall. Henry closed his eyes and lifted his face to the heavens, as his words continued echoing through the chamber: “I see it! I feel it.”
The next day delegates rejected Henry’s amendments, 88 to 80. Then they voted 89 to 79 to ratify the Constitution. Although Washington never set foot in the convention hall, Anti-Federalists and Federalists agreed that he had dominated the exhausting drama. “Be assured,” Madison declared, “his influence carried the Government.”
After the vote, all eyes turned to Henry. Many feared he would rise from his seat and cry as in 1775, “We must fight.”
A few farmers and frontiersmen in the gallery were ready to cock their rifles, but seeing the looks of fear on the faces of some delegates, Henry acted to calm the situation. “I have those painful sensations which arise from a conviction of being overpowered in a good cause,” he said. “Yet I will be a peaceable citizen! My head, my hand, my heart shall be at liberty to retrieve the loss of liberty and remove the defects of that system—in a constitutional way. I wish not to go to violence, but will wait with hopes that the spirit which predominated in the Revolution is not yet gone, nor the cause of those who are attached to the Revolution yet lost.”
George Washington became America’s first president the following year. To placate Henry and unite Anti-Federalists behind the new government, Congress passed—and the states ratified—10 constitutional amendments collectively called the Bill of Rights. Washington went even further, offering Henry policymaking posts in the new government—as secretary of state, then as Supreme Court chief justice. Henry refused, preferring to practice law and tend his family and farms. He also joined Southern Anti-Federalists in buying hundreds of thousands of acres of raw land across the South. Some planned to secede from the Union and establish an independent country.
“In near twenty adjoining counties,” Henry told AntiFederalist Richard Henry Lee, “I think at least nineteen-twentieths are antifederal, and this great extent of country in Virginia lays adjoining to North Carolina and with her forms a great mass of opposition not easy to surmount.”
Learning of Henry’s land purchases, Theodore Bland, another Virginia Anti-Federalist who was buying such lands, expressed his hopes that Henry’s new properties would provide “an asylum from tyranny whenever it may arise.”
The seeds of secession and civil war were taking root.
Harlow Giles Unger is the author of Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, which will be published by Da Capo Press in November.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.