Patrick Henry balked when asked to participate in the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. A year later in Richmond, he attempted to solidify opposition in the Virginia Convention for Ratification.
Hanover County's 1775 "liberty or death" revolutionary was 13 years older, a political veteran who'd served five one-year terms as governor — he was the first Virginian elected to the post — and an established lawyer.
He regarded the process in Philadelphia with some suspicion, in large part because of its secrecy. He opposed government consolidation and is alleged to have muttered, "I smell a rat in Philadelphia."
The purpose for which the convention was called, to rewrite the Articles of Confederation that loosely governed the 13 former colonies, was considered by Henry and others to be subversive to liberty. It was their opinion that the rewrite created a document that put too much power in the hands of a few while failing to enshrine the American Revolution's ideals of personal freedom.
Henry suggested that his age and adherence to such principles might have made him irrelevant. He remarked, "I am fearful I have lived long enough to become an old-fashioned fellow."
On June 2, 1788, Henry was among the 170 members of the Virginia convention seated at the New Academy on Shockoe Hill (approximately where VCU Medical Center's West Hospital now stands).
The ratification question held some urgency because the delegates understood that Virginia's was the ninth (and final) vote needed. Its population was greater than the other states, and its territory embraced present-day Kentucky and Ohio. Representatives from these far-flung western counties wanted statehood more than a Constitution. (As it happened, New Hampshire gave the deciding affirmation while the Virginians met.)
The pro-Constitution cadre included James Madison and John Marshall, respectively a future president and Supreme Court chief justice. Henry, James Monroe (another president-to-be) and George Mason were among the anti-ratifiers.
Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted in 1776, was almost directly absorbed into the Declaration of Independence. Mason refused to sign the constitutional document due to its proposed strong central government and failure to abolish the slave trade. His dissent cost him George Washington's friendship.
Almost all those men in Richmond gave lengthy, eloquent and passionate speeches — but there was just one Patrick Henry.
On day four he exclaimed, "Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings — give us that precious jewel, and you may take everything else!"
He illustrated the shortcomings of the proposed document. Where some called it beautiful, he considered it "horribly frightful."
"Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy. … Your president may become king. Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed to what may be a small minority. … Where are your checks in the government?"
On June 24, Henry addressed the major issue that almost broke the Philadelphia convention.
"Slavery is detested. We feel its fatal effect — we deplore it with all the pity of humanity. Let all these considerations, at some future period, press with full force on the minds of Congress." Henry argued that while abolition should occur at a distant time, a centralized government granted by this Constitution could free the slaves at any point, and sooner rather than later.
"As much as I deplore slavery," Henry said, "I see that prudence forbids its abolition."
James Madison somehow swayed the convention to ratify on the next day. The question was carried, 89-79.
The delegates, however, suggested 40 amendments, of which 10 formed what became the Bill of Rights. Madison proposed the first nine and Richard Henry Lee (great uncle of Robert E. Lee) the 10th — that rights not stipulated by the Constitution defer to the "States respectively, or the people."
The amendments, or articles, were adopted by Congress in 1791.