Skip to comments.That liberty guy...
Posted on 06/25/2012 12:37:13 PM PDT by pickrell
"Wasn't he, uh, that guy who said 'Give me liberty or give me death'?"
Yeah, he was.
If any mention is made of Patrick Henry, or any incidental reference linked to his name, the vast majority of folks remember he said something like that, since it is cited as his single, or at least the most 'historical thing' that he did.
What they don't remember was the obstructionism he caused in the framing of our Constitution. Kindness, perhaps, leaves him with only that one quote as his single contribution to American history. Kindness, perhaps, leaves out the problems he introduced which almost halted the progress of ratification of that contribution.
When he first spoke publically in the House of Burgesses in Virginia in 1765 against the Stamp Act of the British, whereby a vast number of commercial transactions of the colony would now be taxed, Henry mesmerized the assembly with the power of his voice, his logic and his showmanship. His arguments "bordered on treason", many of the monied Burgesses murmured. It was feared that such a speech would filter up to the Crown. It was feared more, though, secretly, that such a speech would filter down to the common people. Their fears were well founded.
Over the course of the coming years Henry was accused far and wide, accurately, of being unrelenting in fomenting disloyalty to the Crown. Such talk might injure the purses of the merchants, and add a 'dis-ease to their trading with Britain'.
Throughout the war years he hammered away that the colonies needed to support and supply those soldiers they had sent afield to oppose the British troops; those invaders sent to force submission upon the colonials.
Together with Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson, he denounced ever-increasing encroachments upon the rights of Virginians and other colonialists, by the British Parliament. The power of Henry's speeches caused hushes when he rose, lest anyone miss a word. And those words spread far and wide among the colonies.
Henry had no mastery of the normal method of power politics- that of carefully constructed alliances, power blocks, deals and cabals.
He instead introduced something then new into the colonies, that of speech which "rose up the common people". It is nearly unarguable that without General George Washington, the revolutionary war couldn't have been concluded in our favor. Less well known is that it is equally unarguable that without Patrick Henry, the revolutionary war would most likely not have started in the first place, or at least when it did.
The problem was the man had a nearly psychotic preoccupation with the rights and dignity of all men. His speeches aroused volunteers for the continental army, as many rightly suspect was intended. "Is life so dear. or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"
Throughout the war, Henry arranged far more for the cause than a single famous speech. As the new Governor of Virgina, he and others offered all of the support they could muster. And when victory finally came, many thought the work then over.
Not Henry. As Madison and the Federalists assembled and campaigned for a new Constitution, Henry, and loyal supporters Lee and Jefferson, opposed it in weeks of turbulent speeches. He railed that the proposed Constitution provided much of what government would be empowered to do, but without one word of the rights of the governed. Without a Bill of Rights, he argued, they would be simply trading the oppression of England for the new oppression of an aristocracy in Washington. What inducement might the former colonists have to yolk themselves with new chains of their own construction? What, in short, was in it for them?
In opposing the Federalists at every turn with his relentless insistance for the rights of the people, his large and growing following became cleverly labeled the Anti-Federalists. It was reported in the papers sympathetic with Madison, that Henry wanted anarchy, and turmoil. That those who followed him were simply "against, or anti-", without mention of what they were for. Such labeling and painting would become perfected in the following centuries, as the media discovered its powers.
Far and wide, though. the reported speeches of Patrick Henry at the Constitutional Convention aroused much of the populace against the as-yet-unknown, proposed Constitution. The Federalists struck back hard, pointing out that any rights of citizens may be assumed, and that codifying these rights was unnecessary and a wasted effort. After all, no other government had found such a thing to be necessary.
Henry countered that in England, any right not specifically spelled out, was assumed to belong to the throne. And that many of those who found it objectionable to spell out those rights must surely fear wasted paper.
Henry slyly offered to pay for the additional paper necessary to print a Bill of Rights and maintained that without such guarantees, not merely assumed but specifically guaranteed, Virginia could not ratify the Constitution.
In spite of his intransigence, the necessary nine colonies ratified the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Virginia held back. After all, the commoners were told, they would have to pass it to see what was in it. Where would that phrase ever recur again...?
But Patrick Henry and his co-conspirators were not through. If anything their opposition intensified, and calls began to swell for a second Constitutional Convention. Constituencies which, fearing disunion, had voted for the first version of the Constitution, now had further thoughts, and serious questions began to be heard in direct support of Henry's continuing speeches and demands.
Now that union would be assured, what possible reason could possibly be advanced to block amendments that guaranteed the rights of men, as opposed to the powers of government? "Why must citizens believe that the good and noble spirit of those who govern would certainly keep them from oppression of the people... when those same that govern found it necessary to enshrine in law their various powers?"
Without a powerful public speaker like Patrick Henry, it seemed that Madison, Mason, (and yes, George Washington,) were powerless to prevent the push for a new- a second- Constitutional Convention. Attacks increased, and would never completely cease, upon Patrick Henry, his motives, his unattractiveness, his heritage, and a score of failings maintained by the newspapers and pamphleteers. Henry ignored them, and merely quipped, "I hope they never find out about all of my real faults!"
As the 2nd Constitutional Convention assembled, Henry, Lee and Jefferson drew up a list of twenty amendments to present. In powerful debate that followed, despite the best efforts of Henry and the Anti-federalists, the list was pared to 18, then consolidated to 12, and finally reduced to 10 amendments. Henry had to secretly admire the Federalist-controlled newspapers' ability to brand them still as Antifederalists- craven men averse to necessary government, villains to the common people. It didn't work. Henry had aroused a tide of men unwilling to surrender hard won liberties. The Bill was adopted by strong margin.
Amazingly, later, in presentation to the public, it somehow transpired that the Federalists had been in favor of such a Bill all along, and perhaps by bureaucratic error, had simply failed to mention it! In fact, all of the speeches demonizing such a Bill of Rights as the work of anarchists and worse, now were forgotten, or even had never actually happened. Over the coming decades, newspapers, and finally teachers would gloss over the reasons for powerful disagreement over the Constitution, and suggest that reason finally prevailed against the weak minded.
Madison now became the new champion for the 10 amendments presented to the public as the Bill of Rights, and its inclusion into the Constitution was law... as long as it may be defended.
Henry declined further service, and having secured what he could for the rights of man, entered a slow slide into obscurity. He declined a number of offers for the Presidency, for a Supreme Court appointment and other inducements. He would leave the rest to politicians. He went home to farm and sire a number of kids, even at a "ripe age"!
And so Patrick Henry's fears and warnings against a future Government who would continue to accrue ever increasing power to themselves, and who may not be trusted to honor the wishes of the people, and might instead dictate what would be "good for the masses, once they come around to our way of thinking...", proved unnecessary.
And his insistence that a Bill of Rights be secured before the States handed over political power to a central government, was merely a waste of time.
How unnecessary it has proven, to have enshrined in the final version of the Constitution, despite the burdensome cost of the extra sheets of paper it required, those rigid and "obvious" freedoms. Obviously anyone elected by a majority of the voters could only have the liberty and unalienable rights of that same electorate uppermost in his or her mind, when settling down to govern the affairs of men. Intrusion into their lives and freedoms was, of course, unthinkable.
Patrick Henry is still mentioned in passing, as having uttered the words "Give me Liberty, or give me death..". As a kindness, the history books largely omit his subsequent obstructionism in the Constitutional Convention. His pivotal role in forcing the largely redundant, and unnecessary 2nd Constitutional Convention, is ignored. In fact, due perhaps to kindness to his posterity, the fact that he finally forced a written, enshrined Bill of Rights to be included in the Constitution, through the overwhelming power of popular opinion, is somehow now consigned to the "library of obscure notions".
His highly criticized appeal to the common people, identified as demagogery by his many detractors, has still tainted the people of the United States with the disruptive notion that they are guaranteed to, in Henry's words, "live in a society of laws, and not of men."
Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Amendment 7: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
"Yeah, he was that 'Liberty' guy. They mentioned him, in school, once..."
What were the 10 amendments by Henry that were not included?
My favorite founding father. I love Patrick Henry.
Jefferson was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention--he wasn't making any speeches.
Patrick Henry could have attended the convention in Philadelphia but he "smelt a rat." He led the opposition to ratification at the Virginia convention. Ironically he was joined in that effort by James Monroe and by Benjamin Harrison, a Signer of the Declaration and the father of one President and great-grandfather of another. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, later Vice President, was a delegate to the convention but refused to sign the Constitution as did a number of other respected figures.
The Anti-Federalists did a big service by forcing the Federalists to agree to a Bill of Rights (written by James Madison in the first session of Congress in 1789).
I wonder if any new school is being named for Patrick Henry and how many have been renamed because of the short-sighted proposition against any and all slave-holders. It is real hubris to make this the “feather on the scale of Justice” instead of the totality of an entire life. As an aspect of the Founder’s lives, being a slave owner should neither be applauded nor glossed over, but logic should prevail that it was by the country and institutions that they helped emplace that has resulted in, arguably, the least race-constrained society in this world.
I am ALWAYS dumbfounded at our collective luck in having this group of practical idealists for the founders of our country. From Benjamin Franklin to Gilbert du Motier (Marquis de Lafayette), we had a crop of intellectual and warrior luminaries equal if not superior to any other time or place. For them to also be wedded to the concepts of a republic and to be so resistant to self-aggrandizement, is a further wonder for the ages.
It makes you wonder just how many other times in history a similar push for liberty occurred, in some unknown and so unremarked place. But the simple lack of a Patrick Henry, a Madison, or a Washington, or all three, at the critical time, doomed the effort to failure.
But I guess that only in the one unlikely instance where it all came together at once, as you say, here in the U.S., would we be free and able to remark on it now...
In the other instances the less fortunate wouldn't know what they missed, and so wouldn't miss it.
Or is that to simplistic?
pickrell, thanks for the info on Patrick Henry - I (shamefully) was more in the "Isn't he that liberty or death guy?" camp.
Some were folded into the ten which did pass. This may not have been such a good idea.
For instance, the First Amendment combines a strong statement warning the government to keep it's nose out of the religion business, with a separate freedom included for persons and the press to speak without fear of being arrested. Yet a third part, adding that of being able to gather together in groups without arrest, was also thrown in.
These 3 concepts were crunched together, with "excess wording" minimized, into the First Amendment.
The problem is that due to the brevity of the final wording, all of these freedoms have come under revisionist attack by persons or interests who wish to "clarify" what was meant. A fuller more ironclad wording would have been possible if the freedoms had not been so compressed, for the sake of brevity, perhaps, or elegance, or even to save the trees from their paper fate...
Only the courts now can protect the rights of the citizens, when they are not busy "reading new, previously unimagined rights" into the Constitution. Sadly, this protection is often from the Supreme Court itself. Warren vs Roberts.
In fairness to Madison, and the rest, I can envision them saying in good faith, "How much more plainly need it be said?" since they originally didn't think it needed written down at all. "What part of inalienable don't you understand?"