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Patrick Henry’s Peaceful Dissent

Those who were once united by the “Spirit of ’76,” or the Revolutionary generation, were not necessarily united in supporting the Constitution in 1787-88. We need only look to the state ratification debates to see the diversity of opinions regarding the new plan of government among faithful and once-united patriots. Acceptance of the Constitution was anything but a foregone conclusion.

Virginia patriot Patrick Henry, famous for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech which prompted Virginia (and eventually her sister states) to join besieged Massachusetts in the cause of independence, was one such devout Anti-Federalists, or one who opposed the new Constitution. His voice was often heard (and feared by Federalists) during the Virginia ratification debates.

Patrick Henry’s objections were not unfounded. After fighting off a British superpower, he feared a large national government with no declaration of rights to limit its power. He warned that if Virginia ratified, “the Republic may be lost forever,” and subsequently demanded to know “what right had [the delegates at Philadelphia] to say, We, the People.”

As the Virginia convention drew near a final vote on ratification, Henry stood to deliver his most impassioned soliloquy against the Constitution. He condemned an affirmative vote by saying it would negatively impact not just the fledging United States, but countries and even generations yet unborn but nonetheless present in the convention hall with the delegates in ethereal form.

When I see beyond the horrison [sic.] that binds human eyes,” Henry began, “and look at the final consummation of all human things…I am led to believe that much of the account on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide. 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…”

Just as Henry finished his speech, a storm suddenly arose which combined with Henry’s rhetorical weaponry to have an eerie affect on his listeners. His final words were punctuated by thunder and lightning which “shook the whole building.”

Without calling for adjournment, the delegates—including such distinguished figures as George Washington, Governor Edmund Randolph, George Mason, James Monroe and James Madison—fled the convention hall. One listener explained why: “the spirits whom [Henry] had called, seemed to have come at his bidding.” Moreover, “[Henry] seemed to mix in the fight of his aetherial auxiliaries, and ‘rising on the wings of the tempest, to seize upon the artillery of Heaven, and direct its fiercest thunders against the heads of his adversaries.’”

Yet in spite of his vehement opposition, Patrick Henry demonstrated his commitment to the democratic process. Shortly after the Virginia Ratification Convention, he was approached by his Anti-Federalist colleagues to head a guerilla war against the ratified Constitution. Instead of continuing to oppose the Constitution outright, he declared “I will be a peaceable citizen.”

And he was. While Henry disagreed with some aspects of the new government, he also recognized that the Constitution left his head, hand, and heart free to advocate change “in a constitutional way.” He accepted the choice made by the American people and advocated for change within the system they had chosen. As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, he ensured Virginia’s two U.S. Senators were Anti-Federalists, paving the way for the passage of the Bill of Rights.

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