Virginia Debate

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The following selections are from the ratification debates in Virginia during June 1788. Jonathan Elliott, 3 Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 (2d rev. 137 1891)

George Mason (June 1788, 32)
“There is one thing in it which I conceive to be extremely dangerous. Gentlemen may talk of public virtue and confidence; we shall be told that the House of Representatives will consist of the most virtuous men on the continent, and that in their hands we may trust our dearest rights. This, like all other assemblies, will be composed of some bad and some good men; and, considering the natural lust of power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people. What I conceive to be so dangerous, is the provision with respect to the number of representatives…There is a want of proportion that ought to be strictly guarded against. The worthy gentleman tells us that we have no reason to fear; but I always fear for the rights of the people.”

Patrick Henry (Virginia Debates, June 9, 1788, 163-176)
“My worthy friend said that a republican form of government would not suit a very extensive country; but that, if a government were judiciously organized, and limits prescribed to it, an attention to these principles might render it possible for it to exist in an extensive territory. Whoever will be bold to say that a continent can be governed by that system, contradicts all the experience of the world. It is a work too great for human wisdom. Let me call for an example. Experience has been called the best teacher. I call for an example of a great extent of country, governed by one government, or Congress, call it what you will. I tell him that a government may be trimmed up according to gentlemen's fancy, but it never can operate; it would be but very short-lived. However disagreeable it may be to lengthen my objections, I cannot help taking notice of what the honorable gentleman said. To me it appears that there is no check in that government. The President, senators, and representatives, all, immediately or mediately, are .the choice of the people. Tell me not of checks on paper; but tell me of checks founded on self-love. The English government is founded on self-love. This powerful, irresistible stimulus of self-love has saved that government.

It has interposed that hereditary nobility between the king and commons. If the host of lords assist or permit the king to overturn the liberties of the people, the same tyranny will destroy them; they will therefore keep the balance in the democratic branch. Suppose they see the commons encroach upon the king: self-love, that great energetic check, will call upon them to interpose; for, if the king be destroyed, their destruction must speedily follow. Here is a consideration, which prevails, in my mind, to pronounce the British government superior, in this respect, to any government that ever was in any country. Compare this with your congressional checks. I beseech gentlemen to consider, whether they can say, when trusting power, that a mere patriotic profession will be equally operative and efficacious as the check of self-love. In considering the experience of ages, is it not seen that fair, disinterested patriotism, and professions of attachment to rectitude, have never been solely trusted to by an enlightened, free people? If you depend on your President's and senators' patriotism, you are gone. Have you a resting-place like the British government? Where is the rock of your salvation? The real rock of political salvation is self-love, perpetuated from age to age in every human breast, and manifested in every action. If they can stand the temptations of human nature, you are safe. If you have a good President, senators, and representatives, there is no danger. But can this be expected from human nature? Without real checks, it will not suffice that some of them are...
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