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SPEECH OF PATRICK HENRY.
ON THE EXPEDIENCY OF ADOPTING THE
DELIVERED IN THE CONVENTION OF VIRGINIA, JUNE 7, 1788.
MR. CHAIRMAN, I HAVE thought, and still think, that a full investigation of the actual situation of America, ought to precede any decision on this great and important question. That government is no more than a choice among evils, is acknowledged by the most intelligent among mankind, and has been a standing maxim for ages. If it be demonstrated, that the adoption of the new plan is a little or a trifling evil, then, sir, I acknowledge that adoption ought to follow : but, sir, if this be a truth, that its adoption may entail misery on the free people of this country, I then insist, that rejection ought to follow.
Gentlemen strongly urge that its adoption will be a mighty benefit to us: but, sir, I am made of such incredulous materials, that assertions and declarations do not satisfy me. I must be convinced, sir. I shall retain my infidelity on that subject till I see our liberties secured in a manner perfectly satisfactory to my understanding.
There are certain maxims, by which every wise and enlightened people will regulate their conduct. There are certain political maxims, which no free people ought ever to abandon: maxims, of which the observance is essential to the security of happiness. It is
impiously irritating the avenging hand of heaven, when a people, who are in the full enjoyment of freedom, launch out into the wide ocean of human affairs, and desert those maxims which alone can preserve liberty. Such maxims, humble as they are, are those only which can render a nation safe or formidable. Poor little humble republican maxims have attracted the admiration and engaged the attention of the virtuous and wise in all nations, and have stood the shock of ages. We do not now admit the validity of maxims, which we once delighted in. We have since adopted maxims of a different, but more refined nature; new maxims, which tend to the prostration of republicanism.
We have one, sir, that all men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity. We have a set of maxims of the same spirit, which must be beloved by every friend to liberty, to virtue, to mankind-our bill of rights contains those admirable maxims.
Now, sir, I say, let us consider, whether the picture given of American affairs ought to drive us from those beloved maxims.
The honorable gentleman, (Mr. Randolph,) has said, that it is too late in the day for us to reject this new plan. That system which was once execrated by the honorable member, must now be adopted, let its defects be ever so glaring. That honorable member will not accuse me of want of candor, when I cast in my mind what he has given the public,* and compare it to what has happened since. It seems to me very strange and unaccountable, that what was the object of his execration should now receive his encomiums. Something extraordinary must have operated so great a change in his opinion. It is too late in the day! Gen
* Alluding to Mr. Randolph's letter on that subject, to the speaker of the house of delegates.
tlemen must excuse me, if they should declare again and again, that it is too late, and I should think differently. I never can believe, sir, that it is too late to save all that is precious. If it be proper, and, independently of every external consideration, wisely constructed, let us receive it: but, sir, shall its adoption, by eight states, induce us to receive it, if it be replete with the most dangerous defects? They urge, that subsequent amendments are safer than previous amendments, and that they will answer the same ends, At present, we have our liberties and privileges in our own hands. Let us not relinquish them. Let us not adopt this system till we see them secured. There is some small possibility, that should we follow the conduct of Massachusetts, amendments might be obtained. There is a small possibility of amending any government; but, sir, shall we abandon our inestimable rights, and rest their security on a mere possibility? The gentleman fears the loss of the union. If eight states have ratified it unamended, and we should rashly imitate their precipitate example, do we not thereby disunite from several other states ? Shall those who have risked their lives for the sake of union, be at once thrown out of it? If it be amended, every state will accede to it; but by an imprudent adoption in its defective and dangerous state, a schism must inevitably be the consequence; I can never, therefore, consent to hazard our unalienable rights on an absolute uncertainty. You are told there is no peace, although you fondly flatter yourselves that all is peace-no peace; a general cry and alarm in the country; commerce, riches and wealth vanished; citizens going to seek comforts in other parts of the world; laws insulted; many instances of tyrannical legislation. These things, sir, are new to me.
He has made the discovery. As to the administration of justice, I believe that failures in commerce, &c. cannot be attributed to it. My age enables me to recollect its progress under the old government. I can justify it by
saying, that it continues in the same manner in this state, as it did under the former government. As to other parts of the continent, I refer that to other gentlemen. As to the ability of those who administer it, I believe they would not suffer by a comparison with those who administered it under the royal authority. Where is the cause of complaint if the wealthy go away? Is this, added to the other circumstances, of such enormity, and does it bring such danger over this commonwealth, as to warrant so important, and so awful a change, in so precipitate a manner ? As to insults offered to the laws, I know of none. In this respect, I believe this commonwealth would not suffer by a comparison with the former government. The laws are as well executed, and as patiently acquiesced in, as they were under the royal administration. Compare the situation of the country; compare that of our citizens to what they were then, and decide whether persons and property are not as safe and secure as they were at that time. Is there a man in this commonwealth, whose person can be insulted with impunity? Cannot redress be had here for personal insults or injuries, as well as in any part of the world; as well as in those countries where aristocrats and monarchs triumph and reign? Is not the protection of property in full operation here? The contrary cannot, with truth, be charged on this commonwealth. Those severe charges which are exhibited against it, appear to me totally groundless. On a fair investigation, we shall be found to be surrounded by no real dangers. We have the animating fortitude and persevering alacrity of republican men, to carry us through misfortunes and calamities. 'Tis the fortune of a republic to be able to withstand the stormy ocean of human vicissitudes. I know of no danger awaiting us. Public and private security are to be found here in the highest degree. Sir, it is the fortune of a free people, not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers. Fear is the passion of slaves. Our political and natural hemis
pheres are now equally tranquil. Let us recollect the awful magnitude of the subject of our deliberation, Let us consider the latent consequences of an erroneous decision, and let not our minds be led away by unfair misrepresentations and uncandid suggestions, There have been many instances of uncommon lenity and temperance used in the exercise of power in this commonwealth. I could call your recollection to many that happened during the war and since, but every gentleman here must be apprised of them.
The honorable member has given you an elaborate account of what he judges tyrannical legislation, and an ex post facto law in the case of Josiah Phillips. He has misrepresented the facts. That man was not executed by a tyrannical stroke of power; nor was he a Socrates. He was a fugitive murderer and an outlaw; a man who commanded an infamous banditti, at a time when the war was at the most perilous stage. He committed the most cruel and shocking barbarities. He was an enemy to the human name. Those, who declare war against the human race, may be struck out of existence as soon as they are apprehended. He was not executed according to those beautiful legal ceremonies which are pointed out by the laws, in criminal cases. The enormity of his crimes did not entitle him to it. I am truly a friend to legal forms and methods; but, sir, the occasion warranted the measure. A pirate, an outlaw, or a common enemy to all mankind, may be put to death at any time. It is justified by the laws of nature and nations.
The honorable member tells us then, that there are burnings and discontents in the hearts of our citizens in general, and that they are dissatisfied with their government. I have no doubt the honorable member believes this to be the case, because he says so. But I have the comfortable assurance, that it is a certain fact, that it is not so. The middle and lower ranks of people have not those illumined ideas, which the well