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 falsely 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
How do we know Patrick Henry did not say it?
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 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.
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.
- As quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin. Though widely attributed to Henry, this statement has not been sourced to any document before the 1990s and appears to be at odds with his beliefs as a strong opponent of the adoption of the US Constitution.
More and Related Material:
- “I Smelt a Rat” (apologus.wordpress.com)
- Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (apologus.wordpress.com)
- Sheesh! It rolled around again in 2013, from “For America”