Speech Delivered at the Virginia Convention Debate of the Ratification of the Constitution

Image: The Verdict of the People. Bingham, George Caleb. (1854) Saint Louis Art Museum. https://www.slam.org/collection/objects/29776/

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Mr. HENRY: I have thought, and still think, that a full investigation of the actual situation of America ought to precede any decision of this great and important question. That government is no more than a choice among evils, is acknowledged by the most intelligent among mankind, and has been a standing maxim for ages. If it be demonstrated that the adoption of the new plan is a little or a trifling evil, then, sir, I acknowledge that adoption ought to follow; but, sir, if this be a truth, that its adoption may entail misery on the free people of this country, I then insist that rejection ought to follow. Gentlemen strongly urge, its adoption will be a mighty benefit to us; but, sir, I am made of so incredulous materials, that assertions and declarations do not satisfy me. I must be convinced, sir. I shall retain my infidelity on that subject till I see our liberties secured in a manner perfectly satisfactory to my understanding.

There are certain maxims by which every wise and enlightened people will regulate their conduct. There are certain political maxims which no free people ought ever to abandon —maxims of which the observance is essential to the security of happiness. It is impiously irritating the avenging hand of Heaven, when a people, who are in the full enjoyment of freedom, launch out into the wide ocean of human affairs, and desert those maxims which alone can preserve liberty. Such maxims, humble as they are, are those only which can render a nation safe or formidable. Poor little humble republican maxims have attracted the admiration, and engaged the attention, of the virtuous and wise in all nations, and have stood the shock of ages. We do not now admit the validity of maxims which we once delighted in. We have since adopted maxims of a different, but more refined nature —new maxims, which tend to the prostration of republicanism.

We have one, sir, that all men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity. We have a set of maxims of the same spirit, which must be beloved by every friend to liberty, to virtue, to mankind: our bill of rights contains those admirable maxims.

{138} Now, sir, I say, let us consider whether the picture given of American affairs ought to drive us from those beloved maxims.

The honorable gentleman, Governor Randolph, has said that it is too late in the day for us to reject this new plan. That system which was once execrated by the honorable member must now be adopted, let its defects be ever so glaring. That honorable member will not accuse me of want of candor, when I cast in my mind what he has given the public, and compare it to what has happened since. It seems to me very strange and unaccountable that that which was the object of his execration should now receive his encomiums. Something extraordinary must have operated so great a change in his opinion. It is too late in the day! Gentlemen must excuse me if they should declare, again and again, that it was too late, and I should think differently. I never can believe, sir, that it is too late to save all that is precious: if it be proper, and, independently of every external consideration, wisely constructed, let us receive it: but, sir, shall its adoption by eight states induce us to receive it, if it be replete with the most dangerous defects? They urge that subsequent amendments are safer than previous amendments, and that they will answer the same ends.

At present we have our liberties and privileges in our own hands. Let us not relinquish them. Let us not adopt this system till we see them secure. There is some small possibility that, should we follow the conduct of Massachusetts, amendments might be obtained. There is a small possibility of amending any government; but, sir, shall we abandon our most inestimable rights, and rest their security on a mere possibility? The gentleman fears the loss of the Union. If eight states have ratified it unamended, and we should rashly imitate their precipitate example, do we not thereby disunite from several other states? Shall those who have risked their lives for the sake of the Union be at once thrown out of it? If it be amended, every state will accede to it; but by an imprudent adoption in its defective and dangerous state, a schism must inevitably be the consequence. {139} I can never, therefore, consent to hazard our most unalienable rights on an absolute uncertainty.

You are told there is no peace, although you fondly flatter yourselves that all is peace; no peace; a general cry and alarm in the country; commerce, riches, and wealth, vanished; citizens going to seek comforts in other parts of the world; laws insulted; many instances of tyrannical legislation. These things, sir, are new to me. He has made the discovery. As to the administration of justice, I believe that failures in commerce, &c., cannot be attributed to it. My age enables me to recollect its progress under the old government. I can justify it by saying that it continues in the same manner in this state as it did under the former government. As to other parts of the continent, I refer that to other gentlemen. As to the ability of those who administer it, I believe they would not suffer by a comparison with those who administered it under the royal authority. Where is the cause of complaint if the wealthy go away? Is this, added to the other circumstances, of such enormity, and does it bring such danger over this commonwealth, as to warrant so important and so awful a change, in so precipitate a manner? As to insults offered to the laws, I know of none. In this respect, I believe this commonwealth would not suffer by a comparison with the former government. The laws are as well executed, and as patiently acquiesced in, as they were under the royal administration. Compare the situation of the country —compare that of our citizens to what it was then —and decide whether persons and property are not as safe and secure as they were at that time. Is there a man in this commonwealth whose person can be insulted with impunity? Cannot redress be had here for personal insults or injuries, as well as in any part of the world —as well as in those countries where aristocrats and monarchs triumph and reign? Is not the protection of property in full operation here? The contrary cannot with truth be charged on this commonwealth. Those severe charges, which are exhibited against it, appear to be totally groundless. On a fair investigation, we shall be found to be surrounded by no real dangers.

We have the animating fortitude and persevering alacrity of republican men to carry us through misfortunes and calamities. It is the fortune of a republic to be able to {140} withstand the stormy ocean of human vicissitudes. I know of no danger awaiting us. Public and private security are to be found here in the highest degree. Sir, it is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers. Fear is the passion of slaves. Our political and natural hemisphere are now equally tranquil. Let us recollect the awful magnitude of the subject of our deliberation; let us consider the latent consequences of an erroneous decision, and let not our minds be led away by unfair misrepresentations and uncandid suggestions. There have been many instances of uncommon lenity and temperance used in the exercise of power in this commonwealth. I could call your recollection to many that happened during the war and since; but every gentleman here must be apprized of them.

The honorable member has given you an elaborate account of what he judges tyrannical legislation, and an ex post facto law, (in the case of Josiah Philips.) He has misrepresented the facts. That man was not executed by a tyrannical stroke of power. Nor was he a Socrates. He was a fugitive murderer and an outlaw —a man who commanded an infamous banditti, and at a time when the war was at the most perilous stage. He committed the most cruel and shocking barbarities. He was an enemy to the human name. Those who declare war against the human race may be struck out of existence as soon as they are apprehended. He was not executed according to those beautiful legal ceremonies which are pointed out by the laws in criminal cases. The enormity of his crimes did not entitle him to it. I am truly a friend to legal forms and methods; but, sir, the occasion warranted the measure. A pirate, an outlaw, or a common enemy to all mankind, may be put to death at any time. It is justified by the laws of nature and nations.

The honorable member tells us, then, that there are burnings and discontents in the hearts of our citizens in general, and that they are dissatisfied with their government. I have no doubt the honorable member believes this to be the case, because he says so. But I have the comfortable assurance that it is certain fact that it is not so. The middle and lower ranks of people have not those illuminated ideas which the well-born are so happily possessed of; they cannot so readily perceive latent objects. The microscopic eyes of modern statesmen can see abundance of defects in old systems; {141} and their illuminated imaginations discover the necessity of a change. They are captivated by the parade of the number ten —the charms of the ten miles square. Sir, I fear this change will ultimately lead to our ruin. My fears are not the force of imagination; they are but too well founded. I tremble for my country; but, sir, I trust, I rely, and I am confident, that this political speculation has not taken so strong a hold of men’s minds as some would make us believe.

The dangers which may arise from our geographical situation will be more properly considered a while hence. At present, what may be surmised on the subject, with respect to the adjacent states, is merely visionary. Strength, sir, is a relative term. When I reflect on the natural force of those nations that might be induced to attack us, and consider the difficulty of the attempt, and uncertainty of the success, and compare thereto the relative strength of our country, I say that we are strong. We have no cause to fear from that quarter; we have nothing to dread from our neighboring states. The superiority of our cause would give us an advantage over them, were they so unfriendly or rash as to attack us. As to that part of the community, which the honorable gentleman spoke of as being in danger of being separated from us, —what excitement or inducement could its inhabitants have to wish such an event? It is a matter of doubt, whether they would derive any advantage to themselves, or be any loss to us, by such a separation. Time has been, and may yet come, when they will find it their advantage and true interest to be united with us. There is no danger of a dismemberment of our country, unless a Constitution be adopted which will enable the government to plant enemies on our backs. By the Confederation, the rights of territory are secured. No treaty can be made without the consent of nine states. While the consent of nine states is necessary to the cession of territory, you are safe. If it be put in the power of a less number, you will most infallibly lose the Mississippi. As long as we can preserve our unalienable rights, we are in safety. This new Constitution will involve in its operation the loss of the navigation of that valuable river.

The honorable gentleman cannot be ignorant of the Spanish transactions. A treaty had been nearly entered into with Spain, to relinquish that navigation. That relinquishment {142} would absolutely have taken place, had the consent of seven states been sufficient. The honorable gentleman told us then, that, eight states having adopted the system, we cannot suppose they will recede on our account. I know not what they may do; but this I know —that a people of infinitely less importance than those of Virginia stood the terror of war. Vermont, sir, withstood the terror of thirteen states. Maryland did not accede to the Confederation till the year 1781. These two states, feeble as they are comparatively to us, were not afraid of the whole Union. Did either of these states perish? No, sir, they were admitted freely into the Union. Will not Virginia, then, be admitted? I flatter myself that those states which have ratified the new plan of government will open their arms and cheerfully receive us, although we should propose certain amendments as the conditions on which we should ratify it. During the late war, all the states were in pursuit of the same object. To obtain that object, they made the most strenuous exertions. They did not suffer trivial considerations to impede its acquisition. Give me leave to say that, if the smallest states in the Union were admitted into it, after having unreasonably procrastinated their accession, the greatest and most mighty state in the Union will be easily admitted, when her reluctance to an immediate accession to this system is founded on the most reasonable grounds. When I call this the most mighty state in the Union, do I not speak the truth? Does not Virginia surpass every state in the Union, in number of inhabitants, extent of territory, felicity of position, and affluence and wealth? Some infatuation hangs over men’s minds, that they will inconsiderately precipitate into measures the most important, and give not a moment’s deliberation to others, nor pay any respect to their opinions. Is this federalism? Are these the beloved effects of the federal spirit, that its votaries will never accede to the just propositions of others? Sir, were there nothing objectionable in it but that, I would vote against it. I desire to have nothing to do with such men as will obstinately refuse to change their opinions. Are our opinions not to be regarded? I hope that you will recollect that you are going to join with men who will pay no respect even to this state.

Switzerland consists of thirteen cantons expressly confederated {143} for national defence. They have stood the shock of four hundred years; that country has enjoyed internal tranquillity most of that long period. Their dissensions have been, comparatively to those of other countries, very few. What has passed in the neighboring countries? War, dissensions, and intrigues; —Germany involved in the most deplorable civil war thirty years successively, continually convulsed with intestine divisions, and harassed by foreign wars! France, with her mighty monarchy, perpetually at war. Compare the peasants of Switzerland with those of any other mighty nation: you will find them far more happy: for one civil war among them, there have been five or six among other nations: their attachment to their country and freedom, their resolute intrepidity in their defence, the consequent security and happiness which they have enjoyed, and the respect and awe which these things produced in the bordering nations, have signalized those republicans. Their valor, sir, has been active; every thing that sets in motion the springs of the human heart engaged them to that protection of their inestimable privileges. They have not only secured their own liberty, but have been the arbiters of the fate of other people. Here, sir, contemplate the triumph of the republican governments over the pride of monarchy. I acknowledge, sir, that the necessity of national defence has prevailed in invigorating their councils and arms, and has been, in a considerable degree, the means of keeping these honest people together. But, sir, they have had wisdom enough to keep together, and render themselves formidable. Their heroism is proverbial. They would heroically fight for their government and their laws. One of the illumined sons of these times would not fight for those objects. Those virtuous and simple people have not a mighty and splendid President, nor enormously expensive navies and armies, to support. No, sir; those brave republicans have acquired their reputation no less by their undaunted intrepidity than by the wisdom of their frugal and economical policy. Let us follow their example, and be equally happy. The honorable member advises us to adopt a measure which will destroy our bill of rights; for, after having his picture of nations, and his reasons for abandoning all the powers retained to the states by the Confederation, {144} I am more firmly persuaded of the impropriety of adopting this new plan in its present shape.

I had doubts of the power of those who went to the Convention, but now we are possessed of it, let us examine it. When we trusted the great object of revising the Confederation to the greatest, and best, and most enlightened, of our citizens, we thought their deliberations would have been solely confined to that revision. Instead of this, a new system, totally different in its nature, and vesting the most extensive powers in Congress, is presented. Will the ten men you are to sent to Congress be more worthy than those seven were? If power grew so rapidly in their hands, what may it not do in the hands of others? If those who go from this state will find power accompanied with temptation, our situation must be truly critical. When about forming a government, if we mistake the principles, or commit any other error, the very circumstance promises that power will be abused. The greatest caution and circumspection are therefore necessary; nor does this proposed system, on its investigation here, deserve the least charity.

The honorable gentleman says that the national government is without energy. I perfectly agree with him; and when he cries out, Union, I agree with him; but I tell him not to mistake the end for the means. The end is union; the most capital means, I suppose, are an army and navy. On a supposition, I will acknowledge this; still the bare act of agreeing to that paper, though it may have an amazing influence, will not pay our millions. There must be things to pay debts. What these things are, or how they are to be produced, must be determined by our political wisdom and economy.

The honorable gentleman alleges that previous amendments will prevent the junction of our riches from producing great profits and emoluments, which would enable us to pay our public debts, by excluding us from the Union. I believe, sir, that a previous ratification of a system notoriously and confessedly defective will endanger our riches, our liberty, our all. Its defects are acknowledged; they cannot be denied. The reason offered by the honorable gentleman for adopting this defective system, is its adoption by the eight states. I say, sir, that, if we present nothing but what is {145} reasonable in the shape of amendments, they will receive us. Union is as necessary for them as for us. Will they, then, be so unreasonable as not to join us? If such be their disposition, I am happy to know it in time.

The honorable member then observed, that nations will expend millions for commercial advantages; that is, that they will deprive you of every advantage if they can. Apply this another way. Their cheaper way, instead of laying out millions in making war upon you, will be to corrupt your senators. I know that, if they be not above all price, they may make a sacrifice of our commercial interests. They may advise your President to make a treaty that will not only sacrifice all your commercial interests, but throw prostrate your bill of rights. Does he fear that their ships will outnumber ours on the ocean, or that nations whose interest comes in contact with ours, in the progress of their guilt, will perpetrate the vilest expedients to exclude us from a participation in commercial advantages? Does he advise us, in order to avoid this evil, to adopt a Constitution, which will enable such nations to obtain their ends by the more easy mode of contaminating the principles of our senators? Sir, if our senators will not be corrupted, it will be because they will be good men, and not because the Constitution provides against corruption; for there is no real check secured in it, and the most abandoned and profligate acts may with impunity be committed by them.

With respect to Maryland, what danger from thence? I know none. I have not heard of any hostility premeditated or committed. Nine tenths of the people have not heard of it. Those who are so happy as to be illumined have not informed their fellow-citizens of it. I am so valiant as to say that no danger can come, from that source, sufficient to make me abandon my republican principles. The honorable gentleman ought to have recollected that there were no tyrants in America, as there are in Europe. The citizens of republican borders are only terrible to tyrants. Instead of being dangerous to one another, they mutually support one another’s liberties. We might be confederated with the adopting states without ratifying this system. No form of government renders a people more formidable. A confederacy of states joined together becomes strong as the United Netherlands. The government of Holland, execrated as it is, proves that {146} the present Confederation is adequate to every purpose of human association. There are seven provinces confederated together for a long time, containing numerous opulent cities, and many of the finest ports in the world. The recollection of the situation of that country would make me execrate monarchy. The singular felicity and success of that people are unparalleled: freedom has done miracles there in reclaiming land from the ocean. It is the richest spot on the face of the globe. Have they no men or money? Have they no fleets or armies? Have they no arts or sciences among them? How did they repel the attacks of the greatest nations in the world? How have they acquired their amazing influence and power? Did they consolidate government, to effect these purposes, as we do? No, sir, they have trampled over every obstacle and difficulty, and have arrived at the summit of political felicity, and of uncommon opulence, by means of a confederacy —that very government which gentlemen affect to despise. They have, sir, avoided a consolidation as the greatest of evils. They have lately, it is true, made one advance to that fatal progression. This misfortune burst on them by iniquity and artifice. That stadtholder, that executive magistrate, contrived it, in conjunction with other European nations. It was not the choice of the people. Was it owing to his energy that this happened? If two provinces have paid nothing, what have not the rest done? And have not these two provinces made other exertions? Ought they, to avoid this inconvenience, to have consolidated their different states, and have a ten miles square? Compare that little spot, nurtured by liberty, with the fairest country in the world. Does not Holland possess a powerful navy and army, and a full treasury? They did not acquire these by debasing the principles and trampling on the rights of their citizens. Sir, they acquired these by their industry, economy, and by the freedom of their government. Their commerce is the most extensive in Europe; their credit is unequalled; their felicity will be an eternal monument of the blessings of liberty: every nation in Europe is taught by them what they are, and what they ought to be. The contrast between those nations and this happy people is the most splendid spectacle for republicans —the greatest cause of exultation and triumph to the sons of freedom. While other nations, precipitated by the rage of {147} ambition or folly, have, in the pursuit of the most magnificent projects, riveted the fetters of bondage on themselves and descendants, these republicans secured their political happiness and freedom. Where is there a nation to be compared to them? Where is there now, or where was there ever, a nation of so small a territory, and so few in number, so powerful, so wealthy, so happy? What is the cause of this superiority? Liberty, sir, the freedom of their government. Though they are now, unhappily, in some degree consolidated, yet they have my acclamations, when put in contrast with those millions of their fellow-men who lived and died like slaves. The dangers of a consolidation ought to be guarded against in this country. I shall exert my poor talents to ward them off. Dangers are to be apprehended in whatever manner we proceed; but those of a consolidation are the most destructive. Let us leave no expedient untried to secure happiness. But, whatever be our decision, I am consoled if American liberty will remain entire only for half a century; and I trust that mankind in general, and our posterity in particular, will be compensated for every anxiety we now feel.

Another gentleman tells us that no inconvenience will result from the exercise of the power of taxation by the general government; that two shillings out of ten may be saved by the impost; and that four shillings may be paid to the federal collector, and four to the state collector. A change of government will not pay money. If, from the probable amount of the imposts, you take the enormous and extravagant expenses which will certainly attend the support of this great consolidated government, I believe you will find no reduction of the public burdens by this new system. The splendid maintenance of the President, and of the members of both houses, and the salaries and fees of the swarm of officers and dependants of the government, will cost this continent immense sums. Double sets of collectors will double the expenses; to those are to be added oppressive excisemen and custom-house officers. Sir, the people have an hereditary hatred to custom-house officers. The experience of the mother country leads me to detest them. They have introduced their baneful influence into the administration, and destroyed one of the most beautiful systems that ever the world saw. Our forefathers enjoyed liberty there while that system was in its purity; but it is now contaminated by influence of every kind.

{148} The style of the government (We, the people) was introduced perhaps to recommend it to the people at large; to those citizens who are to be levelled and degraded to the lowest degree; who are likened to a herd; and who, by the operation of this blessed system, are to be transformed from respectable, independent citizens, to abject, dependent subjects or slaves. The honorable gentleman has anticipated what we are to be reduced to, by degradingly assimilating our citizens to a herd.

[Here Governor Randolph arose, and declared that he did not use that word to excite any odium, but merely to convey an idea of a multitude.]

Mr. Henry replied, that it made a deep impression on his mind, and that he verily believed that system would operate as he had said. He then continued: I will exchange that abominable word for requisitions. Requisitions, which gentlemen affect to despise, have nothing degrading in them. On this depends our political prosperity. I never will give up that darling word requisitions: my country may give it up; a majority may wrest it from me, but I will never give it up till my grave. Requisitions are attended with one singular advantage. They are attended by deliberation. They secure to the states the benefit of correcting oppressive errors. If our Assembly thought requisitions erroneous, if they thought the demand was too great, they might at least supplicate Congress to reconsider —that it was a little too much. The power of direct taxation was called by the honorable gentleman the soul of the government: another gentleman called it the lungs of the government. We all agree that it is the most important part of the body politic. If the power of raising money be necessary for the general government, it is no less so for the states. If money be the vitals of Congress, is it not precious for those individuals from whom it is to be taken? Must I give my soul, my lungs, to Congress? Congress must have our souls; the state must have our souls. This is dishonorable and disgraceful. These two coordinate, interfering, unlimited powers of harassing the community are unexampled: it is unprecedented in history. They are the visionary projects of modern politicians. Tell me not of imaginary means, but of reality; this political {149} solecism will never tend to the benefit of the community. It will be as oppressive in practice as it is absurd in theory. If you part from this, which the honorable gentleman tells you is the soul of Congress, you will be inevitably ruined. I tell you, they shall not have the soul of Virginia. They tell us that one collector may collect the federal and state taxes. The general government being paramount to the state legislatures, if the sheriff is to collect for both, —his right hand for Congress, his left for the state, —his right hand being paramount over the left, his collections will go to Congress. We shall have the rest. Deficiencies in collections will always operate against the states. Congress, being the paramount, supreme power, must not be disappointed. Thus Congress will have an unlimited, unbounded command over the soul of this commonwealth. After satisfying their uncontrolled demands, what can be left for the states? Not a sufficiency even to defray the expense of their internal administration. They must therefore glide imperceptibly and gradually out of existence. This, sir, must naturally terminate in a consolidation. If this will do for other people, it never will do for me.

If we are to have one representative for every thirty thousand souls, it must be by implication. The Constitution does not positively secure it. Even say it is a natural implication, —why not give us a right to that proportion in express terms, in language that could not admit of evasions or subterfuges? If they can use implication for us, they can also use implication against us. We are giving power; they are getting power; judge, then, on which side the implication will be used! When we once put it in their option to assume constructive power, danger will follow. Trial by jury, and liberty of the press, are also on this foundation of implication. If they encroach on these rights, and you give your implication for a plea, you are cast; for they will be justified by the last part of it, which gives them full power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to carry their power into execution.” Implication is dangerous, because it is unbounded: if it be admitted at all, and no limits be prescribed, it admits of the utmost extension. They say that every thing that is not given is retained. The reverse of the proposition is true by implication. They do not carry their implication so far when they speak of the {150} general welfare —no implication when the sweeping clause comes. Implication is only necessary when the existence of privileges is in dispute. The existence of powers is sufficiently established. If we trust our dearest rights to implication, we shall be in a very unhappy situation.

Implication, in England, has been a source of dissension. There has been a war of implication between the king and people. For a hundred years did the mother country struggle under the uncertainty of implication. The people insisted that their rights were implied; the monarch denied the doctrine. The Bill of Rights, in some degree, terminated the dispute. By a bold implication, they said they had a right to bind us in all cases whatsoever. This constructive power we opposed, and successfully. Thirteen or fourteen years ago, the most important thing that could be thought of was to exclude the possibility of construction and implication. These, sir, were then deemed perilous. The first thing that was thought of was a bill of rights. We were not satisfied with your constructive, argumentative rights.

Mr. Henry then declared a bill of rights indispensably necessary; that a general positive provision should be inserted in the new system, securing to the states and the people every right which was not conceded to the general government; and that every implication should be done away. It being now late, he concluded by observing, that he would resume the subject another time.

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