On June 9, 1788, Patrick Henry delivered a speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention arguing that many of the alleged crises of the time used to justify the proposed constitution were “imaginary.”

This was actually the fourth long speech Henry delivered during the convention and it builds on arguments he previously made on June 7 when he observed “it is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers” and urged the addition of a bill of rights to the proposed Constitution. 

At the time, the United States of America was hardly a decade old. It was still struggling to pay significant debts owed to France from the War of Independence. There were also disputes with Spain over control of the Mississippi River to the west. Many Federalists believed that a new government was needed to pay off the debts to France and also effectively handle the dispute with Spain.

However, Henry pushed back against the underlying sense of urgency, while reiterating the need for a Bill of Rights.

“When I review the magnitude of the subject under consideration, and of dangers which appear to me in this new plan of government…unless there be great and awful dangers, the change is dangerous, and the experiment ought not to be made. In estimating the magnitude of these dangers, we are obliged to take a most serious view of them — to see them, to handle them, and to be familiar with them. It is not sufficient to feign mere imaginary dangers; there must be a dreadful reality.

“…I am persuaded that four fifths of the people of Virginia must have amendments to the new plan, to reconcile them to a change of their government. It is a slippery foundation for the people to rest their political salvation on my or their assertions. No government can flourish unless it be founded on the affection of the people. Unless gentlemen can be sure that this new system is founded on that ground, they ought to stop their career.”

Discussing the Mississippi River dispute, Henry expressed skepticism that Spain was in any position to oppose American expansion, and therefore there was no need for a new federal government to resolve the dispute.

“Do you suppose the Spanish monarch will risk a contest with the United States, when his feeble colonies are exposed to them? Every advance the people make to the westward, makes him tremble for Mexico and Peru. Despised as we are among ourselves, under our present government, we are terrible to that monarchy. If this be not a fact, it is generally said so.”

Henry was equally dismissive of the notion that France would resort to military action to force the United States to meet its debt payments, as some claimed. Here, he referenced Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as “Minister to the Court of Versailles” at the time:

“Our ambassador tells you that the king of France has taken into consideration to enter into commercial regulations, on reciprocal terms, with us, which will be of peculiar advantage to us. Does this look like hostility?

“…It is little usual for nations to send armies to collect debts. The house of Bourbon, that great friend of America, will never attack her for her unwilling delay of payment. Give me leave to say, that Europe is too much engaged about objects of greater importance, to attend to us. On that great theatre of the world, the little American matters vanish. Do you believe that the mighty monarch of France, beholding the greatest scenes that ever engaged the attention of a prince of that country, will divert himself from those important objects, and now call for a settlement of accounts with America? This proceeding is not warranted by good sense. The friendly disposition to us, and the actual situation of France, render the idea of danger from that quarter absurd.”

In short, Henry concluded that none of these situations necessitated a new, more powerful central government. He argued that a new Constitution posed more of a danger, he claimed, than any perceived crisis.  

“When gentlemen are thus driven to produce imaginary dangers, to induce this Convention to assent to this change, I am sure it will not be uncandid to say that the change itself is really dangerous.

“…Give me leave to remark, that the honorable gentleman’s observations on our frontiers, north and south, east and west, are all inaccurate.”

In short, conjuring illusionary crises as a pretext for more government power is nothing new. 

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