Posted by: Democratic Thinker | December 3, 2009

I Wish Not To Go To Violence

American Debate

Patrick Henry tells the Constitutional Convention in Richmond that he will wait patiently while the Federal constitutional system, if ratified, removes the defects found in that document. He also reminds the convention that, while he is a peaceable citizen, liberty was bought with violence.

“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
—Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775.

Patrick Henry’s Address to the Richmond Convention.


Patrick Henry.

MR. CHAIRMAN, when we were told of the difficulty of obtaining previous amendments, I contended that they might be as easily obtained as subsequent amendments. We are told that nine states have adopted it. If so, when the government gets in motion, have they not a right to consider our amendments as well as if we adopted first? If we remonstrate, may they not consider and admit our amendments? But now, sir, when we have been favored with a view of their subsequent amendments, I am confirmed in what I apprehended; and that is, subsequent amendments will make our condition worse; for they are placed in such a point of view as will make this Convention ridiculous. I speak in plain, direct language. It is extorted from me. If this Convention will say, that the very right by which amendments are desired is not secured, then I say our rights are not secured. As we have the right of desiring amendments, why not exercise it? But gentlemen deny this right. It follows, of course, that, if this right be not secured, our other rights are not. The proposition of subsequent amendments is only to lull our apprehensions. We speak the language of contradiction and inconsistency, to say that rights are secured, and then say that they are not. Is not this placing this Convention in a contemptible light? Will not this produce contempt of us in Congress, and every other part of the world? Will gentlemen tell me that they are in earnest about these amendments?

I am convinced they mean nothing serious. What are the rights which they do not propose to secure—which they reject?—for I contend there are many essential and vital rights which are omitted. One is the power of direct taxation. Gentlemen will not even give this invaluable right a place among their subsequent amendments. And do gentlemen mean seriously that they will oppose us on this ground on the floor of Congress? If Virginia thinks it one of her dearest rights, she need not expect to have it amended. No, sir; it will be opposed. Taxes and excises are to be laid on us. The people are to be oppressed, and the state legislature prostrated. Very material amendments are omitted. With respect to your militia, we only request that, if Congress should refuse to find arms for them, this country may lay out their own money to purchase them. But what do the gentlemen on the other side say? As much as that they will oppose you in this point also for, if my recollection has not failed me, they have discarded this also. And shall we be deprived of this privilege? We propose to have it, in case there shall be a necessity to claim it. And is this claim incompatible with the safety of this country—with the grandeur and strength of the United States? If gentlemen find peace and rest on their minds, when the relinquishment of our rights is declared to be necessary for the aggrandizement of the government, they are more contented than I am.

Another thing which they have not mentioned, is the power of treaties. Two thirds of the senators present can make treaties; and they are, when made, to be the supreme law of the land, and are to be paramount to the state constitutions. We wish to guard against the temporary suspension of our great national rights. We wish some qualification of this dangerous power. We wish to modify it One amendment which has been wished for, in this respect, is, that no treaty should be made without the consent of a considerable majority of both houses. I might go on and enumerate many other great rights entirely neglected by their subsequent amendments; but I shall pass over them in silence. I am astonished at what my worthy friend (Mr. Innes) said—that we have no right of proposing previous amendments. That honorable gentleman is endowed with great eloquence—eloquence splendid, magnificent, and sufficient to shake the human mind! He has brought the whole force of America against this state. He has also strongly represented our comparative weakness, with respect to the powers of Europe. But when I review the actual state of things, I see that dangers from thence are merely ideal. His reasoning has no effect on me. He cannot shake my political faith. He admits our power over subsequent amendments, though not over previous amendments. Where is the distinction between them If we have a right to depart from the letter of our commission in one instance, we have in the other; for subsequent amendments have no higher authority than previous. We shall be absolutely certain of escaping danger in the one case, but not in the other. I think the apprehension expressed by another honorable gentleman has no good foundation. He apprehended civil discord if we did not adopt. I am willing to concede that he loves his country. I will, for the sake of argument, allow that I am one of the meanest of those who love their country. But what does this amount to? The great and direct end of government is liberty. Secure our liberty and privileges, and the end of government is answered. If this be not effectually done, government is an evil. What amendments does he propose which secure our liberty? I ask pardon if I make a mistake, but it seems to me that his proposed subsequent amendments do not secure one single right. They say that your rights are secured in the paper on the table, so that these subsequent amendments are a mere supererogation. They are not necessary, because the objects intended to be secured by them are secured already. What is to become of the trial by jury? Had its security been made a part of the Constitution, it would have been sufficiently guarded. But as it is, in that proposition it is by no means explicitly secured. Is it not trifling to admit the necessity of securing it, and not do it in a positive, unequivocal manner? I wish I could place it in any other view than a trifling one. It is only intended to attack every project of introducing amendments. If they are serious, why do they not join us, and ask, in a manly, firm, and resolute manner, for these amendments? Their view is to defeat every attempt to amend. When they speak of their subsequent recommendations, they tell you that amendments must be got, and the next moment they say they are unnecessary!

I beg pardon of this house for having taken up more time than came to my share, and I thank them for the patience and polite attention with which I have been heard. If I shall be in the minority, I shall have those painful sensations which arise from a conviction of being overpowered in a good cause. Yet I will be a peaceable citizen. My head, my hand, and my heart, shall be at liberty to retrieve the loss of liberty, and remove the defects of that system in a constitutional way. I wish not to go to violence, but will wait with hopes that the spirit which predominated in the revolution is not yet gone, nor the cause of those who are attached to the revolution yet lost. I shall therefore patiently wait in expectation of seeing that government changed, so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty, and happiness, of the people.