June 24, 1788 – Patrick Henry Opposes the Constitution: “May They Not Pronounce All Slaves Free?”

In June, 1788, Virginia delegates met to debate ratification of the new Constitution. Patrick Henry was bitterly opposed to it. On this day in history, he argued to the convention:

Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power? This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it. As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition. I deny that the general government ought to set them free, because a decided majority of the states have not the ties of sympathy and fellow-feeling for those whose interest would be affected by their emancipation. The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.

In this situation, I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquillity gone. I repeat it again, that it would rejoice my very soul that every one of my fellow-beings was emancipated. As we ought with gratitude to admire that decree of Heaven which has numbered us among the free, we ought to lament and deplore the necessity of holding our fellowmen in bondage. But is it practicable, by any human means, to liberate them without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences? We ought to possess them in the manner we inherited them from our ancestors, as their manumission is incompatible with the felicity of our country.”

Patrick Henry, of course, is primarily known for his 1765 shout of opposition to the Stamp Act “Give me liberty or give me death!” Obviously, he didn’t mean that dictum to be applied generally, which would interfere with his own “peace and tranquility.”

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry

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