One of the great figures of the revolutionary generation, orator and Virginia statesman Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was both typical of his age and an enigma. He was first a failure as a planter and storekeeper, but then a brilliant success as a lawyer and politician. In the events that led to the Revolution he took a radical stance, most famously in his denunciation of George III after the passage of the Stamp Act. He opposed the tariffs imposed by the Townshend Acts and the British attempt to collect them by using the Royal Navy and naval courts-martial to apprehend and punish smugglers. He stood in the vanguard of those calling for united action by all the colonies against British ‘tyranny.’ In the Continental Congress he backed such actions as the general boycott of British goods and the raising of a Continental army. He was a firebrand demanding national independence, as seen in his Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech at an extralegal session of the Virginia Assembly in March 1775. He took the lead in raising troops to overthrow the royal governor. During the war and its immediate aftermath he was five times governor of Virginia.
Yet after the war Henry urged restoration of the property and rights of Loyalists, arguing that they would make good citizens of the new Republic, and he bitterly opposed the Constitution as a threat to the liberties of the people and the rights of the states.
Actually, Henry had seen the union of the rebellious colonies as a marriage of convenience, a kind of defensive alliance to protect already achieved liberties. He believed that once the war had been won a strong central authority was no longer needed. Times were hard in Virginia and he favored tax cuts and the issuance of paper money by the state as a way of providing relief for debtors and small farmers, policies that Virginia nationalists like James Madison and George Washington opposed. When their concerns resulted in the calling of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Henry was elected as a delegate, but he refused to serve. After the new Constitution was published he dismissed it as an affront to ‘the spirit of republicanism’ and the ‘genius of democracy.’ The preamble, beginning ‘We the people,’ particularly offended him. ‘Who authorized them to speak the language of We the people?’ he asked. ‘If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated national government.’
Yet Henry’s negativism had a positive result, probably his most significant contribution to American development. He demanded that the Constitution be amended to protect the liberties that the people had won by breaking free of the British Empire. In speech after speech he denounced the absence of a bill of rights in the document, arguing that the checks and balances stressed by people like Madison were ‘specious’ and ‘imaginary’ protection, mere ‘contrivances.’
Virginia ratified the Constitution despite Henry, but his arguments and those of Samuel Adams and other Antifederalists were persuasive. Madison soon introduced in the new Congress the constitutional amendments that became the Bill of Rights. This satisfied Henry; indeed in his later years he became a Federalist.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.