Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Debates in the Several State Conventions, (Virginia), on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution [Elliot's Debates, Volume 3]

“...The honorable member must forgive me for declaring my dissent from it; because, if I understand it rightly, it admits that the new system is defective, and most capitally; for, immediately after the proposed ratification, there comes a declaration that the paper before you is not intended to violate any of these three great rights--the liberty of religion, liberty of the press, and the trial by jury. What is the in-when you enumerate the rights which you are to enjoy? That those not enumerated are relinquished. There are only three things to be retained--religion, freedom of the press, and jury trial. Will not the ratification carry every thing, without excepting these three things? Will not all the world pronounce that we intended to give up all the rest? Every thing it speaks of, by way of rights, is comprised in these things. Your subsequent amendments only go to these three amendments.
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“I feel myself distressed, because the necessity of securing our personal rights seems not to have pervaded the minds of men; for many other valuable things are omitted:--for instance, general warrants, by which an officer may search suspected places, without evidence of the commission of a fact, or seize any person without evidence of his crime, ought to be prohibited. As these are admitted, any man may be seized, any property may be taken, in the most arbitrary manner, without any evidence or reason. Every thing the most sacred may be searched and ransacked by the strong hand of power. We have infinitely more reason to dread general warrants here than they have in England, because there, if a person be confined, liberty may be quickly obtained by the writ of habeas corpus. But here a man living many hundred miles from the judges may get in prison before he can get that writ.
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Another most fatal omission is with respect to standing armies. In our bill of rights of Virginia, they are said to be dangerous to liberty, and it tells you that the proper defence of a free state consists in militia; and so I might go on to ten or eleven things of immense consequence secured in your bill of rights, concerning which that proposal is silent. Is that the language of the bill of rights in England? Is it the language of the American bill of rights, that these three rights, and these only, are valuable? Is it the language of men going into a new government? Is it not necessary to speak of those things before you go into a compact? How do these three things stand? As one of the parties, we declare we do not mean to give them up. This is very dictatorial--much more so than the conduct which proposes alterations as the condition of adoption. In a compact there are two parties--one excepting, and another proposing. As a party, we propose that we shall secure these three things; and before we have the assent of the other contracting party, we go into the compact, and leave these things at their mercy.
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“What will be the consequence? Suppose the other states shall call this dictatorial. They will say, Virginia has gone into the government, and carried with her certain propositions, which, she says, ought to be concurred in by the other states. They will declare that she has no right to dictate to other states the conditions on which they shall come into the Union. According to the honorable member's proposal, the ratification will cease to be obligatory unless they accede to these amendments. We have ratified it. You have committed a violation, will they say. They have not violated it. We say, we will go out of it. You are then reduced to a sad dilemma--to give up these three rights, or leave the government. This is worse than our present Confederation, to which we have hitherto adhered honestly and faithfully. We shall be told we have violated it, because we have left it for the infringement and violation of conditions which they never agreed to be a part of the ratification. The ratification will be complete. The proposal is made by the party. We, as the other, accede to it, and propose the security of these three great rights; for it is only a proposal. In order to secure them, you are left in that state of fatal hostility which I shall as much deplore as the honorable gentleman. I exhort gentlemen to think seriously before they ratify this Constitution, and persuade themselves that they will succeed in making a feeble effort to get amendments after adoption.
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“With respect to that part of the proposal which says that every power not granted remains with the people, it must be previous to adoption, or it will involve this country in inevitable destruction. To talk of it as a thing subsequent, not as one of your unalienable rights, is leaving it to the casual opinion of the Congress who shall take up the consideration of that matter. They will not reason with you about the effect of this Constitution. They will not take the opinion of this committee concerning its operation. They will construe it as they please. If you place it subsequently, let me ask the consequences. Among ten thousand implied powers which they may assume....”
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“...I have thus candidly submitted to you, Mr. Chairman, and this committee, what occurred to me as proper amendments to the Constitution, and a declaration of rights containing those fundamental, unalienable privileges, which I conceive to be essential to liberty and happiness. I believe that, on a review of these amendments, it will still be found that the arm of power will be sufficiently strong for national purposes, when these restrictions shall be a part of the government. I believe no gentleman who opposes me in sentiments will be able to discover that any one feature of a strong government is altered; and at the same time your unalienable rights are secured by them. The government unaltered may be terrible to America, but can never be loved till it be amended. You find all the resources of the continent may be drawn to a point. In danger, the President may concentre to a point every effort of the continent. If the government be constructed to satisfy the people, and remove their apprehensions, the wealth and the Strength of the continent will go where public utility shall direct. This government, with these restrictions, will be a strong government, united with the privileges of the people. In my weak judgment, a government is strong when it applies to the most important end of all governments--the rights and privileges of the people. In the honorable member's proposal, jury trial, the press and religion, and other essential rights, are not to be given up. Other essential rights--what are they? The world will say that you intended to give them up. When you go into an enumeration of your rights, and stop that enumeration, the inevitable conclusion is, that what is omitted is intended to be surrendered...”
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- Patrick Henry, June 24, 1788.

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