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A Virginian Argues for a Bill of Rights at the Ratification Convention

Patrick Henry, the Virginia patriot best known for his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech, was also one of the leading Anti-Federalists. In this excerpt from a speech before the Virginia Ratification Convention, he makes the case for an addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Despite the Federalists' assurances that "all powers not given [to the Federal government] are reserved," to individuals, Henry cites English history to demonstrate the necessity of such a provision. "Secure to us the great important rights of humanity," he concludes, "and I care not in what form it is done."

We are told that all powers not given are reserved. I am sorry to bring forth hackneyed observations. But, Sir, important truths lose nothing of their validity or weight, by frequency of repetition. The English history is frequently recurred to by Gentlemen. Let us advert to the conduct of the people of that country. The people of England lived without a declaration of rights, till the war in the time of Charles 1st. That King made usurpations upon the rights of the people. Those rights were in a great measure before that time undefined. Power and privilege then depended on implication and logical discussion. Though the declaration of rights was obtained from that King, his usurpations cost him his life. The limits between the liberty of the people, and the prerogative of the king, were still not clearly defined. The rights of the people continued to be violated till the Steward family was banished in the year 1688. The people of England magnanimously defended their rights, banished the tyrant, and prescribed to William Prince of Orange, by the Bill of Rights, on what terms he should reign. And this Bill of Rights put an end to all construction and implication. Before this, Sir, the situation of the public liberty of England was dreadful. For upwards of a century the nation was involved in every kind of calamity, till the Bill of Rights put an end to all, by defining the rights of the people, and limiting the King’s prerogative. Give me leave to add (if I can add any thing to so splendid an example) the conduct of the American people. They Sir, thought a Bill of Rights necessary. It is alledged that several States, in the formation of their governments, omitted a Bill of Rights. To this I answer, that they had the substance of a Bill of Rights contained in their Constitutions, which is the same thing. . . . Secure to us the great important rights of humanity, and I care not in what form it is done.

Source | In Merrill Jensen, ed., Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976), 1212-1213.
Creator | Patrick Henry
Item Type | Speech
Cite This document | Patrick Henry, “A Virginian Argues for a Bill of Rights at the Ratification Convention,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 18, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1268.

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