From The Debates in the Several State Convention on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Volume III, edited by Jonathan Elliot.
Patrick Henry on the Constitution (1788)
Despite the persuasive arguments of Benjamin Franklin for acceptance of the new Constitution, many delegates returned home to lead a fight against ratification in their state conventions. One of these was Patrick Henry, who delivered speeches urging rejection of the Constitution during the Virginia ratification debates. As you read the following excerpts, note why Henry was particularly angered by the now famous phrase "We, the people . .
Mr. Henry. . . . And here I would make this inquiry of those worthy characters who composed a part of the late federal Convention. I am sure they were fully impressed with the necessity of forming a great consolidated government, instead of a confederation. That this is a consolidated government is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking. I have the highest veneration [regard] for those gentlemen; but, sir give me leave to demand. What right had they to say, We, the people? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude [concern] for the public welfare, leads me to ask, Who authorized them to speak the language of We, the people, instead of, We, the states? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. . . . The federal Convention ought to have amended the old system [Articles of Confederation]; for this purpose they were solely delegated; the object of their mission extended to no other consideration. You must, therefore, forgive the solicitation of one unworthy member to know what danger could have arisen under the present Confederation, and what are the causes of this proposal to change our government. . . .
This Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting, it squints towards monarchy; and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American?
Your President may easily become king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed by what may be a small minority, and a very small minority may continue forever unchangeably this government, although horridly defective. Where are your checks in this government? Your strongholds will be in the hands of your enemies. It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest, that all the good qualities of this government are founded, but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs, should they be bad men; and, sir, would not all the world, from the eastern to the western hemisphere, blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad? Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of the dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.
If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address [one who is confident and convincing], it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious [good] moment to accomplish his design; and, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely--and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion-have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete [filled] with such insupportable evils.