WACO, Texas — At the conclusion of Virginia’s 1788 ratification convention, a meeting tasked with voting on the new Constitution, Patrick Henry strode to the assembly floor, convinced that the future of American liberty hung in the balance. In his mind’s eye, the great orator warned, he could see angels watching, “reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which in the progress of time will happen in America, and the consequent happiness or misery of mankind — I am led to believe that much of the account on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide.”
To Americans familiar only with Henry’s blazing “Liberty or Death” oration of 1775, it may come as a shock to learn that Henry opposed the adoption of the Constitution. Henry always had a flair for the dramatic, but on this occasion Mother Nature offered him an improbable assist: As he thundered against the dangers of the new centralized government, a howling storm rose outside the Richmond hall. Frightened delegates scurried to take cover. As Henry’s first biographer put it, the angelic “spirits whom he had called, seemed to have come at his bidding.”
A memorable scene, to be sure, but how could the man who cried “give me liberty or give me death,” this patriot who penned Virginia’s resolves against the Stamp Act in 1765, not support the Constitution? The answer was pretty simple: Henry thought that the American Revolution was, at root, a rebellion against the coercive power of the British government. In particular, it was a rebellion against unjust British taxes. Henry therefore thought it was madness for Americans to place that same kind of consolidated political authority over themselves again.
America already had a constitution in 1788, of course. It was the Articles of Confederation, basically a continuation of the Continental Congress, the ad hoc body formed in 1774 to plan resistance against British taxes. The Articles of Confederation government was composed of a single-house legislature. The states retained most of their power under the Articles, and it was very difficult for the national government to do much of anything without overwhelming support from the states.
Historians often assume that the government under the Articles was an unmitigated disaster. But, really, the Articles government was not too bad. It managed (with major difficulty, of course) to beat the formidable British military in the Revolutionary War. It secured the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which remains one of the greatest diplomatic achievements in American history. And it passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the key precedent for the future expansion of the United States into the Great Lakes region and the trans-Mississippi west.
Certainly there were many problems under the Articles of Confederation, mostly regarding the national government’s inability to craft coherent trade and economic policy. Part of this inefficiency was intentional, as the national authorities did not have the power to tax. When the Confederation Congress needed money, it had to issue requests for funding to the states. Often the states could not (or would not) pony up.
This may seem like a crazy system today, but we should remember that the Founders designed the Articles government simply to perform those tasks that only a national government could do. They did not wish to create a large, powerful national government. The states still commanded the primary allegiance of most leading Patriots. When someone in the Founding period spoke of his “country,” he was probably talking about his home state, not the United States.
It was James Madison and Alexander Hamilton who began moving the nation away from the Patriots’ original suspicion of big government. They pushed for a 1787 meeting that was ostensibly tasked with proposing new amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Henry and George Washington were the two most popular leaders in Virginia, and Henry was elected to attend the Philadelphia convention. But he had already begun to suspect that the organizers had more in mind than just suggesting amendments. He famously explained his refusal to attend by saying “I smelt a rat.”
Henry had served five terms as Virginia governor during the and ‘80s, and he had already become alarmed at the willingness of Northern congressmen to act directly against Virginia’s economic interests. In particular, John Jay, the secretary of foreign affairs, had in 1786 attempted to sign away America’s rights to navigate the Mississippi River in exchange for preferential trade status. This would have been a disaster for the Southern economy. Only the requirement for a two-thirds’ majority on navigation acts prevented the measure from being adopted, but James Madison knew that the damage was done. “Mr. Henry’s disgust (at the Jay treaty) exceeded all measure,” Madison wrote, and turned Henry totally against the notion of enhancing national government’s power.
When Henry saw the result of the Philadelphia convention’s work, he was appalled. To him, the new Constitution proved that Americans had already forgotten the dangers of consolidated national authority. Although he had refused to attend the Philadelphia meeting, Henry eagerly went to the Richmond ratifying convention, setting the stage for a clash between Henry and his political nemesis, Madison. Henry commandeered the ratification proceedings, warning in exquisite (and, Madison thought, exasperating) detail all the ways in which the Constitution jeopardized American liberty.
Like most Antifederalists, Henry wanted a bill of rights added to the Constitution (the document did not originally include one), but that was not his core concern. Instead, Henry wished to see real, structural limitations on the new government’s power, such as taking away its authority to tax. Federalists (supporters of the Constitution) said that in order to have a powerful, effective government, the Constitution required these new powers. To Henry, this was hogwash. The Constitution’s defenders, he warned, believe “we must be a great and mighty empire,” he said. But “when the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, sir, was then the primary object.”
Henry concluded his assault on the new Constitution with his remarkable thunderstorm speech, but he could not derail ratification. Virginia voted 89-79 to approve the Constitution, and when his longtime ally Washington became the first president, Henry slowly began to reconcile himself to the new government. But he never got over the feeling that when the nation ratified the Constitution, it betrayed the principles of the Revolution.
Patrick Henry thought that a national government invested with the unlimited power to tax and spend would inexorably transform into a monstrosity, one that the Founders — even Madison — never intended. Most Americans believe that the Constitution, at least as originally designed, fostered a wise system of checks and balances that divided power between the states and national government. But when you consider the titanic government we have today, and the struggles to contain our mind-boggling rates of federal debt and spending, Henry’s warnings about what the government under the Constitution could eventually become seem more and more reasonable.
• Kidd teaches history at Baylor University, and is senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.”