Patrick Henry is widely known as a figure of the Revolution. His passionate advocacy for resolutions to arm Virginia at the outset of the war permanently thrust him into the historical memory of Americans. The speech he made in favor of those resolutions contained the now-famous "Give me liberty or give me death!" remark.
What Henry is not well known for is his dissent from the Constitution during the ratification process that unfolded in 1787 and 1788. After the revolutionary ideals of freedom and democracy had time to ferment in the wake of the war, the Constitution represented a radically new concept of government: quantifying the liberties of which Americans are endowed.
Henry's concern for individual liberties and the sovereignty of states motivated his dissent from the Constitution. The ratification process pitted Anti-Federalists against Federalists in all of the former colonies. Virginia's ratification convention was notable as a showdown between James Madison and Patrick Henry.
My contention is that Henry's dissent from the Constitution was a principled dissent based on very real fears he had about the dangers of consolidation and the importance of ensuring individual liberties. That dissent was significant due to the geographic and political importance of Virginia. It was also an eloquent dissent that was informed by both his station in Virginia society and his powerful command of the English language.
the democrat as conservative
The American Revolution offered a unique opportunity in the course of human events. It allowed the colonists to set in motion a democratic system that had been a successful experiment in Virginia: actual representation. But for many colonists, that sense of democracy and individual liberty were old concepts that needed to be protected from British encroachment.
Patrick Henry's life can be seen as a conservative vehicle for democracy in a century bursting with liberty. His dissent from the constitution was that it did not offer sufficient protection against encroachment upon these values, which were longheld ideals in Virginia.
order from chaos
The job of a historian is to cull a perceptual order from the chaos of human events. Since his death, historians have perceived Henry mainly as a locally minded demagogue who was a hero in times of Revolution and some sort of elderly curmudgeon in times of republic building.
What they miss is his critical position in history. James Madison had plotted and schemed the Constitution into birth and politicked its eventual passage with all the triangulation of a Third Wave strategist. Although Henry's challenge to Madison was personally frustrating, it influenced his thinking on the matter of the importance of quantifying liberty.
Madison would eventually write the Bill of Rights not in spite of the debate that occupied him at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, but as a direct result of it.
principles of dissent
Like a New World symphony, the events of the late 18th century in America offered both a plodding rhythm of progress featuring eloquent melodies boasting freedom from the arbitrary control of its tonic key. Daring to navigate this strange new rhythm, Henry spoke to three principles as he dissented from the Constitution in 1787:
after the dissent
What, if any, significance do the ramblings of an 18th century orator have in a world of pipe bombs and diversity? As a new millennium dawns on the American republic, it would seem that Patrick Henry's dissent has aged well.
His speeches to the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1787 speak in a language of free men forging their own fate on a continent whose destiny was manifest long before John O'Sullivan proclaimed it so. Ultimately, Patrick Henry formed a sentinel over the rights and privileges of Virginians in a language so forthright and authoritative that it reaches past the mere geographic borders of Virginia. That sentinel continues to protect us in the form of the Bill of Rights that Henry's dissent helped to facilitate.