At the Virginia Convention (1788), what were the primary arguments against the ratification of the Constitution offered by George Mason and Patrick Henry?
At the heart of the anti-Federalists' case was a radical understanding of republican liberty. They believed that a republican system of government was best preserved and sustained in a relatively small territory. This way the people would be able to exercise a measure of constant vigilance and control over their government. This was the anti-Federalists' ideal of free government. And free government was limited government.
Federalism, as envisaged by its advocates, would take the focus away from the individual states towards powerful, centralized institutions. Potentially, this could lead to an abuse of power. The colonists had just managed, after a long and often bloody struggle, to free themselves from the yoke of British tyranny. Why on earth would they now want to replace one form of tyranny with another?
At the Virginia Convention, George Mason expressed the point most forcefully:
We are, Mr. Chairman, going very far in this business. We are not indeed constituting a British government, but a dangerous monarchy, an elective one. . . . Do gentlemen mean to pave the way to hereditary monarchy? Do they flatter themselves that the people will ever consent to such an innovation? If they do I venture to tell them, they are mistaken. The people will never consent!
The anti-Federalists looked upon the ratification of the Constitution as a matter of principle rather than expediency. They failed to be persuaded of their opponents' arguments that a stronger, more centralized federal power was needed to accommodate the imperatives of trade and foreign policy. Essentially, they were animated by the libertarian spirit enshrined in the Articles of Confederation, whose radical decentralization of power they cherished and revered.
Patrick Henry, while sharing the concerns of Mason with regard to states' rights, was also concerned about the effect of the Constitution on individual liberty:
Will the abandonment of your most sacred rights tend the security of your liberty? Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings—give us that precious jewel and you may take everything else.
Indeed, for Henry, the issues of individual and states' rights are indissolubly linked. If states' rights are undermined, then government becomes more adrift from its roots in the express wishes of the people. Under such conditions, it isn't difficult to see how individual rights and liberties can be overridden, either by a democratic mob or a minority faction acting in its own self-interest.
Henry made something of a nuisance of himself at the Convention, attempting where possible to delay ratification, particularly when he sensed the prevailing mood to be against him. But despite his delaying tactics and often overheated rhetoric, he articulated widespread concern about the lack of explicit provisions within the new Constitution to protect Americans' hard-won liberties.
Although Henry and Mason may have lost the debate at Virginia, they still gained a victory of sorts with the passing of the Bill of Rights, which partially embodied the animating spirit of the anti-Federalists.
The primary arguments that these two men made were centered on the idea that the Constitution made the federal government too strong. They feared that change and thought that it was illegal and unwarranted.
For example, Henry argued that there was no basis for trying to make a union of the people rather than of the states. He argued that the convention had had no right to make such a union that was based on the people. He said that such a union would create a single consolidated government. Mason agreed with Henry’s qualms. He said that national government like that would completely destroy the state governments.
The point of all these worries was that the federal government was more likely to be tyrannical. Men like Henry and Mason felt that the federal government was farther from the people and therefore less likely to care about guarding their rights.