Patrick Henry: The Articles of Confederation Are Just Fine
1788 — American revolutionary firebrand Patrick Henry opposes passage of the new American Constitution, arguing that it will create a government bureaucracy that will ultimately betray the interests of the people in favor of the interests of a ruling class.
Henry, the Virginian, believes that America’s recently passed Constitution, which solidifies federal government power, betrays the very idea of freedom and democracy in this young country. In particular, Henry feels that giving Congress control over the American militia will force the citizens to surrender their ability to fend off domestic tyrants. Henry seems to think that a potential Deep State of entrenched government operatives could assume more power in government than the people’s own elected representatives.
“But we are told that we need not fear; because those in power, being our Representatives, will not abuse the power we put in their hands. I am not well versed in history, 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 said in his June 5 speech, published in the Anti-Federalist Papers.
“Happy will you be if you miss the fate of those nations, who, omitting to resist their oppressors, or negligently suffering their liberty to be wrested from them, have groaned under intolerable despotism. Most of the human race are now in this deplorable condition: And those nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power, and splendor, have also fallen a sacrifice, and been the victims of their own folly: While they acquired those visionary blessings, they lost their freedom,” Henry said.
Henry does not trust “gentlemen” to run our militia, because “gentlemen cannot be earnest.”
“My great objection to this Government is, that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights, or of waging war against tyrants: It is urged by some gentlemen, that this new plan will bring us an acquisition of strength, an army, and the militia of the States. This is an idea extremely ridiculous. Gentlemen cannot be earnest. This acquisition will trample on our fallen liberty: Let my beloved Americans guard against that fatal lethargy that has pervaded the universe. Have we the means of resisting disciplined armies, when our only defence, the militia, is put into the hands of Congress?”
Henry said that America has become great, but that he wants it to become great again.
“That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their Government is strong and energetic; but, Sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation: 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 to 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?,” Henry argued.
Henry prefers an America First approach that puts the interests of the common man above those in power.
“But, Sir, we are not feared by foreigners: we do not make nations tremble: Would this, Sir, constitute happiness, or secure liberty? I trust, Sir, our political hemisphere will ever direct their operations to the security of those objects. Consider our situation, Sir: Go to the poor man, ask him what he does; he will inform you, that he enjoys the fruits of his labour, 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 dangers to terrify us into an adoption of this new Government? And yet who knows the dangers that this new system may produce; they are out of the sight of the common people: They cannot foresee latent consequences. I dread the operation of it on the middling and lower classes of people. It is for them I fear the adoption of this system. I fear I tire the patience of the Committee, but I beg to be indulged with a few more observations. When I thus profess myself an advocate for the liberty of the people, I shall be told, I am a designing man, that I am to be a great man, that I am to be a demagogue; and many similar illiberal insinuations will be thrown out; but, Sir, conscious rectitude, out-weighs those things with me: 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.”