In 1775, a 36-year-old named Patrick Henry swung the balance of the Second Virginia Convention with these words:
Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!
This impassioned statement, with its famous concluding phrase, convinced the delegates to commit troops to the War of Independence. Henry dominates the American imagination as a fiery orator and champion of independence.
Mark L. Movesian’s post on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786 brought to mind Patrick Henry’s failed 1784 proposal, A Bill Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.
Henry styled the bill as serving practical, even worldly, purposes. Nothing about the duties of persons to God or about the truth of Christianity. Instead Henry asserted that civil benefits flow from Christian teaching. He argued “the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.”
Ratifying the U.S. Constitution in Virginia
The Philadelphia Convention rent Virginia’s political elite as no event ever had. Not only had Patrick Henry refused his proffered seat (he said he “smelt a rat”), but two of the three delegates who stayed through the whole Convention before finally refusing to sign were Virginians.
And not just any Virginians. Non-signer Edmund Randolph, the Old Dominion’s governor at the time, had served virtually throughout the Convention as chief advocate of the Virginia Plan, which the delegates knew as “Randolph’s Resolutions.” Perhaps even more significantly, Virginian politicos generally recognized George Mason as their state’s leading constitutional authority. He had taken the lead in drafting both the Virginia Constitution of 1776—the first written constitution adopted by the people’s representatives in the history of the world—and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first American declaration of rights. Mason refused to sign too.
Randolph explained his recusant posture by pointing to the several objections he had developed in the course of deliberations, and then saying that he intended to leave the question open until the people of his home state had an opportunity to express their sentiments. Mason, characteristically more forthright and less concerned with popular opinion, made no secret of the fact that, as James Madison put it, he “left Philada. in an exceeding ill humor indeed.”
From Michael Klarman's review of Pauline Maier's book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 in the Harvard Law Review: If Madison is the hero of Ratification, then Patrick Henry is the villain. Henry’s early and vociferous opposition to British efforts in the 1760s to assert greater control over the colonies, which put him at risk of a treason prosecution, had made him a revolutionary icon. In 1787–1788, Henry waged war on the Constitution. Widely regarded as the greatest orator of his age (p. 230), Henry dominated the Virginia ratifying convention, holding the floor for as much as one-quarter of the…