On June 9, 1788, Patrick Henry delivered a speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention arguing that many of the alleged crises of the time used to justify the proposed constitution were “imaginary.”
This was actually the fourth long speech Henry delivered during the convention and it builds on arguments he previously made on June 7 when he observed “it is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers” and urged the addition of a bill of rights to the proposed Constitution.
At the time, the United States of America was hardly a decade old. It was still struggling to pay significant debts owed to France from the War of Independence. There were also disputes with Spain over control of the Mississippi River to the west. Many Federalists believed that a new government was needed to pay off the debts to France and also effectively handle the dispute with Spain.
However, Henry pushed back against the underlying sense of urgency, while reiterating the need for a Bill of Rights.
“When I review the magnitude of the subject under consideration, and of dangers which appear to me in this new plan of government…unless there be great and awful dangers, the change is dangerous, and the experiment ought not to be made. In estimating the magnitude of these dangers, we are obliged to take a most serious view of them — to see them, to handle them, and to be familiar with them. It is not sufficient to feign mere imaginary dangers; there must be a dreadful reality.
“…I am persuaded that four fifths of the people of Virginia must have amendments to the new plan, to reconcile them to a change of their government. It is a slippery foundation for the people to rest their political salvation on my or their assertions. No government can flourish unless it be founded on the affection of the people. Unless gentlemen can be sure that this new system is founded on that ground, they ought to stop their career.”