This essay is reprinted in honor of Patrick Henry’s birthday, May 29, from Moses Coit Tyler’s Patrick Henry.
The great convention at Philadelphia, after a session of four months, came to the end of its noble labors on the 17th of September, 1787. Washington, who had been not merely its presiding officer but its presiding genius, then hastened back to Mt. Vernon, and, in his great anxiety to win over to the new Constitution the support of his old friend Patrick Henry, he immediately dispatched to him a copy of that instrument, accompanied by a very impressive and conciliatory letter, to which, about three weeks afterwards, was returned the following reply: —
Richmond, October 19,1787.
Dear Sir, — I was honored by the receipt of your favor, together with a copy of the proposed federal Constitution, a few days ago, for which I beg you to accept my thanks. They are also due to you from me as a citizen, on account of the great fatigue necessarily attending the arduous business of the late convention.
I have to lament that I cannot bring my mind to accord with the proposed Constitution. The concern I feel on this account is really greater than I am able to express. Perhaps mature reflections may furnish me with reasons to change my present sentiments into a conformity with the opinions of those personages for whom I have the highest reverence. Be that as it may, I beg you will be persuaded of the unalterable regard and attachment with which I shall be,
Dear Sir, your obliged and very humble servant,
Four days before the date of this letter the legislature of Virginia had convened at Richmond for its autumn session, and Patrick Henry had there taken his usual place on the most important committees, and as the virtual director of the thought and work of the House. Much solicitude was felt concerning the course which he might advise the legislature to adopt on the supreme question then before the country, — some persons even fearing that he might try to defeat the new Constitution in Virginia by simply preventing the call of a state convention. Great was Washington’s satisfaction on receiving from one of his correspondents in the Assembly, shortly after the session began, this cheerful report: —
“I have not met with one in all my inquiries (and I have made them with great diligence) opposed to it, except Mr. Henry, who I have heard is so, but could only conjecture it from a conversation with him on the subject. . . . The transmissory note of Congress was before us to-day, when Mr. Henry declared that it transcended our powers to decide on the Constitution, and that it must go before a convention. As it was insinuated he would aim at preventing this, much pleasure was discovered at the declaration.”
On the 24th of October, from his place in Congress, Madison sent over to Jefferson, in Paris, a full account of the results of the Philadelphia convention, and of the public feeling with reference to its work: “My information from Virginia is as yet extremely imperfect. . . . The part which Mr. Henry will take is unknown here. Much will depend on it. I had taken it for granted, from a variety of circumstances, that he would be in the opposition, and still think that will be the case. There are reports, however, which favor a contrary supposition.” But, by the 9th of December, Madison was able to send to Jefferson a further report, which indicated that all doubt respecting the hostile attitude of Patrick Henry was then removed. After mentioning that a majority of the people of Virginia seemed to be in favor of the Constitution, he added: “What change may be produced by the united influence and exertions of Mr. Henry, Mr. Mason, and the governor, with some pretty able auxiliaries, is uncertain. . . . Mr. Henry is the great adversary who will render the event precarious. He is, I find, with his usual address, working up every possible interest into a spirit of opposition.”
Long before the date last mentioned, the legislature had regularly declared for a state convention, to be held at Richmond on the first Monday in June, 1788, then and there to determine whether or not Virginia would accept the new Constitution. In view of that event, delegates were in the mean time to be chosen by the people; and thus, for the intervening months, the fight was to be transferred to the arena of popular debate. In such a contest Patrick Henry, being once aroused, was not likely to take a languid or a hesitating part; and of the importance then attached to the part which he did take, we catch frequent glimpses in the correspondence of the period. Thus, on the 19th of February, 1788, Madison, still at New York, sent this word to Jefferson: “The temper of Virginia, as far as I can learn, has undergone but little change of late. At first, there was an enthusiasm for the Constitution. The tide next took a sudden and strong turn in the opposite direction. The influence and exertions of Mr. Henry, Colonel Mason, and some others, will account for this. … I am told that a very bold language is held by Mr. Henry and some of his partisans.” On the 10th of April, Madison, then returned to his home in Virginia, wrote to Edmund Randolph: “The declaration of Henry, mentioned in your letter, is a proof to me that desperate measures will be his game.” On the 22d of the same month Madison wrote to Jefferson: “The adversaries take very different grounds of opposition. Some are opposed to the substance of the plan; others, to particular modifications only. Mr. Henry is supposed to aim at disunion.” On the 24th of April, Edward Carrington, writing from New York, told Jefferson: “Mr. H. does not openly declare for a dismemberment of the Union, but his arguments in support of his opposition to the Constitution go directly to that issue. He says that three confederacies would be practicable, and better suited to the good of commerce than one.” On the 28th of April, Washington wrote to Lafayette on account of the struggle then going forward; and after naming some of the leading champions of the Constitution, he adds sorrowfully: “Henry and Mason are its great adversaries.” Finally, as late as on the 12th of June, the Rev. John Blair Smith, at that time president of Hampden-Sidney College, conveyed to Madison, an old college friend, his own deep disapproval of the course which had been pursued by Patrick Henry in the management of the canvass against the Constitution: —
“Before the Constitution appeared, the minds of the people were artfully prepared against it; so that all opposition [to Mr. Henry] at the election of delegates to consider it, was in vain. That gentleman has descended to lower artifices and management on the occasion than I thought him capable of. … If Mr. Innes has shown you a speech of Mr. Henry to his constituents, which I sent him, you will see something of the method he has taken to diffuse his poison. … It grieves me to see such great natural talents abused to such purposes.”
On Monday, the 2d of June, 1788, the long expected convention assembled at Richmond. So great was the public interest in the event that a full delegation was present, even on the first day; and in order to make room for the throngs of citizens from all parts of Virginia and from other States, who had flocked thither to witness the impending battle, it was decided that the convention should hold its meetings in the New Academy, on Shockoe Hill, the largest assembly-room in the city.
Eight States had already adopted the Constitution. The five States which had yet to act upon the question were New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia. For every reason, the course then to be taken by Virginia would have great consequences. Moreover, since the days of the struggle over independence, no question had so profoundly moved the people of Virginia; none had aroused such hopes and such fears; none had so absorbed the thoughts, or so embittered the relations of men. It is not strange, therefore, that this convention, consisting of one hundred and seventy members, should have been thought to represent, to an unusual degree, the intelligence, the character, the experience, the reputation of the State. Perhaps it would be true to say that, excepting Washington, Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee, no Virginian of eminence was absent from it.
Furthermore, the line of division, which from the outset parted into two hostile sections these one hundred and seventy Virginians, was something quite unparalleled. In other States it had been noted that the conservative classes, the men of education and of property, of high office, of high social and professional standing, were nearly all on the side of the new Constitution. Such was not the case in Virginia. Of the conservative classes throughout that State, quite as many were against the new Constitution as were in favor of it. Of the four distinguished citizens who had been its governors, since Virginia had assumed the right to elect governors, — Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Nelson, and Harrison, — each in turn had denounced the measure as unsatisfactory and dangerous; while Edmund Randolph, the governor then in office, having attended the great convention at Philadelphia, and having there refused to sign the Constitution, had published an impressive statement of his objections to it, and, for several months thereafter, had been counted among its most formidable opponents. Concerning the attitude of the legal profession, — a profession always inclined to conservatism, — Madison had written to Jefferson: “The general and admiralty courts, with most of the bar, oppose the Constitution.” Finally, among Virginians who were at that time particularly honored and trusted for patriotic services during the Revolution, such men as these, Theodoric Bland, William Grayson, John Tyler, Meriwether Smith, James Monroe, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee, had declared their disapproval of the document.
Nevertheless, within the convention itself, at the opening of the session, it was claimed by the friends of the new government that they then outnumbered their opponents by at least fifty votes. Their great champion in debate was James Madison, who was powerfully assisted, first or last, by Edmund Pendleton, John Marshall, George Nicholas, Francis Corbin, George Wythe, James Innes, General Henry Lee, and especially by that same Governor Randolph who, after denouncing the Constitution for “features so odious” that he could not “agree to it,” had finally swung completely around to its support.
Against all this array of genius, learning, character, logical acumen, and eloquence, Patrick Henry held the field as protagonist for twenty-three days, — his chief lieutenants in the fight being Mason, Grayson, and John Dawson, with occasional help from Harrison, Monroe, and Tyler. Upon him alone fell the brunt of the battle. Out of the twenty-three days of that splendid tourney, there were but five days in which he did not take the floor. On each of several days he made three speeches; on one day he made five speeches; on another day eight. In one speech alone, he was on his legs for seven hours. The words of all who had any share in that debate were taken down, according to the imperfect art of the time, by the stenographer, David Robertson, whose reports, however, are said to be little more than a pretty full outline of the speeches actually made: but in the volume which contains these abstracts, one of Patrick Henry’s speeches fills eight pages, another ten pages, another sixteen, another twenty-one, another forty; while, in the aggregate, his speeches constitute nearly one quarter of the entire book, — a book of six hundred and sixty-three pages.
Any one who has fallen under the impression, so industriously propagated by the ingenious enmity of Jefferson’s old age, that Patrick Henry was a man of but meagre information and of extremely slender intellectual resources, ignorant especially of law, of political science, and of history, totally lacking in logical power and in precision of statement, with nothing to offset these deficiencies excepting a strange gift of overpowering, dithyrambic eloquence, will find it hard, as he turns over the leaves on which are recorded the debates of the Virginia convention, to understand just how such a person could have made the speeches which are there attributed to Patrick Henry, or how a mere rhapsodist could have thus held his ground, in close hand-to-hand combat, for twenty-three days, against such antagonists, on all the difficult subjects of law, political science, and history involved in the Constitution of the United States, — while showing at the same time every quality of good generalship as a tactician and as a party leader. “There has been, I am aware,” says an eminent historian of the Constitution,” a modern scepticism concerning Patrick Henry’s abilities; but I cannot share it. . . . The manner in which he carried on the opposition to the Constitution in the convention of Virginia, for nearly a whole month, shows that he possessed other powers besides those of great natural eloquence.”
First of all, let it be noted that his objections did not spring from any hostility to the union of the thirteen States, or from any preference for a separate union of the Southern States. Undoubtedly there had been a time, especially under the provocations connected with the Mississippi business, when he and many other Southern statesmen sincerely thought that there might be no security for their interests even under the Confederation, and that this lack of security would be even more glaring and disastrous under the new Constitution. Such, for example, seems to have been the opinion of Governor Benjamin Harrison, as late as October the 4th, 1787, on which date he thus wrote to Washington: “I cannot divest myself of an opinion that … if the Constitution is carried into effect, the States south of the Potomac will be little more than appendages to those to the northward of it.” It is very probable that this sentence accurately reflects, likewise, Patrick Henry’s mood of thought at that time. Nevertheless, whatever may have been his thought under the sectional suspicions and alarms of the preceding months, it is certain that, at the date of the Virginia convention, he had come to see that the thirteen States must, by all means, try to keep together. “I am persuaded,” said he, in reply to Randolph, “of what the honorable gentleman says, ‘ that separate confederacies will ruin us.'” “Sir,” he exclaimed on another occasion, “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty; the second thing is American union.” Again he protested: “I mean not to breathe the spirit, nor utter the language, of secession.”
In the second place, he admitted that there were great defects in the old Confederation, and that those defects ought to be cured by proper amendments, particularly in the direction of greater strength to the federal government. But did the proposed Constitution embody such amendments? On the contrary, that Constitution, instead of properly amending the old Confederation, simply annihilated it, and replaced it by something radically different and radically dangerous.
“The federal convention ought to have amended the old system; for this purpose they were solely delegated; the object of their mission extended to no other consideration.” “The distinction between a national government and a confederacy is not sufficiently discerned. Had the delegates who were sent to Philadelphia a power to propose a consolidated government, instead of a confederacy?” “Here is a resolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain. It is radical in this transition; our rights and privileges are endangered, and the sovereignty of the States will be relinquished: and cannot we plainly see that this is actually the case? The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change, so loudly talked of by some, so inconsiderately by others.” “A number of characters, of the greatest eminence in this country, object to this government for its consolidating tendency. This is not imaginary. It is a formidable reality. If consolidation proves to be as mischievous to this country as it has been to other countries, what will the poor inhabitants of this country do? This government will operate like an ambuscade. It will destroy the state governments, and swallow the liberties of the people, without giving previous notice. If gentlemen are willing to run the hazard, let them run it; but I shall exculpate myself by my opposition and monitory warnings within these walls.”
But, in the third place, besides transforming the old confederacy into a centralized and densely consolidated government, and clothing that government with enormous powers over States and over individuals, what had this new Constitution provided for the protection of States and of individuals? Almost nothing. It had created a new and a tremendous power over us ; it had failed to cover us with any shield, or to interpose any barrier, by which, in case of need, we might save ourselves from the wanton and fatal exercise of that power. In short, the new Constitution had no bill of rights. But “a bill of rights,” he declared, is “indispensably necessary.”
“A general positive provision should be inserted in the new system, securing to the States and the people every right which was not conceded to the general government.” “I trust that gentlemen, on this occasion, will see the great objects of religion, liberty of the press, trial by jury, interdiction of cruel punishments, and every other sacred right, secured, before they agree to that paper.” “Mr. Chairman, the necessity of a bill of rights appears to me to be greater in this government than ever it was in any government before. I have observed already that the sense of European nations, and particularly Great Britain, is against the construction of rights being retained which are not expressly relinquished. I repeat, that all nations have adopted the construction, that all rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers, as necessarily inseparable from delegated powers. . . . Let us consider the sentiments which have been entertained by the people of America on this subject. At the Revolution, it must be admitted that it was their sense to set down those great rights which ought, in all countries, to be held inviolable and sacred. Virginia did so, we all remember. She made a compact to reserve, expressly, certain rights. . . . She most cautiously and guardedly reserved and secured those invaluable, inestimable rights and privileges which no people, inspired with the least glow of patriotic liberty, ever did, or ever can, abandon. She is called upon now to abandon them, and dissolve that compact which secured them to her. . . . Will she do it? This is the question. If you intend to reserve your unalienable rights, you must have the most express stipulation; for, if implication be allowed, you are ousted of those rights. If the people do not think it necessary to reserve them, they will be supposed to be given up. . . . If you give up these powers, without a bill of rights, you will exhibit the most absurd thing to mankind that ever the world saw, — a government that has abandoned all its powers, — the powers of direct taxation, the sword, and the purse. You have disposed of them to Congress, without a bill of rights, without check, limitation, or control. And still you have checks and guards; still you keep barriers — pointed where? Pointed against your weakened, prostrated, enervated, state government! You have a bill of rights to defend you against the state government— which is bereaved of all power, and yet you have none against Congress — though in full and exclusive possession of all power. You arm yourselves against the weak and defenceless, and expose yourselves naked to the armed and powerful. Is not this a conduct of unexampled absurdity ?”
Again and again, in response to his demand for an express assertion, in the instrument itself, of the rights of individuals and of States, he was told that every one of those rights was secured, since it was naturally and fairly implied. “Even say,” he rejoined, “it is a natural implication, — why not give us a right … in express terms, in language that could not admit of evasions or subterfuges? If they can use implication for us, they can also use implication against us. We are giving power; they are getting power; judge, then, on which side the implication will be used.” “Implication is dangerous, because it is unbounded; if it be admitted at all, and no limits prescribed, it admits of the utmost extension.” “The existence of powers is sufficiently established. If we trust our dearest rights to implication, we shall be in a very unhappy situation.”
Then, in addition to his objections to the general character of the Constitution, namely, as a consolidated government, unrestrained by an express guarantee of rights, he applied his criticisms in great detail, and with merciless rigor, to each department of the proposed government, — the legislative, the executive, and the judicial; and with respect to each one of these he insisted that its intended functions were such as to inspire distrust and alarm. Of course, we cannot here follow this fierce critic of the Constitution into all the detail of his criticisms; but, as a single example, we may cite a portion of his assault upon the executive department, — an assault, as will be seen, far better suited to the political apprehensions of his own time than of ours: —
“The Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy. And does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American? Your president may easily become king. . . . Where are your checks in this government? Your strongholds will be in the hands of your enemies. It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest, that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs, should they be bad men. And, sir, would not all the world, from the eastern to the western hemispheres, blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad? Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty. … If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute! The army is in his hands; and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him, and it will be the subject of long meditation with him to seize the first auspicious moment to accomplish his design. And, sir, will the American spirit solely relieve you when this happens? I would rather infinitely — and I am sure most of this convention are of the same opinion — have a king, lords, and commons, than a government so replete with such insupportable evils. If we make a king, we may prescribe the rules by which he shall rule his people, and interpose such checks as shall prevent him from infringing them; but the president, in the field, at the head of his army, can prescribe the terms on which he shall reign master, so far that it will puzzle any American ever to get his neck from under the galling yoke. . . . Will not the recollection of his crimes teach him to make one bold push for the American throne? Will not the immense difference between being master of everything, and being ignominiously tried and punished, powerfully excite him to make this bold push? But, sir, where is the existing force to punish him? Can he not, at the head of his army, beat down every opposition? Away with your president! we shall have a king. The army will salute him monarch. Your militia will leave you, and assist in making him king, and fight against you. And what have you to oppose this force? What will then become of you and your rights? Will not absolute despotism ensue ?”
Without reproducing here, in further detail, Patrick Henry’s objections to the new Constitution, it may now be stated that they all sprang from a single idea, and all revolved about that idea, namely, that the new plan of government, as it then stood, seriously endangered the rights and liberties of the people of the several States. And in holding this opinion he was not at all peculiar. Very many of the ablest and noblest statesmen of the time shared it with him. Not to name again his chief associates in Virginia, nor to cite the language of such men as Burke and Rawlins Lowndes, of South Carolina; as Timothy Bloodworth, of North Carolina; as Samuel Chase and Luther Martin, of Maryland; as George Clinton, of New York; as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts; as Joshua Atherton, of New Hampshire, it may sufficiently put us into the tone of contemporary opinion upon the subject, to recall certain grave words of Jefferson, who, watching the whole scene from the calm distance of Paris, thus wrote on the 2d of February, 1788, to an American friend: —
“I own it astonishes me to find such a change wrought in the opinions of our countrymen since I left them, as that three fourths of them should be contented to live under a system which leaves to their governors the power of taking from them the trial by jury in civil cases, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the habeas corpus laws, and of yoking them with a standing army. That is a degeneracy in the principles of liberty, to which I had given four centuries, instead of four years.”
Holding such objections to the proposed Constitution, what were Patrick Henry and his associates in the Virginia convention to do? Were they to reject the measure outright? Admitting that it had some good features, they yet thought that the best course to be taken by Virginia would be to remit the whole subject to a new convention of the States, — a convention which, being summoned after a year or more of intense and universal discussion, would thus represent the later, the more definite, and the more enlightened desires of the American people. But despairing of this, Patrick Henry and his friends concentrated all their forces upon this single and clear line of policy: so to press their objections to the Constitution as to induce the convention, not to reject it, but to postpone its adoption until they could refer to the other States in the American confederacy the following momentous proposition, namely, “a declaration of rights, asserting, and securing from encroachment, the great principles of civil and religious liberty, and the undeniable rights of the people, together with amendments to the most exceptionable parts of the said constitution of government.”
Such, then, was the real question over which in that assemblage, from the first day to the last, the battle raged. The result of the battle was reached on Wednesday, the 25th of June; and that result was a victory for immediate adoption, but by a majority of only ten votes, instead of the fifty votes that were claimed for it at the beginning of the session. Moreover, even that small majority for immediate adoption was obtained only by the help, first, of a preamble solemnly affirming it to be the understanding of Virginia in this act that it retained every power not expressly granted to the general government; and, secondly, of a subsidiary resolution promising to recommend to Congress “whatsoever amendments may be deemed necessary.”
Just before the decisive question was put, Patrick Henry, knowing that the result would be against him, and knowing, also, from the angry things uttered within that House and outside of it, that much solicitude was abroad respecting the course likely to be taken by the defeated party, then and there spoke these noble words: —
“I beg pardon of this House for having taken up more time than came to my share, and I thank them for the patience and polite attention with which I have been heard. If I shall be in the minority, I shall have those painful sensations which arise from a conviction of being overpowered in a good cause. Yet I will be a peaceable citizen. My head, my hand, and my heart shall be at liberty to retrieve the loss of liberty, and re- /move the defects of that system in a constitutional way. I wish not to go to violence, but will wait, with hopes that the spirit which predominated in the Revolution is not yet gone, nor the cause of those who are attached to the Revolution yet lost. I shall therefore patiently wait in expectation of seeing that government changed, so as to be compatible with the safety, liberty, and happiness of the people.”
Those words of the great Virginian leader proved to be a message of reassurance to many an anxious citizen, in many a State, — not least so to that great citizen who, from the slopes of Mount Vernon, was then watching, night and day, for signs of some abatement in the storm of civil discord. Those words, too, have, in our time, won for the orator who spoke them the deliberate, and the almost lyrical, applause of the greatest historian who has yet laid hand on the story of the Constitution: “Henry showed his genial nature, free from all malignity. He was like a billow of the ocean on the first bright day after the storm, dashing itself against the rocky cliff, and then, sparkling with light, retreating to its home.”
Long after the practical effects of the Virginia convention of 1788 had been merged in the general political life of the country, that convention was still proudly remembered for the magnificent exertions of intellectual power, and particularly of eloquence, which it had called forth. So lately as the year 1857, there was still living a man who, in his youth, had often looked in upon that famous convention, and whose enthusiasm, in recalling its great scenes, was not to be chilled even by the frosts of his ninety winters: —
“The impressions made by the powerful arguments of Madison and the overwhelming eloquence of Henry can never fade from my mind. I thought them almost supernatural. They seemed raised up by Providence, each in his way, to produce great results: the one by his grave, dignified, and irresistible arguments to convince and enlighten mankind; the other, by his brilliant and enrapturing eloquence to lead whithersoever he would.”
Those who had heard Patrick Henry on the other great occasions of his career were ready to say that his eloquence in the convention of 1788 was, upon the whole, fully equal to anything ever exhibited by him in any other place. The official reports of his speeches in that assemblage were always declared to be inferior in “strength and beauty ” to those actually made by him there. “In forming an estimate of his eloquence,” says one gentleman who there heard him,” no reliance can be placed on the printed speeches. No reporter whatever could take down what he actually said; and if he could, it would fall far short of the original.”
In his arguments against the Constitution Patrick Henry confined himself to no systematic order. The convention had indeed resolved that the document should be discussed, clause by clause, in a regular manner; but in spite of the complaints and reproaches of his antagonists, he continually broke over all barriers, and delivered his “multiform and protean attacks ” in such order as suited the workings of his own mind.
In the course of that long and eager controversy, he had several passages of sharp personal collision with his opponents, particularly with Governor Randolph, whose vacillating course respecting the Constitution had left him exposed to the most galling comments, and who on one occasion, in his anguish, turned upon Patrick Henry with the exclamation: “I find myself attacked in the most illiberal manner by the honorable gentleman. I disdain his aspersions and his insinuations. His asperity is warranted by no principle of parliamentary decency, nor compatible with the least shadow of friendship; and if our friendship must fall, let it fall, like Lucifer, never to rise again.” Like all very eloquent men, he was taunted, of course, for having more eloquence than logic; for “his declamatory talents;” for his “vague discourses and mere sports of fancy;” for discarding “solid argument; ” and for “throwing those bolts” which he had ” so peculiar a dexterity at discharging.” On one occasion, old General Adam Stephen tried to burlesque the orator’s manner of speech; on another occasion, that same petulant warrior bluntly told Patrick that if he did “not like this government,” he might “go and live among the Indians,” and even offered to facilitate the orator’s self-expatriation among the savages: “I know of several nations that live very happily; and I can furnish him with a vocabulary of their language.”
Knowing, as he did, every passion and prejudice of his audience, he adopted, it appears, almost every conceivable method of appeal. “The variety of arguments,” writes one witness, “which Mr. Henry generally presented in his speeches, addressed to the capacities, prejudices, and individual interests of his hearers, made his speeches very unequal. He rarely made in that convention a speech which Quintilian would have approved. If he soared at times, like the eagle, and seemed like the bird of Jove to be armed with thunder, he did not disdain to stoop like the hawk to seize his prey, — but the instant that he had done it, rose in pursuit of another quarry.”
Perhaps the most wonderful example of his eloquence, if we may judge by contemporary descriptions, was that connected with the famous scene of the thunder-storm, on Tuesday, the 24th of June, only one day before the decisive vote was taken. The orator, it seems, had gathered up all his forces for what might prove to be his last appeal against immediate adoption, and was portraying the disasters which the new system of government, unless amended, was to bring upon his countrymen, and upon all mankind: “I see the awful immensity of the dangers with which it is pregnant. I see it. I feel it. I see beings of a higher order anxious concerning our decision. When I see beyond the horizon that bounds human eyes, and look at the final consummation of all human things, and see those intelligent beings which inhabit the ethereal mansions reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which, in the progress of time, will happen in America, and the consequent happiness or misery of mankind, I am led to believe that much of the account, on one side or the other, will depend on what we now decide. Our own happiness alone is not affected by the event. All nations are interested in the determination. We have it in our power to secure the happiness of one half of the human race. Its adoption may involve the misery of the other hemisphere.” Thus far the stenographer had proceeded, when he suddenly stopped, and placed within brackets the following note: “[Here a violent storm arose, which put the House in such disorder, that Mr. Henry was obliged to conclude.] ” But the scene which is thus quietly despatched by the official reporter of the convention was again and again described, by many who were witnesses of it, as something most sublime and even appalling. After having delineated with overpowering vividness the calamities which were likely to befall mankind from their adoption of the proposed frame of government, the orator, it is said, as if wielding an enchanter’s wand, suddenly enlarged the arena of the debate and the number of his auditors; for, peering beyond the veil which shuts in mortal sight, and pointing ” to those celestial beings who were hovering over the scene,” he addressed to them “an invocation that made every nerve shudder with supernatural horror, when, lo! a storm at that instant rose, which shook the whole building, and the spirits whom he had called seemed to have come at his bidding. Nor did his eloquence, or the storm, immediately cease; but availing himself of the incident, with a master’s art, he seemed to mix in the fight of his ethereal auxiliaries, and, ‘rising on the wings of the tempest, to seize upon the artillery of heaven, and direct its fiercest thunders against the heads of his adversaries.’ The scene became insupportable; and the House rose without the formality of adjournment, the members rushing from their seats with precipitation and confusion.”