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Handout C: In His Own Words: Patrick Henry on the Constitution


Excerpts from Patrick Henry’s Speech of June 5, 1788, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention

Directions: Each group should paraphrase its assigned passage in one to two sentences that convey Henry’s main idea. Below each passage of Henry’s speech are aids for understanding the document.

1. Majority Rule

This, sir, is the language of democracy—that a majority of the community have a right to alter government when found to be oppressive. But how different is the genius of your new Constitution from this! How different from the sentiments of freemen that a contemptible minority can prevent the good of the majority! . . . If, sir, amendments are left to the twentieth, or tenth part of the people of America, your liberty is gone for ever. . . . It will be easily contrived to procure the opposition of the one-tenth of the people to any alteration, however judicious….


  1. genius = nature
  2. contemptible = disgraceful
  3. contrived = arranged
  4. procure = obtain
  5. alteration = change
  6. judicious = sensible

Relevant Section(s) of the Constitution:

Article V: Amendment Process

Clues to Understanding the Passage:

The amendment process states that the approval of three fourths of the states is necessary for any proposed amendment to be enacted. In a union of thirteen states, an amendment would require the approval of ten states. The opposition of any four states—even those with small populations—would kill an amendment.

2. A Standing Army

A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment? In what situation are we to be? The clause before you gives . . . an exclusive power of legislation, in all cases whatsoever, for ten miles square, and over all places purchased for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, etc. What resistance could be made? The attempt would be madness….


  1. execrable = repulsive
  2. mace = a primitive weapon
  3. regiment = a unit of soldiers in the army
  4. arsenal = place where weapons are stored

Relevant Section(s) of the Constitution:

  • Article I, Section 8, Clause 12: “[The Congress shall have the power] to raise and support armies.”
  • Article I, Section 8, Clause 17: “[The Congress shall have the power] to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over . . . the seat of the government of the United States.”

Clues to Understanding the Passage:

Americans traditionally feared a “standing army,” a permanent force consisting of professional, paid soldiers. Instead, most Americans favored defending their country with militia, part-time citizen-soldiers.

Source: Speech made on June 5, 1788, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention. The American <>.