Rediscovering and recovering lost and endangered American liberties by studying our Founders' ideas, contemporaries, and etymology – because our united States "…are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States…"
If Patrick Henry were to manifest in America today, his first words would be, “I told you so.” Henry opposed Virginia’s ratification of the new proposed American Constitution, believing that it “squinted toward monarchy,” leaving too much power in the hands of the President, and that a “consolidated government” would unrelentingly lead to the oppression of hard-fought American liberties.
In 1788 Henry addressed the Virginia Ratifying Convention with yet another passionate speech (his ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death‘1 speech had taken place 12 years earlier), known as ‘Shall Liberty or Empire be Sought?‘2 in which he attempted to warn the attendees of the dangers of ratifying the new Constitution.
In his impassioned plea, he contrasted the peaceful existence of American citizens under the (then current) Articles of Confederation with a future in which, under the proposed new and untested Constitution, unknown dangers might lurk:
Consider our situation, sir; go to the poor man and ask him what he does. He will inform you that he enjoys the fruits of his labor, under his own fig tree, with his wife and children around him, in peace and security. Go to every other member of society; you will find the same tranquil ease and content; you will find no alarms or disturbances. Why, then, tell us of danger, to terrify us into an adoption of this new form of government? And yet who knows the dangers that this new system may produce? They are out of sight of the common people; they can not foresee latent consequences.3
Why, Henry wondered, would we relinquish the peace, security, and liberties of the present constitution for the unknown problems a new one might bring? And what dangers do we legitimately face, he asked, that warrant a restructuring of government?
I see great jeopardy in this new government. I see none from our present one. I hope some gentleman or other will bring forth, in full array, those dangers, if there be any, that we may see and touch them.4
Henry feared that Americans would lose cherished liberties under a consolidated, powerful government – and once lost, that they would be irrecoverable:
I have said that I thought this a consolidated government; I will now prove it. Will the great rights of the people be secured by this government? Suppose it should prove oppressive, how can it be altered?5
He scoffed at the folly of envying other nations that had strong, consolidated, centralized governments:
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 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 into 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 constitute happiness or secure liberty?6
He saw the spectre of tyranny as a looming probability, given the lack of sufficient checks on the President and Congress embedded in the new Constitution:
This Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy, and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American? Your president may easily become king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed to what may be a small minority; and a very small minority may continue for ever unchangeably this government, altho horridly defective. Where are your checks in this government? Your strongholds will be in the hands of your enemies. It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs should they be bad men; and, sir, would not all the world, blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad? Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty!7
He even went so far as to say that a monarch would stay within prescribed boundaries more easily than a President, at the head of an army, would under the proposed Constitution!
If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design, and, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely – and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion – have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete with such insupportable evils. If we make a king we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the president, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master […] If he be guilty, will not the recollection of his crimes teach him to make one bold push for the American throne?8
Most of what Patrick Henry saw so clearly has come true – the safeguards of the Constitution have shown to be insufficient to keep ambitious leaders in check. If only his words were heeded, and a republican system of dual federalism had been protected and maintained, our lost liberties might have been preserved, and I believe America would be even stronger economically, militarily, and perhaps morally today.
Patrick Henry knew that his warnings would most likely echo through American history, and he wanted us to know that he did everything he could on his watch to preserve our liberty. It is now up to us to fight to regain what we have lost.
The voice of tradition, I trust, will inform posterity of our struggles for freedom. If our descendants be worthy the name of Americans they will preserve and hand down to their latest posterity the transactions of the present times; and tho I confess my exclamations are not worthy the hearing, they will see that I have done my utmost to preserve their liberty9…