Saturday, May 22, 2010

Patrick Henry on the Constitution and State’s Rights

Since the Tea Party has tended to use the founding fathers of the United States as the basis (after, perhaps, the Bible) of their ideology, I think its useful to look back to that early period and see, even then, there was serious contention between political activists on what the role of government ought to be. (We should remember as well, that this was before the Industrial Revolution, and even before incorporation laws existed in the states, so America was not only a different society, but there were no corporations for the government to regulate or contend with.)

Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution, on the grounds that it “was as radical a revolution as the one which separated the colonies from Great Britain”. I find it interesting that libertarians and tea partiers oppose a strong centralized government, while at the same time regarding the Constitution as a sacred, unchangeable document. Their counterpart in the 18th Century regarded any central government stronger than a loose Confederation of states to be jeopardizing individual liberties; from these “proto-libertarians” the Constitution was akin to modern notions of the “socialist” Obama government.
[5 June, 1788]
I am not free from suspicion: I am apt to entertain doubts: I rose yesterday to ask a question, which arose in my own mind. When I asked the question, I thought the meaning of my interrogation was obvious: The fate of this question and America may depend on this: Have they said, we the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between States? If they had, this would be a confederation: It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, Sir, on that poor little thing--the expression, We, the people, instead of the States of America. I need not take much pains to show, that the principles of this system, are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous. Is this a Monarchy, like England--a compact between Prince and people; with checks on the former, to secure the liberty of the latter? Is this a Confederacy, like Holland--an association of a number of independent States, each of which retain its individual sovereignty? It is not a democracy, wherein the people retain all their rights securely. Had these principles been adhered to, we should not have been brought to this alarming transition, from a Confederacy to a consolidated Government. We have no detail of those great considerations which, in my opinion, ought to have abounded before we should recur to a government of this kind. Here is a revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain. It is as radical, if in this transition our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the States be relinquished: And cannot we plainly see, that this is actually the case? 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 so loudly talked of by some, and inconsiderately by others. Is this same relinquishment of rights worthy of freemen? Is it worthy of that manly fortitude that ought to characterize republicans: It is said eight States have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve States and an half had adopted it, I would with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. 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.
--Patrick Henry, Virginia Ratifying Convention
…To Henry I would reply, that the governments of provinces or states are just as apt to curtail individual liberties as a central government. It did, after all, take national legislation in the 20th Century to give equality to people of color and women.