Patrick Henry on the Need for a Militia

This speech was given June 14, 1788.

Mr. Chairman, in my judgment the friends of the opposition have to act cautiously. We must make a firm stand before we decide. I was heard to say, a few days ago, that the sword and purse were the two great instruments of government; and I professed great repugnance at parting with the purse, without any control, to the proposed system of government. And now, when we proceed in this formidable compact, and come to the national defence, the sword, I am persuaded we ought to be still more cautious and circumspect; for I feel still more reluctance to surrender this most valuable of rights.

The honorable member who has risen to explain several parts of the system was pleased to say, that the best way of avoiding the danger of a standing army, was, to have the militia in such a way as to render it unnecessary; and that, as the new government would have power over the militia, we should have no standing army — it being unnecessary. This argument destroys itself. It demands a power, and denies the probability of its exercise. There are suspicions of power on one hand, and absolute and unlimited confidence {385} on the other. I hope to be one of those who have a large share of suspicion. I leave it to this house, if there be not too small a portion on the other side, by giving up too much to that government. You can easily see which is the worst of two extremes. Too much suspicion may be corrected. If you give too little power to-day, you may give more to-morrow. But the reverse of the proposition will not hold. If you give too much power to-day, you cannot retake it to-morrow: for to-morrow will never come for that purpose. If you have the fate of other nations, you will never see it. It is easier to supply deficiencies of power than to take back excess of power. This no man can deny.

But, says the honorable member, Congress will keep the militia armed; or, in other words, they will do their duty. Pardon me if I am too jealous and suspicious to confide in this remote possibility. My honorable friend went on a supposition that the American rulers, like all others, will depart from their duty without bars and checks. No government can be safe without checks. Then he told us they had no temptation to violate their duty, and that it would be their interest to perform it. Does he think you are to trust men who cannot have separate interests from the people? It is a novelty in the political world (as great a novelty as the system itself) to find rulers without private interests, and views of personal emoluments, and ambition. His supposition, that they will not depart from their duty, as having no interest to do so, is no satisfactory answer to my mind. This is no check. The government may be most intolerable and destructive, if this be our only security.

My honorable friend attacked the honorable gentleman with universal principles — that, in all nations and ages, rulers have been actuated by motives of individual interest and private emoluments, and that in America it would be so also. I hope, before we part with this great bulwark, this noble palladium of safety, we shall have such checks interposed as will render us secure. The militia, sir, is our ultimate safety. We can have no security without it. But then, he says that the power of arming and organizing the militia is concurrent, and to be equally exercised by the general and state governments. I am sure, and I trust in the candor of that gentleman, that he will recede from that {386} opinion, When his recollection will be called to the particular clause which relates to it.

As my worthy friend said, there is a positive partition of power between the two governments. To Congress is given the power of “arming, organizing, and disciplining the militia, and governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States.” To the state legislatures is given the power of appointing the officers, and training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” I observed before, that, if the power be concurrent as to arming them, it is concurrent in other respects. If the states have the right of arming them, &c., concurrently, Congress, has a concurrent power of appointing the officers, and training the militia. If Congress have that power, it is absurd. To admit this mutual concurrence of powers will carry on into endless absurdity — that Congress has nothing exclusive on the one hand, nor the states on the other. The rational explanation is, that Congress shall have exclusive power of arming them, &c., and that the State governments shall have exclusive power of appointing the officers, &c. Let me put it in another light.

May we not discipline and arm them, as well as Congress, if the power be concurrent? so that our militia shall have two sets of arms, double sets of regimentals, &c.; and thus, at a very great cost, we shall be doubly armed. The great object is, that every man be armed. But can the people afford to pay for double sets of arms, &c.? Every one Who is able may have a gun. But we have learned, by experience, that, necessary as it is to have arms, and though our Assembly has, by a succession of laws for many years, endeavored to have the militia completely armed, it is still far from being the case. When this power is given up to Congress without. limitation or bounds, how will your militia be afraid? You trust to chance; for sure I am that that nation which shall trust its liberties in other hands cannot long exist. If gentlemen are serious when they suppose a concurrent power, where can be the impolicy to amend it? Or, in other words, to say that Congress shall not arm or discipline them, till the states Shall have refused or neglected to do it? This is my object. I only wish to bring it to what they themselves say is implied. Implication is to be the foundation of our civil liberties; and when you speak of arming the militia by a {387} concurrence of power, you use implication. But implication will not save you, when a strong army of veterans comes upon you. You would be laughed at by the whole world, for trusting your safety implicitly to implication.

The argument of my honorable friend was, that rulers might tyrannize. The answer he received was, that they will not. In saying that they would not, he admitted they might. In this great, this essential part of the Constitution, if you are safe, it is not from the Constitution, but from the virtues of the men in government. If gentlemen are willing to trust themselves and posterity to so slender and improbable a chance, they have greater strength of nerves than I have.

The honorable gentleman, in endeavoring to answer the question why the militia were to be called forth to execute the laws, said that the civil power would probably do it. He is driven to say, that the civil power may do it instead of the militia. Sir, the military power ought not to interpose till the civil power refuse. If this be the spirit of your new Constitution, that the laws are to be enforced by military coercion, we may easily divine the happy consequences which will result from it. The civil power is not to be employed at all. If it be, show me it. I read inattentively, and could see nothing to warrant a belief that the civil power can be called for. I should be glad to see the power that authorizes Congress to do so. The sheriff will be aided by military force. The most wanton excesses may be committed under color of this; for every man in office, in the states, is to take an oath to support it in all its operations. The honorable gentleman said, in answer to the objection that the militia might be marched from New Hampshire to Georgia, that the members of the government would not attempt to excite the indignation of the people. Here, again, we have the general unsatisfactory answer, that they will be virtuous, and that there is no danger.

Will gentlemen be satisfied with an answer which admits of dangers and abuses if they be wicked? Let us put it of their power to do mischief. I am convinced, there is no safety in the paper on the table as it stands now. I am sorry to have an occasion to pass a eulogium on the British government, as gentlemen may object to it. But how natural it is, when comparing deformities to beauty, to be {388} struck with the superiority of the British government to that system! In England, self-love — self-interest — powerfully stimulates the executive magistrate to advance the prosperity of the nation. In the most distant part, he feels the loss of his subjects. He will see the great advantage of his posterity inseparable from the felicity of his people. Man is a fallen creature, a fallible being, and cannot be depended on without self-love. Your President will not have the same motives of self-love to impel him to favor your interests. His political character is but transient, and he will promote, as much as possible, his own private interests. He will conclude, the constant observation has been that he will abuse his power, and that it is expected. The king of England has a more permanent interest. His stock, his family, is to continue in possession of the same emolument. The more flourishing his nation, the more formidable and powerful is he. The sword and purse are not united, in that government, in the same hands, as in this system. Does not infinite security result from a separation?

But it is said that our Congress are more responsible than the British Parliament. It appears to me that there is no real, but there may be some specious responsibility. If Congress, in the execution of their unbounded powers, shall have done wrong, how will you come at them to punish them, if they are at the distance of five hundred miles? At such a great distance, they will evade responsibility altogether. If you have given up your militia, and. Congress shall refuse to arm them, you have lost every thing. Your existence will be precarious, because you depend on others, whose interests are not affected by your infelicity. If Congress are to arm us exclusively, the man of New Hampshire may vote for or against it, as well as the Virginian. The great distance and difference between the two places render it possible that the people of that country can know or pursue what will promote our convenience. I therefore contend that, if, Congress do not arm the militia, we ought to provide for it ourselves.