Monday, February 27, 2006


What Would Patrick Henry Say Today?

Some forty years ago I memorized the speech of Patrick Henry before the Virginia Assembly in order to pass seventh grade. You know the one, "Give me liberty or give me death." Visiting Williamsburg not long ago, I stood in a replica of the original building in which Patrick Henry gave many of his impassioned speeches.

As I looked around the chamber, I imagined what the patriot and founder would say today. His speech might go like this:

Friends, we gather today to debate the policy and law of the United States. As we chart the course for our generation and the generations that follow, let us remember that foundation which we laid out so well more than two hundred years ago. The tyranny we fought then came not from aliens and foreigners, but from our own good King George. The oppression we overthrew was not that of a faceless, nameless enemy that lurks in the dark; but was of edicts, decrees and illegal acts from our own sovereign.

Parliament in London passed Acts usurping our own powers and rights, granted to us in our original charters. I denounced them, saying "Caesar had his Brutus--Charles the first his Cromwell--and George III--may he profit from their example."

Today we face a nameless, faceless enemy who desires to ruin us; to end our way of life; and to stamp out all our freedoms. We call these criminals "terrorists" and invoke a vast, shadowy conspiracy as justification for all sorts of egregious abuses of power. When we abrogate the powers reserved to the Congress and to the courts to the executive, we do the work of these would-be tyrants. Nothing will so surely bring our American dream to ruin as to allow the executive the privileges he now claims; nothing will crush our people as much as permitting the president of the United States to claim supremacy of power in the name of safety and security.

And he is doing just that. He says he does not have to obtain warrants to search our own citizens. He says he can hold our countrymen without charges. He takes the power to make war wholly on himself, without the people's Congress given the opportunity to object. He undermines the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all in the name of security.

The Bill of Rights was not written to protect the guilty or those plotting the overthrow of the United States. It was created to protect the innocent. It stands as the finest work ever wrought by free men, protector and guarantor of those liberties this nation fought for from its birth to this very day. The Bill of Rights rests on the rule of law; centuries of American and British tradition; and ancient political wisdom reaching back to Plato and Socrates.

This president, George W. Bush, and his men, would destroy the rule of law in the name of saving it. He would crush the Bill or Rights to preserve the people who created it.

Once we can search or wiretap without a warrant, where does the power end? If the Congress passes a law, and the executive ignores it, what limit is on power? If the courts no longer hold sway over the law, but only the President, who can stop him?

You may say, "They have no interest in me, I'm no terrorist." But how can you guarantee they may not someday take in interest in you? You may say, "The citizen imprisoned without charges is suspected Al Queda." But if we imprison men on suspicion, how long before some enemy of yours accuses you, and sends you to prison? The long and sad history of human kind shows that power always seeks its own increase. History teaches that unlimited power is always abused. Motives, however noble, become corrupt when harnessed to power.

The stamp that I, Patrick Henry, put on this nation, remains written within you. You know I would never submit to this kind of slavery. Your ancestors fought and died that you would never bow before King George. What security is worth your priceless freedoms? Why do you pretend to forget the lessons of our youth? You know how I feel; I would chose death.

Selections from Patrick Henry’s 1775 speech to the Virginia Assembly follow:

This is no time for ceremony. The questing before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.

The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

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