Patrick Henry Speech on Government Debt

This speech was given June 17, 1788.

Mr. HENRY. Mr. Chairman, I am convinced, and I see clearly, that this paper money must be discharged, shilling for shilling. The honorable gentleman must see better {474} than I can, from his particular situation and judgment; but this has certainly escaped his attention. The question arising on the clause before you is, whether an act of the legislature of this state, for scaling money, will be of sufficient validity to exonerate you from paying the nominal value, when such a law, called ex post facto, and impairing the obligation of contracts, is expressly interdicted by it. Your hands are tied up by this clause, and you must pay shilling for shilling; and, in the last section, there is a clause that prohibits the general legislature from passing any ex post facto law; so that the hands of Congress are tied up, as well as the hands of the state legislatures.

How will this thing operate, when ten or twenty millions are demanded as the quota of this state? You will cry out that speculators have got it at one for a thousand, and that they ought to be paid so. Will you then have recourse, for relief, to legislative interference? They cannot relieve you, because of that clause. The expression includes public contracts, as well as private contracts between individuals. Notwithstanding the sagacity of the gentleman, he cannot prove its exclusive relation to private contracts. Here is an enormous demand, which your children, to the tenth generation, will not be able to pay. Should we ask if there be any obligation in justice to pay more than the depreciated value, we shall be told that contracts must not be impaired. Justice may make a demand of millions, but the people cannot pay them.

I remember the clamors and public uneasiness concerning the payments of British debts put into the treasury. Was not the alarm great and general lest these payments should be laid on the people at large? Did not the legislature interfere, and pass a law to prevent it? Was it not reechoed every where, that the people of this country ought not to pay the debts of their great ones? And though some urged their patriotism and merits in putting money, on the faith of the public, into the treasury, yet the outery was so great that it required legislative interference. Should those enormous demands be made upon us, would not legislative interference be more necessary than it was in that case? Let us not run the risk of being charged with carelessness, and neglect of the interests of our constituents and posterity. I would ask the number of millions. It is, without exaggeration, {475} immense. I ask gentlemen if they can pay one hundred millions, or two hundred millions? Where have they the means of paying it? Still they would make us proceed to tie the hands of the states and of Congress.

A gentleman has said, with great force, that there is a contest for empire. There is also a contest for money. The states of the north wish to secure a superiority of interest and influence. In one part their deliberation is marked with wisdom, and in the other with the most liberal generosity. When we have paid all the gold and silver we could to replenish the congressional coffers, here they ask for confidence. Their hands will be tied up. They cannot merit confidence. Here is a transfer from the old to the new government, without the means of relieving the greatest distresses which can befall the people. This money might be scaled, sir; but the exclusion of ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, steps in and prevents it. These were admitted by the old Confederation. There is a contest for money as well as empire, as I have said before. The Eastern States have speculated chiefly in this money. As there can be no congressional scale, their speculations will be extremely profitable. Not satisfied with a majority in the legislative councils, they must have all our property. I wish the southern genius of America had been more watchful.

This state may be sued in the federal court for those enormous demands, and judgment may be obtained, unless ex post facto laws be passed. To benefit whom are we to run this risk? I have heard there were vast quantities of that money packed up in barrels: those formidable millions are deposited in the Northern States, and whether in public or private hands makes no odds. They have acquired it for the most inconsiderable trifle. If you accord to this part, you are bound hand and foot. Judgment must be rendered against you for the whole. Throw all pride out of the question, this is a most nefarious business. Your property will be taken from you to satisfy this most infamous speculation. It will destroy your public peace, and establish the ruin of your citizens. Only general resistance will remedy. You will shut the door against every ray of hope, if you allow the holders of this money, by this clause, to recover their formidable demands. I hope gentlemen will see the absolute necessity {476} of amending it, by enabling the state legislatures to relieve their people from such nefarious oppressions.