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A Time to Listen

by Jon Kukla on Dec 1, 2000

         "Let the people have their say," Vice President Al Gore said this
past week, "and let us listen." The message that the electorate has cast a
virtual tie vote is not something any candidate is eager to hear, however.
Win-at-any-cost politics go back at least to Patrick Henry and our
successful War for Independence.

         "Liberty or Death" exemplifies the do-or-die attitude.
Surprisingly, Patrick Henry's conduct when he lost — not when he won –
set a standard of respect for the Constitution that undergirds our patience
so far during wrangles over election deadlines, vote counts and pregnant chads.

         An army of lawyers invaded Florida, but none is brandishing
automatic weapons, in stark contrast to post-election violence elsewhere.
The recent presidential election in the Ivory Coast, which is slightly more
populous than Florida, sent rival parties into the streets. Two hundred
people have been killed.

         "If Russia split 50/50 over who should be president," a Moscow
newspaper columnist observed, "it would mean civil war. In the United
States, they do a recount."

         Our tranquillity owes much to Patrick Henry's stance in 1788. The
issue then was the fate of the republic. Eight states had ratified the
Constitution, but New York and Virginia remained undecided. Opponents in
the New York convention had adjourned without a decision, and would not
reconvene until after Virginia acted.

         In Virginia, Patrick Henry and George Mason were pushing hard for
a bill of rights as a condition of ratification. Mason worried aloud that
"the adoption of a system so replete with defects" might provoke violent
"popular resistance to its operation." Days later, Henry and Mason lost the
vote by 89 to 79.

         Had Henry chosen to fight, Mason's fears might have come true. The
infant nation was fragile. In Massachusetts, Daniel Shays had taken up arms
against the state government in 1786. Prominent men in the Ohio River
valley were flirting with Spanish governors at New Orleans about forming a
separate western confederacy.

         Henry's influence was formidable among opponents to the
Constitution. He employed it to make sure that Mason's prediction did not
come to pass. His closing words to the Virginia convention were clear: "If
I shall be in the minority," Henry said, "I shall have [been] . . .
overpowered in a good cause. Yet I will be a peaceable citizen!"

         "I wish not to go to violence," Henry announced, but will
"patiently wait in expectation of seeing that Government changed so as to
be compatible with the safety, liberty and happiness of the people."

         Some of his friends were irate about their narrow defeat. They met
to devise what they called "a plan of resistance to the operation of the
Federal Government," and invited Henry "to take the chair."

         Henry quickly reminded his friends that he had already "done his
duty strenuously . . . in the proper place." Together they had fought "in a
constitutional way" and "the question had been fully discussed and
settled." Now, Henry concluded, "as true and faithful republicans, they had
all better go home!"

         In 2000 as in 1788, the American people have sought a middle
ground, refusing to endorse extremists of either party. We the people (and
we the states) made the election a virtual tie for the presidency, Senate,
and House of Representatives.

         In 1788 the people wanted both the Constitution and protections
for liberty. Henry's and Mason's loss secured the union. Their insistence
on individual liberties helped secure the Bill of Rights.

         Henry's respect for majority rule was based on experience. When he
compared George III to Caesar, his resolution against taxation by
Parliament passed only 20 to 19. After his "Liberty or Death" speech,
Virginia called up its militia by a vote 61 to 57.

         In 1788, the close vote forced both sides, as one newspaper
reported, to act "with great moderation and candour." Neither side allowed
partisanship "to aggravate the feelings of so respectable a minority."

         One thing is certain: America's peaceful transfers of political
power are the envy of the world. When this close count is tabulated, Al
Gore and George W. Bush agree, Americans will "come together as a country."

         In time one or the other must say to his supporters, as Henry did,
we have heard the people and it is time for us all to go home. When that
happens, we will owe another debt to Patrick Henry's generation, whose
actions after a close vote in 1788 gave our Constitution a chance to prove
its merits — then and now.


Jon Kukla is executive director of The Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation, at Red Hill, Henry's last home and burial place near Brookneal, Va. He is writing a narrative history of the Louisiana Purchase.