Answering Patrick Henry

by Francis Corbin
Speech delivered at the Virginia Convention debate of the ratification of the Constitution
June 7, 1788

Mr. Chairman:

Permit me to make a few observations on this great question. It is with great difficulty I prevail on myself to enter into the debate, when I consider the great abilities of those gentlemen who have already spoken on the subject. But as I am urged by my duty to my constituents, and as I conceive that the different manner of treating the subject may make different impressions, I shall offer my observations with diffident respect, but with firmness and independence. I will promise my acknowledgments to those honorable gentlemen who were in the Federal Convention, for the able and satisfactory manner in which they discharged their duty to their country. The introductory expression of "We, the people," has been thought improper by the honorable gentleman. I expected no such objection as this. Ought not the people, sir, to judge of that government whereby they are to be ruled? We are, sir, deliberating on a question of great consequence to the people of America, and to the world in general. We ought, therefore, to decide with extreme caution and circumspection; it is incumbent upon us to proceed without prejudice or prepossession. No member of the committee entertains a greater regard than myself for the gentleman on the other side, who has placed himself in the front of opposition. [Mr. Henry.] No man admires more than I do his declamatory talents; but I trust that neither declamation nor elegance of periods will mislead the judgment of any member here, and that nothing but the force of reasoning will operate conviction. He has asked, with an air of triumph, whether the Confederation was not adequate to the purposes of the Federal Government. Permit me to say, No. If, sir, perfection existed in that system, why was the Federal Convention called? Why did every State except Rhode Island send deputies to that convention?

Was it not from a persuasion of its inefficacy? If this be not sufficient to convince him, let me call the recollection of the honorable gentleman to other circumstances. Let him go into the interior parts of the country and inquire into the situation of the farmers. He will be told that tobacco and other produce are miserably low, merchandise dear, and taxes high. Let him go through the United States. He will perceive appearances of ruin and decay everywhere. Let him visit the seacoast - go to our ports and inlets. In those ports, sir, where we had every reason to see the fleets of all nations, he will behold but a few trifling little boats; he will everywhere see commerce languish, the disconsolate merchant, with his arms folded, ruminating, in despair, on the wretched ruins of his fortune, and deploring the impossibility of retrieving it. The West Indies are blocked up against us. Not the British only, but other nations, exclude us from those islands: our fur trade has gone to Canada; British sentinels are within our own territories; our imposts are withheld. To these distresses we may add the derangement of our finances; yet the honorable gentleman tells us they are not sufficient to justify so radical a change. Does he know the consequences of deranged finances? What confusions, disorders, and even revolutions, have resulted from this cause, in many nations! Look at France at this time: that kingdom is almost convulsed; ministers of state, and first princes of the blood, banished; manufacturers and merchants become bankrupt, and the people discontented - all owing to the derangement of their finances.

The honorable gentleman must be well acquainted with the debts due by the United States, and how much is due to foreign nations. Has not the payment of these been shamefully withheld? How long, sir, shall we be able, by fair promises, to satisfy these creditors? How long can we amuse, by idle words, those who are amply possessed of the means of doing themselves justice? No part of the principal is paid to those nations, nor has even the interest been paid as honorably and punctually as it ought. Nay, we were obliged to borrow money last year to pay the interest. What! borrow money to discharge the interest of what was borrowed, and continually augment the amount of the public debt! Such a plan would destroy the richest country on earth. What is to be done? Compel the delinquent States to pay requisitions to Congress? How are they to be compelled? By the instrumentality of such a scheme as was proposed to be introduced in the year 1784? Is this cruel mode of compulsion eligible? Is it consistent with the spirit of republicanism? This savage mode, which could be made use of under the Confederation, leads directly to civil war and destruction. How different is this from the genius of the proposed constitution! By this proposed plan, the public money is to be collected by mild and gentle means; by a peaceable and friendly application to the individuals of the community: whereas, by the other scheme, the public treasury must be supplied through the medium of the sword, by desolation and murder - by the blood of the citizens. Yet we are told that there is too much energy in this system. Coercion is necessary in every government. Justice, sir, cannot be done without it. It is more necessary in federal governments than any other, because of the natural imbecility of such governments.

The honorable gentleman is possessed of much historical knowledge. I appeal to that knowledge therefore. Will he not agree that there was a coercive power in the federal government of the Amphictyonics? The coercive power of the Amphictyonic Council was so great as to enable it to punish disobedience and refractory behavior in the most severe manner. Is there not an instance of its carrying fire and sword through the territories, and leveling to the ground the towns, of those who disobeyed it? [Here Mr. Corbin mentions particular instances.] Is there no coercion in the Germanic body? This body, though composed of three hundred different component sovereignties, principalities, and cities, and divided into nine circles, is controlled by one superintending power, the emperor. Is there no coercive power in the confederate government of the Swiss? In the alliance between them and France, there is a provision whereby the latter is to interpose and settle differences that may arise among them; and this interposition has been more than once used. Is there none in Holland? What is the stadtholder? This power is necessary in all governments; a superintending coercive power is absolutely indispensable. This does not exist under the present Articles of Confederation. To vest it with such a power, on its present construction, without any alteration, would be extremely dangerous, and might lead to civil war. Gentlemen must, before this, have been convinced of the necessity of an alteration. Our State vessel has sprung a leak; we must embark in a new bottom, or sink into perdition.

The honorable gentleman has objected to the Constitution on the old worn-out idea that a republican government is best calculated for a small territory. If a republic, sir, cannot be accommodated to an extensive country, let me ask, how small must a country be to suit the genius of republicanism? In what particular extent of country can a republican government exist? If contracted into as small a compass as you please, it must labor under many disadvantages. Too small an extent will render a republic weak, vulnerable, and contemptible. Liberty in such a petty state must be on a precarious footing; its existence must depend on the philanthropy and good nature of its neighbors. Too large an extent, it is said, will produce confusion and tyranny. What has been so often deprecated will be removed by this plan. The extent of the United States cannot render the government oppressive. The powers of the General Government are only of a general nature, and their object is to protect, defend, and strengthen the United States; but the internal administration of government is left to the State legislatures, who exclusively retain such powers as will give the States the advantages of small republics, without the danger commonly attendant on the weakness of such governments.

There are controversies even about the name of this government. It is denominated by some a federal, by others a consolidated government. The definition given of it by my honorable friend [Mr. Madison] is, in my opinion, accurate. Let me, however, call it by another name - a representative federal republic, as contradistinguished from a confederacy. The former is more wisely constructed than the latter; it places the remedy in the hands which feel the disorder: the other places the remedy in those hands which cause the disorder. The evils that are most complained of in such governments (and with justice) are faction, dissension, and consequent subjection of the minority to the caprice and arbitrary decisions of the majority, who, instead of consulting the interest of the whole community collectively, attend sometimes to partial and local advantages. To avoid this evil is perhaps the great desideratum of republican wisdom; it may be termed the philosopher's stone. Yet, sir, this evil will be avoided by this Constitution: faction will be removed by the system now under consideration, because all the causes which are generally productive of faction are removed. This evil does not take its flight entirely; for were jealousies and divisions entirely at an end, it might produce such lethargy as would ultimately terminate in the destruction of liberty, to the preservation of which watchfulness is absolutely necessary. It is transferred from the State legislatures to Congress, where it will be more easily controlled. Faction will decrease in proportion to the diminution of counselors. It is much easier to control it in small than in large bodies. Our State legislature consists of upwards of one hundred and sixty, which is a greater number than Congress will consist of at first. Will not more concord and unanimity exist in one than in thirteen such bodies? Faction will more probably decrease, or be entirely removed, if the interest of a nation be entirely concentrated, than if entirely diversified. If, thirteen men agree, there will be no faction. Yet if opposite, and of heterogeneous dispositions, it is impossible that a majority of such clashing minds can ever concur to oppress the minority. It is impossible that this Government, which will make us one people, will have a tendency to assimilate our situations, and is admirably calculated to produce harmony and unanimity, can ever admit of an oppressive combination by one part of the Union against the other.

A confederate government is, of all others, best calculated for an extensive country. Its component individual governments are, of all others, best calculated for an extensive country. Its component individual governments administer and afford all the local conveniences that the most compact governments can do; and the strength and energy of the confederacy may be equal to those of any government. A government of this kind may extend to all the Western World; nay, I may say, ad infinitum. But it is needless to dwell any longer on this subject; for the objection that an extensive territory is repugnant to a republican government applies against this and every State in the Union, except Delaware and Rhode Island. Were the objection well founded, a republican government could exist in none of the States, except those two. Such an argument goes to the dissolution of the Union, and its absurdity is demonstrated by our own experience.

But an objection is urged against this government because of its power of laying direct taxes. Let us ask the honorable gentleman who opposes it on this ground, if he reflect whether this power be indispensable or not. Sir, if it be not vested with the power of commanding all the resources of the State, when necessary, it will be trifling. Wars are as much (and more) carried on by the length of the purse as by that of the sword. They cannot be carried on without money. Unless this power be given to Congress, foreign nations may crush you. The concession of this power is necessary to do Virginia justice, by compelling the delinquent States to pay as well as she. While she paid her quotas, and her citizens were much distressed to pay their taxes, other States most shamefully neglected or refused to pay their proportions. I trust gentlemen need not be alarmed on the subject of taxation, nor intimidated by the idea of double collectors, who, they tell us, will oppress and ruin the people. From our attention to our situation, we shall see that this mode of levying money, though indispensably necessary on great emergencies, will be but seldom recurred to. Let us attend to the finances of this country...

The honorable gentleman declared in the most solemn manner, that, if he could see one single trait in that government to secure liberty, he would not object to it. I meet him on this ground. Liberty is secured, sir, by the limitation of its powers, which are clearly and unequivocally defined, and which are to be exercised by our own representatives freely chosen. What power is given that will endanger liberty? I consider all the traits of this system as having a tendency to the security of our liberty. I consider all its powers necessary, and only given to avoid greater evils; and if this conclusion of mine be well founded, let me ask if public liberty is not secured by bars and adamantine bolts - secured by the strongest guards and checks which human ingenuity can invent. Will this dread power of taxation render liberty insecure? Sir, without this power, other powers will answer no purpose. Government cannot exist without the means; of procuring money. My honorable friend told us he considered this clause as the vitals of the Constitution. I will change the phrase, and say that I consider this part as the lungs of the Constitution. If it be sick, the whole system is consumptive, and must soon decay; and this power can never be dangerous if the principles of equal and free representation be fully attended to. While the right of suffrage is secured, we have little to fear. This Government, sir, fully secures us this noble privilege, on the purest and simplest principles of equality. That number which, in any part of the country, has a right to send a representative, has the same right in another part. What does the Constitution say? That thirty thousand shall have one representative, no matter where. If this be not equal representation, what, in the name of God, is equal representation? But, says the honorable gentleman, the Constitution may be satisfied by one from each State. I conceive there is no fear of this. There is not a power to diminish the number. Does it not say that representatives shall be apportioned according to the number of the people, and that direct taxes shall be regulated by the same rules? Virginia, in the first instance, will have ten times as many as Delaware, and afterwards in proportion to their numbers. What is the criterion of representation? They have their wish: for the qualifications which the laws of the States require to entitle a man to vote for a State representative are the qualifications required by this plan to vote for a representative to Congress; and in this State, and most of the others, the possession of a freehold is necessary to entitle a man to the privilege of a vote. Do they wish persons to be represented? Here also they are indulged, for the number of representatives is determined by the number of people. This idea is so well attended to, that even three-fifths of those who are not free are included among those of whom thirty thousand shall have a right to elect one representative; so that, in either point of view, their wish is gratified. Is not liberty secured on this foundation? If it be not secured by one or the other mode, or by both, I am totally without reason. Liberty seems intrenched on this ground.

But the gentleman objects that the number is not sufficient. My opinion, with deference to that gentleman, and others who may be of different opinion from me, is that it is fully sufficient. Being delegated solely for general purposes, a few intelligent men will suffice; at least one from every thirty thousand, aided by the Senate, seems sufficient. Are combinations or factions so often formed in small as in numerous bodies? Are laws better made in large than in small assemblies? Is not the influence of popular declaimers less in small than in great bodies? Would not a more numerous representation be very expensive? Is economy of no consideration? We ought, sir, to attend to the situation of the people; and our measures should be as economical as possible, without extending, however, our parsimony to a dangerous length. Objections should be founded on just and real grounds, and ought not to be urged out of a mere obstinacy. Besides, it is by no means certain that a very numerous body is more independent, or upright, than a small one Why should the number of our representatives be greater, Mr. Chairman? The county of Middlesex, in England, which includes the cities of London and Westminster, contains upwards of nine hundred and ninety thousand souls, and yet sends to Parliament no more than eight Members. Among all the clamors of the people there, it never entered the brain of any of them that these eight were not enough. They complain that the boroughs of Old Sarum, Newton, and Gatton, and other such places, should send each two Members to Parliament, although without houses or inhabitants, while the richest city sends but four. They also complain of the influence of the landed interest in some cases; that the county of Cornwall sends forty Members to Parliament, although it pays but eighteen parts, out of five hundred and thirteen, to the subsidy and land tax, when the county of Middlesex, which is calculated to pay two hundred and fifty parts out of five hundred and thirteen, sends but eight Members. In that country, it has been uniformly found that those Members, who are chosen by numerous respectable electors, make the greatest opposition to oppression and corruption, and signalize themselves for the preservation of liberty. The collective body of the Commons there have generally exerted themselves in the defense of freedom, and have been successful in their exertions, notwithstanding the inequality of their election. Our representatives are chosen in the fairest manner; their election is founded in absolute equality. Is the American spirit so degenerated, notwithstanding these advantages, that the love of liberty is more predominant and warm in the breast of a Briton than in that of an American? When liberty is on a more solid foundation here than in Britain, will Americans be less ready to maintain and defend it than Britons? No, sir; the spirit of liberty and independence of the people of this country, at present, is such that they could not be enslaved under any government that could be described. What danger is there, then, to be apprehended from a government which is theoretically perfect, and the possible blemishes of which can only be demonstrated by actual experience?

The honorable gentleman then urges an objection respecting the militia, who, he tells us, will be made the instruments of tyranny to deprive us of our liberty. Your militia, says he, will fight against you. Who are the militia? Are we not militia? Shall we fight against ourselves? No, sir; the idea is absurd. We are also terrified by the dread of a standing army. It cannot be denied that we ought to have the means of defense, and be able to repel an attack.

If some of the community are exclusively inured to its defense, and the rest attend to agriculture, the consequence will be that the arts of war and defense and of cultivating the soil will be understood. Agriculture will flourish, and military discipline will be perfect. If, on the contrary, our defense be solely intrusted to militia, ignorance of arms and negligence of farming will ensue; the former plan is, in every respect, more to the interest of the State. By it we shall have good farmers and soldiers; by the latter we shall have neither. If the inhabitants be called out on sudden emergencies of war, their crops, the means of their subsistence, may be destroyed by it. If we are called in the time of sowing seed, or of harvest, the means of subsistence might be lost; and the loss of one year's crop might have been prevented by a trivial expense, if appropriated to the purpose of supporting a part of the community, exclusively occupied in the defense of the whole. I conceive that this idea, if it be a new one, is yet founded on solid and very substantial reasons. But, sir, we are told of the expediency and propriety of previous amendments. What end would it answer to attempt it? Will the States which have adopted the Constitution rescind their adopting resolutions? Had we adopted it, would we recede from it to please the caprice of any other State? Pride, sir, revolts at the idea. Admitting this State proposes amendments previous to her adoption, must there not be another Federal Convention? Must there not be also a convention in each State? Suppose some of our proposed conditions be rejected, will not our exclusion from the Union be the consequence? Or would other conventions again be called, and be eternally revolving and devising expedients, without coming to a final decision? The loss of the union, sir, must be the result of a pertinacious demand of precedent conditions. My idea is, that we should go hand in hand with Massachusetts; adopt it first, and then propose amendments of a general nature, for local ones cannot be expected. Consider the situation of Massachusetts, commanding the North, and the importance and respectability of Virginia to the South. These, sir, are the two most populous, wealthy, and powerful States in the Union. Is it not very probable that their influence would have very great weight in carrying any amendments? Would any gentleman turn a deaf ear to their solicitations? By union alone can we exist; by no other means can we be happy. Union must be the object of every gentleman here. I never yet have heard any gentleman so wild and frantic in his opposition as to avow an attachment to partial confederacies. By previous adoption, the union will be preserved; by insisting on alterations previous to our adoption, the union may be lost, and our political happiness destroyed by internal dissensions. I trust, therefore, that this convention, after deliberate discussion, will not hesitate to determine on a previous ratification of a system which, even in its present form, seems competent to the perpetual preservation of our security and happiness. |