Patrick Henry was outspoken in his resistance to the adoption of the Constitution, pleading with the delegates to “consider what you are about to do before you part with [the articles of Confederation]” He stated that history was replete with “instances of people losing their liberties by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Government Replete With Insupportable Evils
“The [proposed United States] Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy, and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American?
Your president may easily become king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed to what may be a small minority; and a very small minority may continue for ever interchangeably this government, altho horribly defective. Where are your checks in this government? Your strongholds will be in the hands of your enemies.
It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs should they be bad men; and, sir, would not all the world, from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere, blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad?
Show me the age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.
If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute? The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design, and, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens?
I would rather infinitely – and I am sure most of this Convention are of the same opinion — have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete with such insupportable evils. If we make a king we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the president, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke.
But, sir, where is the existing force to punish him? Can he not, at the head of his army, beat down every opposition? Away with your president! We shall have a king: the army will salute him monarch; your militia will leave you, and assist in making him king, and fight against you: and what have you to oppose this force? What will become of your rights? Will not absolute despotism prevail?
(Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty of Give Me Death” speech, March 23, 1775, before the Second Revolutionary Convention of Virginia; The World’s Famous Orations, William Jennings Bryan, editor, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906, pp. 74-76)