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Harlow Giles Unger

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Patrick Henry Was First to Fight Big Government

Posted: 11/21/10 11:30 PM ET

As this government stands, I despise and abhor it...I speak as one poor individual--but when I speak, I speak the language of thousands.

The words may sound like those of many Tea Party members after their election to Congress and to many state and local government offices, but it was Patrick Henry who was the first American to sound his displeasure with big government--more than two centuries ago. Perhaps more surprising was the target of Henry's loathing: his own American government.

Henry, of course, is best known for his stirring defiance of British rule in March 1775, when he pleaded to "almighty God. Give me liberty or give me death!" Although Henry was urging Americans to fight for independence from British rule, many Americans, then and now, fail to realize that he had aimed his call for liberty at all big government--American as well as British.

Like many of today's Tea Party supporters, Henry believed that big government, by its very nature, was unjust--because of its distance and isolation from the people whose lives it touched. A staunch supporter of home rule and states' rights, Henry believed that only those who lived, worked, and owned property in a community should determine the needs of that community and the taxes citizens should pay. And that is why he refused to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1767.

"Here is revolution as radical as that which separated us from Great Britain," Henry thundered when he saw a copy of the Constitution. "Our rights and privileges are endangered; the sovereignty of the states shall be relinquished. All pretensions to human rights and privileges are rendered insecure."

As angry as he had ever been during the Revolutionary War, Henry demanded that any constitution guarantee individual liberties and impose strict limits on federal government powers. He demanded that Congress obtain the approval of two-thirds of the state legislatures before approving any foreign treaty or enacting any federal tax. After eight years of rebellion against taxation without representation by the British government, he was not about to hand those same powers to an American Congress.

"The Constitution is said to have beautiful features," he bellowed, "but when I come to examine these features, they appear to me frightful. Where are your checks in this government? There are no checks, no real balances. They are based on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest! Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were based on the chance of their rulers being honest men, and I'll show you a country that lost its liberties."

Henry predicted that the Constitution empowered presidents to engage in undeclared wars and gave Congress powers to tax and intrude in every area of American life. "Congress," he warned, "will have an unlimited, unbounded command over the soul of this commonwealth."

Within months of taking office, the First Congress imposed a national tax without the consent of state legislatures--as Parliament had done with the 1765 stamp tax. Months later, President Washington sent troops to war against Indian nations in the West, without a congressional declaration of war. He then sent troops into western Pennsylvania to suppress citizen tax protests--as Prime Minister Lord North had done in Boston in 1774.

At the time, Americans called Henry a prophet, and the two centuries since his death have proved them right. As he predicted, presidents have routinely sent troops to fight on foreign soil without congressional declarations of war, and successive congresses have extended the government's reach into every cranny of American homes and workplaces. Government regulations affect the foods Americans eat, the water they drink, the air they breathe; the lakes, streams, and skies that surround them, the lands on which they live. The hands of government--too often the hands of corrupt officials--snatch tax dollars from the pockets of Americans every day of the year during their lifetimes and even after their deaths--without the consent of state legislatures or the American people.

"If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves oppressed," Patrick Henry roared in anger, "my answer is overturn the government!" Before following his advice too literally, however, the newly elected Tea Party activists in Congress and elsewhere in government would do well to note that Henry appended his exhortation with these words: "...in a constitutional way."


Harlow Giles Unger is the author of seven biographies of America's Founding Fathers. His latest, Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, has just been released by Da Capo Press.