“You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” So stated Patrick Henry to the delegates who assembled in Richmond in June 1788 to decide if Virginia should accept or reject the United States Constitution.
Just a few blocks away from where the Ratifying Convention was meeting stood St. John’s Church, where, in 1775, Patrick Henry had demanded “Liberty or Death!” Now, 13 years later, the elder statesman saw the same threats to the people’s rights under the proposed Constitution as they had faced under King George III.
Believing that the U.S. Constitution contained sufficient checks to protect the rights and privileges of the people, the Federalists, led by James Madison, did not include a bill of rights in the document.
This was unacceptable to Henry, who saw potential abuses of power throughout the proposed Constitution, especially in its “implied” powers. “The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost by this change in government,” warned the Great Orator.
To counter these threats, Henry moved that amendments be added to the Constitution prior to its adoption and proposed 40 articles that provided for such specific rights as freedom of speech, assembly and religion, as well as the right to keep and bear arms, for no excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment, and for keeping the jury system “sacred and inviolable.”
In order to gain enough votes in favor of ratification, the Federalists countered Henry’s measure by agreeing to recommend amendments to Congress after its adoption. The compromise worked. On June 21, 1788, Virginia became the 10th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Not relying on the half-hearted pledge of the Federalists, Patrick Henry led the charge to insure that a bill of rights was added. When the Virginia state legislature convened in the fall of 1788, Henry introduced a resolution to instruct their delegates in Congress to call for a general convention, comprised of all the States, to draw up amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Knowing Madison’s opposition towards amendments, Henry also nominated Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson (two Antifederalists) to the newly formed Senate, to insure a bill of rights would be adopted.
Defeated from a seat in the Senate, Madison was forced to make a campaign pledge to the voters to push for amendments in order to secure his election to the House of Representatives. Believing a second convention would weaken the federal government, Madison stole the thunder from the Antifederalists by agreeing to introduce amendments on the floor of Congress a day before the Virginia resolution calling for a second convention was presented.
Although Henry was pleased to see the basic rights of the people protected, he was chagrined to learn that Madison introduced none of the amendments that he had presented before the Virginia Ratifying Convention, which secured the states from the encroachment of the federal government, including his article forbidding direct taxation by Congress and for placing term limits on the President.
Though Patrick Henry had refused to attend the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which drew up the Constitution, his role in the formation of the new government cannot be overstated. Aided by his powerful oratory during the Virginia Ratifying Convention, “The Son of Thunder” put that document through the fire — hammering every part of it, testing it for flaws and weaknesses — and, as a result, made the Constitution stronger than before.
And though James Madison is regarded today as the “Father of Bill of Rights,” it was Henry, more than any other, who forced him to introduce those revered amendments, which have since become a bulwark against governmental oppression. Without the pressure from Patrick Henry and his party, first in the convention, and then in Congress, it is doubtful if the U.S. would have had a federal bill of rights in its present form.
• Historian Mark Couvillon is curator of Red Hill, the Patrick Henry National Memorial, located near Brookneal, Va., which is dedicated to promoting the ideas and philosophy of “The Voice of the Revolution.” He is the author of “Patrick Henry’s Virginia” (2001) and “The Demosthenes of His Age: Accounts of Patrick Henry’s Oratory by His Contemporaries” (2013), and edited the 1872 Edward Fontaine Manuscript on Patrick Henry.