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A Virginia Patriot Speaks Out Against Ratification of the Constitution

Patrick Henry was a Virginia patriot best known for his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech on the eve of the Revolutionary War. He was also known as one of the most radical advocates of republican government. In this speech before the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1787, Henry is adamant about what he perceives as the less-than-democratic aspects of the government outlined by the Constitution. He questions the validity of the apportionment of Federal troops based on states' populations, given that the Three-Fifths Compromise stipulated that that percentage of the slave population should be counted in determining the contribution of southern states like Virginia (like many of the Founding Fathers, he apparently saw no contradiction between his democratic views and the institution of slavery). He also casts doubt on the validity of the Senate as a democratic institution, claiming that since states with smaller populations carried equal weight, it constituted a "virtual" rather than "actual" form of representation.

But sure I am, that the dangers of this system are real, when those who have no similar interests with the people of this country, are to legislate for us—when our dearest interests are left in the power of those whose advantage it may be to infringe them. How will the quotas of troops be furnished? Hated as requisitions are, your Federal officers cannot collect troops like dollars, and carry them in their pockets. You must make those abominable requisitions for them, and the scale will be in proportion to the number of your blacks, as well as your whites, unless they violate the constitutional rule of apportionment. This is not calculated to rouse the fears of the people. It is founded in truth. How oppressive and dangerous must this be to the Southern States who alone have slaves? This will render their proportion infinitely greater than that of the Northern States. It has been openly avowed that this shall be the rule. . . .

The Honorable Gentleman was pleased to say, that the representation of the people was the vital principle of this Government. I will readily agree that it ought to be so. But I contend that this principle is only nominally, and not substantially to be found there. We contended with the British about representation; they offered us such a representation as Congress now does. They called it a virtual representation. If you look at that paper you will find it so there. Is there but a virtual representation in the upper House? The states are represented as States, by two Senators each. This is virtual, not actual. They encounter you with Rhode-Island and Delaware. This is not an actual representation. What does the term representation signify? It means that a certain district—a certain association of men should be represented in the Government for certain ends. These ends ought not to be impeded or obstructed in any manner. Here, Sir, this populous State has not an adequate share of legislative influence. The two petty States of Rhode-Island and Delaware, which together are infinitely inferior to this State, in extent and population, have double her weight, and can counteract her interest. I say, that the representation in the Senate, as applicable to States, is not actual. Representation is not therefore the vital principle of this Government—So far it is wrong.

Source | In Merrill Jensen, ed., Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976).
Creator | Patrick Henry
Item Type | Speech
Cite This document | Patrick Henry, “A Virginia Patriot Speaks Out Against Ratification of the Constitution,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 18, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1267.

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