Patrick Henry, one of my favorite Founding Fathers because of his honesty, passion, and sheer devotion to the exercise and protection of fundamental liberty, opposed the US Constitution openly and aggressively. He was concerned about the consolidation of federal authority and especially the power concentrated in the office of the President. A particular concern was the President’s authority and command over the armed forces. Henry predicted that a president could use the military “to run roughshod over the republic.” (Lincoln and the Civil War!!) He was highly skeptical of the broad taxing power delegated to the Congress. He believed the Constitution allowed the government to control the governed, with little ability and no obligation to control itself. And he argued that the Constitution effectively ignored the essential role of the States.
Furthermore, Henry always wondered whether Americans had the moral fiber to safeguard the freedom secured by the American Revolution. By 1776, he saw a moral depravity that concerned him, and he believed it would eventually set the stage for tyranny. The delegates of the Constitutional Convention, he argued, foolishly assumed that all politicians would be virtuous men. He criticized many of the Founders and drafters, Christian republicans as they were, for not realizing that this assumption was a fatal flaw.
“Nothing could check a national government entrusted with vast military might and the unlimited authority to tax…… Our human rights and privileges are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this Constitution,” he wrote. What he meant by this, as he often stated, was that the Constitution represented an outright repudiation of the American Revolution.
As an alternative to all the States ratifying and binding themselves to document that he believed would destroy liberty and ultimately establish a tyrannical government, Patrick Henry proposed that States establish sectional confederacies (multiple republics). He further supported this approach because it was his firm belief that the Constitution would give special treatment to Northern states over Southern states and the latter would forever be prejudiced in representation and legislation. Another little known fact is that Henry proposed secession in 1781, certainly for Virginia, and for other states as well.
In opposing the Constitution and its ratification, Patrick Henry believed he was defending the ideals of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. He argued that America had just fought for their independence from an abusive political regime (the British monarchy and Parliament) and now Madison and Hamilton were intending to put the newly-free nation back under a strong central government, with a strong executive. He argued that we were trading one tyrant for another. To Henry, this was a repudiation of all the liberties that he and the other patriots had fought for. As he explained: “A monstrous national government was not the solution…. Many had to die to be free from such a regime.”
In an opening speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1781, Henry pleaded: “A wrong step now will plunge us into misery and our republic will be lost.” In one of his very last public speeches, given at the same Convention, he delivered this heartfelt message: “Liberty is the greatest of all earthly blessings. Give us that precious jewel and you may take everything else. There was a time when every pulse of my heart beat for American liberty and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American. But suspicions have gone forth publicly – suspicions of my integrity – that my professions are not real. 23 years ago, I was supposed a traitor to my country. I was then said to be a bane of sedition because I supported the rights of my countrymen. I may be thought suspicious when I say that our privileges and rights are in danger. But, Sir, a number of people of this country are weak enough to think these things are true…. My great objection to this (new) government is that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights.”