Study Guide

Patrick Henry in The Federalist Papers 10 and 51

By James Madison

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Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was one of the first sparks in the revolutionary fire.

Known as a fiery public speaker, he always gave his speeches in the language of the common man—no Shakespearean sonnets here. During the debate over the Stamp Act of 1765, he spoke up as one of the main voices against the taxation in Virginia, and his growing revolutionary fervor made him a prime choice for the Continental Congress in 1774.

There, he declared to the assembly:

The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American. (Source)

The year after, he desperately called his fellow delegates to support the war for independence, saying in what would become his most famous speech, which closed:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death! (Source)

Brrr. Gives us goosebumps every time.

Fast-forward to the days of the Constitutional Convention, and Patrick Henry found himself leading the opposition towards the document. He was even invited, but he turned down the invitation. To him, a strong federal government would undo everything that they had fought and died for to ensure the United States' freedom from oppressive rule.

Refusing to let the United States replace foreign tyranny with their own domestic brand, he led the charge of opposing the ratification of the Constitution in his state of Virginia. Even though he failed to stop the document from being ratified, it's important to note that the writers of the Federalist Papers weren't better or wiser than those who opposed them just because the Constitution ended up being our form of government for the past two hundred or so years.

There were immensely popular, important figures on both sides of the Federalist fence, who had legitimate reasons for their decisions about supporting the Constitution.

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