If it’s an election year, it must be Bogus Quote Time! Patrick Henry on the Constitution


Keep your collections of Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and “the founders” close to you, and right next to your Bartlett’s or Yale.  It’s an election year, and that means people are pulling out all the stops to get you to act against your interests and common sense, including making up stuff that they claim famous people said.

This quote attributed to Patrick Henry piqued my interest last night:

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”  ~ Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, painting by Peter F. Rothermel

As the painter imagined it, Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, by Peter F. Rothermel. The painting was done in 1851, 52 years after Henry’s death. It commemorates his famous speech against the Stamp Act of 1775, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”  Henry was both fiery in oration and stubborn in policy; it is unlikely that he would have abandoned his staunch opposition to the U.S. Constitution, to praise its defenses of individual rights, the very thing he criticized it for failing to do.

Recall, you students of history, that Patrick Henry bitterly opposed the Constitution and its ratification.  He considered it too much government, too much intrusions of a centralized, federal government over the states and the citizens of Virginia in particular.  Henry refused to serve when elected delegate to the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.  Henry made it clear that he opposed any new charter of government that set up a real, workable, national government. Henry held considerable sway in Virginia — he was serving one of his six terms as governor, and he had the legislature wrapped around his finger, doing his bidding.  Because of that, James Madison devised a plan for ratification that excluded governors and state legislatures, but instead asked for ratification by the people of each state, in specially-called conventions.

Henry tried to stack the Virginia convention against ratification.  He did his best scuttle Madison’s attending.  Henry thundered against the Constitution from the floor of the convention, claiming that it would forever trample the rights of citizens.  Partly as a result, and partly to get the document approved, Madison pledged that he would create a bill of rights to clarify protections of citizens.  Madison thought that rights were already protected, but he conceded for political reasons.

Madison won in the convention, and Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution.  Henry was livid.

To prevent Madison from creating a bill of rights, Henry fixed the election of the new senators in the state legislature, excluding Madison.  If Madison were to carry out his promise, he’d have to get elected to the House of Representatives — but as a popular man in his home county, that should not have been a problem.  Henry persuaded the only man in the county more popular than Madison, James Monroe, to run against Madison.  It’s a great story, but for another time — Madison eked out the win.

Henry opposed ratification of any of the twelve amendments Madison proposed, which Congress approved.  Eventually ten of the amendments won ratification; we call those ten our Bill of Rights.

President-elect George Washington asked Henry to serve in the new government, perhaps in the president’s cabinet as Secretary of State.  Henry refused.  Supreme Court?  Henry refused.

Get the picture yet?  Patrick Henry was not a fan of the U.S. Constitution.  He complained that it fettered citizens of the states, and that it fettered the states.

How likely is it that he would then turn around and praise the document as a tool for restraining the state against the citizen?  Henry was a stubborn man.  It is not likely.

On history alone, then, we should regard that quote attributed to Henry as bogus.  It’s a fake, a sham, a blot on Henry’s legacy and a warping of history.  Heck, it covers up great stories about Henry fighting the Constitution — it’s not much fun, either.

The words offered most likely never crossed Patrick Henry’s mind, let alone his lips.  Of course, this quote shows up at many so-called patriotic sites — none with good attribution.  I was interested to find this very statement at Wikiquotes, listed under quotes misattributed to Henry:

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.

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4 Responses to If it’s an election year, it must be Bogus Quote Time! Patrick Henry on the Constitution

  1. [...] Yes, I covered this same bogus quote last year; conservatives claim not to like environmentalism, nor revisions of history, but they recycle the old prevarications with great alacrity [...]

    Like this

  2. [...] If it’s an election year, it must be Bogus Quote Time! Patrick Henry on the Constitution (timpanogos.wordpress.com) [...]

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  3. chamblee54 says:

    Here is another tidbit about Mr. Henry.
    Patrick Henry is another founding father who owned slaves, although his speeches would make one think otherwise. Despite his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, he had up to 70 slaves at a time, apologizing a few times along the way, saying he knew it was wrong, that he was accountable to his God, and citing the “general inconvenience of living without them.”
    http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/founding-fathers/

    Like this

  4. Cairenn Rhys says:

    Great research. Well-written article. Thank you for sharing.

    Like this

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