Sydney Stone, Anti-Federal.
By G. C. CLEMENS,
(Author of "The Dead Line.")
Constitutions, charters, petitions of right, declarations of right, representative assemblies, electoral colleges, are not good government; nor do they, even when most elaborately constructed, necessarily produce good government. Laws exist in vain for those who have not the courage and the means to defend them. Electors meet in vain where want makes them the slaves of their landlord, or where superstition makes them the slaves of the priest."--Macaulay.
Woe worth the hour when it is crime
To plead the poor dumb bondman's cause;
When all that makes the heart sublime.
The glorious throbs that conquer time,
Are traitors to our cruel laws!
"The honorable gentleman said that great danger would ensue if the convention rose without adopting this system. I ask, Where is that danger? I see none. Other gentlemen have told us within these walls that the Union is gone or that the Union will be gone. Is not this trilling with the judgment of their fellow citizens? Till they tell us the ground of their fears, I will consider them as imaginary. I rose to make inquiry where these dangers were. They could not answer. I believe I shall never have that answer. Let not gentlemen be told that it is not safe to reject this government. Wherefore is it not safe? We are told there are dangers; but those dangers are ideal; they cannot be demonstrated. Some minds are agitated by foreign alarms. Happily for us, there is no real danger from Europe; that country is engaged in more arduous business. From that quarter there is no cause of fear; you may sleep in safety forever for them.
"But, If, sir, there were danger, I would recur to the American spirit to defend us that spirit which has enabled us to surmount the greatest difficulties. It was but yesterday when our enemies marched in triumph through our country. Yet the people of this country could not be appalled by their pompous armaments; they stopped their career, and victoriously captured them. Where is the peril now compared to that ?
"Whither is the spirit of America gone? Whither is the genius of America fled? To that illustrious spirit I address my most fervent prayer to prevent our adopting a system destructive of liberty." During the speech, of which but extracts have been given, an incident occurred which illustrated the firm hold superstition retains upon even the most cultivated minds. Patrick Henry's biographer shall tell the story:
"The question of adoption or rejection was now approaching. The decision was still uncertain, and every mind and every heart was filled with anxiety. Mr. Henry partook most deeply of this feeling; and while engaged, as it were, in his last effort, availed himself of the strong sensations which he knew to pervade the house, and made an appeal to it which, in point of sublimity, has never been surpassed in any age or country of the world. After describing, in accents which spoke to the soul, and to which every other bosom deeply responded, the awful immensity of the question to the present and future generations, and the throbbing apprehensions with which he looked to the issue, he passed from the house and from the earth, and looking, as he said, 'beyond that horizon which binds mortal eyes,' he pointed with a countenance and action that made the blood run back upon the aching heart--to those celestial beings who were hovering over the scene, and waiting with anxiety for a decision which involved the happiness or misery of more than half the human race. To those beings with the same thrilling look and action he had just addressed an invocation that made every nerve shudder with supernatural horror, when, lo! a storm at that instant arose 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 thunder against the heads of his adversaries. The scene became insupportable."
Members rushed from their seat in confusion and dismay; and but for the timely arrival of a Federalist, who had been absent during the excitement, there would have been no one sufficiently collected to proceed with the debate.
Nor was this the only exciting episode. The Virginia anti-Federals had even contemplated a resort to arms rather than yield, and it was perfectly understood by the Federalists that the man whose eloquence had hurled the Colonies against Great Britain's trained forces was amply able, if he chose, to rouse his countrymen again. Hence, it is little wonder that Madison and others were startled and grew pale with apprehension when, while declaring that the Constitution would make an end of jury trial and put every champion of liberty at the mercy of the government, the fiery patriot declared he would not submit, and exclaimed:
"Old as I am, it is possible I may yet have the appellation of rebel!"
And, with a look of defiance, added suggestively: But my neighbors will protect me!"
A Federalist replied that "Virginia would be in arms to support the Constitution," but the others knew better, and, instead of replying, set themselves to work getting Patrick Henry's friends to induce him in to entertain more pacific sentiments.
"Their efforts succeeded; and in closing a brief address, just before the question was put, he thus quieted the fears of the opposition and allayed the war like spirit he had awakened in his followers:
"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 the 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 free to retrieve the loss of liberty, and remove 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."
The vote was taken; and in the convention of a hundred and and sixty-eight members, the Constitution was ratified by a majority of only ten. But that sufficed. The government of the United States of America had begun to exist.
The people, however, now showed their hostility to the Constitution by electing a Legislature made up of anti-Federals more than two to one; and Patrick Henry was allowed to name both United States Senators. Madison, who was Washington's candidate for the Senate, was overwhelmingly defeated. The
Assembly passed resolutions demanding that Congress should call a new federal convention for proposing amendments to the Constitution, sent copies of proposed amendments and of the resolutions to Governors and Legislatures of all the States, and instructed the Virginia Senators and Representatives to act in the meantime as if those amendments were already part of the Constitution.
The proposed amendments related to trial by jury, the right of the people to assemble, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to bear arms, and other matters proper in a bill of rights.
These amendments, soon after the organization of the government, were added to the Constitution. But what availed they? Mason, of Virginia, had proposed the same bill of rights to the Philadelphia convention, and it was rejected by a unanimous vote of the States. The same party which rejected those. restraints upon tyranny, organized the new government; and, save for rare and brief intervals, has controlled it to this day; and notwithstanding the amendments inserted by the people, a Federalist Supreme Court has, this very year (1895), declared that American citizens may be imprisoned without a jury trial for constructive treason; that it is a crime to advise a citizen to "buy a gun" to resist usurpation, and that Patrick Henry correctly judged that, under the Constitution, "a few neighbors can not assemble without the risk of being shot by a hired soldiery the engines of despotism!" That Federalist Supreme Court has declared that under that Constitution, notwithstanding its amendments, the federal standing army may serve as a national police force in any city or hamlet, regardless of the protests of the Governor of the invaded State. Notwithstanding those amendments, a federal standing army has this very year filled with hungry workingmen some graves in the State of Abraham Lincoln. Not far from Lincoln's tomb some American workingmen languish in prison for that crime abhorred by lovers of liberty constructive treason; and they were sent there by the will of a Judge--a tool of despotism-- without a trial by their peers. When the members of that Virginia convention refused to heed honest, patriotic Patrick Henry's warning, they gave us what we have to-day; a republic in name, a military despotism, in fact; a government by the people in form; in reality, a government of the people by the most contemptible among the rich;--a government of which even the President is but a salaried clerk, through whom the chiefs of great plundering organizations of corrupt wealth reign as absolute over the people as ever did Eastern despot reign; and spy upon their subjects as contemptibly and oppress them as mercilessly as ever did Dionysius the Tyrant spy upon and oppress the people of old Syracuse.
Alas! We cannot now go back to that old church in Richmond and undo the work of 1788! Nor have we the spirit to do so were it in our power. Could Patrick Henry come among us to-day and look upon the degeneracy of the people for whose good he labored and dared, would he not with tenfold emphasis again exclaim:
"Whither is the spirit of America gone? Whither is the genius of America fled?"