To Americans familiar only with Henry’s blazing “Liberty or Death” oration of 1775, it may come as a shock to learn that Henry opposed the adoption of the Constitution.
To Americans familiar only with Henry’s blazing “Liberty or Death” oration of 1775, it may come as a shock to learn that Henry opposed the adoption of the Constitution. Henry always had a flair for the dramatic, but on this occasion, Mother Nature offered him an improbable assist: As he thundered against the dangers of the new centralized government, a howling storm rose outside the Richmond hall. Frightened delegates scurried to take cover.
A memorable scene, to be sure, but how could the man who cried “give me liberty or give me death,” this patriot who penned Virginia’s resolves against the Stamp Act in 1765, not support the Constitution? The answer was pretty simple: Henry thought that the American Revolution was, at root, a rebellion against the coercive power of the British government. In particular, it was a rebellion against unjust British taxes. Henry, therefore, thought it was madness for Americans to place that same kind of consolidated political authority over themselves again…
A most interesting treatment of an era and an episode in American history of which most Americans know little or nothing! I myself knew only parts of this. Of special note is his discussion of the successes, as well as failures, of the American government under the Articles of Confederation – a part of our history which is almost complete terra incognita to many (most) contemporary Americans. Well worth a read!
Nota Bene: I should note that I do not entirely agree with the assertion that “In particular, [the American Revolution] was a rebellion against unjust British taxes.” It was a rebellion against many things, of which taxes were one important one – but only one.
Let us not forget that the Revolution was fought, in large measure, as a civil war between and among Englishmen, and – on the American side, at least at first – over the “rights of Englishmen.” It became about Independence only because, and as it became clear to the Colonists, that Parliament was not about to grant them the full rights of Englishmen.
“No taxation without representation!” became a rallying cry partially because taxes hit the Colonists, the American Patriots, where it hurt – in the wallet – but also because they stood for the whole host of ways in which Parliament was treating the Colonies as less than fully British: “the coercive power of the British government,” as this article notes.
Similarly, the power to tax became an issue with the Constitution because it both stood for, and enabled, the coercive power of the Federal government. So long as the national government was compelled to come, cap-in-hand, to the States for finances, it could not itself coerce them against their will. Once it had the power to tax, it had the upper hand.
Economics is always important! Well did (Clinton advisor) James Carville famously state, “It’s the economy, stupid!” But economics per se – at least on the individual level – is not always as centrally, even solely, important as some on the political right, influenced by their ties with corporate interests, believe, and would have the rest of us believe.
The taxation issue, historically, was about governmental power; whereas for too many “conservatives,” these days, it’s about the government’s hand in their pocket, taking out what they see as their hard-earned wealth, and spending it on what they see as the undeserving. While they may (or may not) have a point – and a discussion of the present American economic system is beyond the scope of this post – that is not where the issue primarily lay for Patrick Henry and other American Patriots.
Nonetheless, an excellent article, and I commend it to your considered attention.
If you liked this post, or found it interesting or helpful, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thank you very much in advance!