Engraving of Patrick Henry, 1867
In a democracy, how do you disagree with government policy? What is a loyal opposition?
In the hyper-partisan 1790s, the Founding Fathers grappled with these questions. By 1799, newspapers warned of “Civil War!” because the Kentucky Resolutions, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, declared that a state could pronounce federal laws unconstitutional and nullify them. Secession, state against state, and against the federal government, loomed.
George Washington begged Patrick Henry to come out from retirement, oppose these dangerous policies, run for office, and save the union. While Henry had been the leading antifederalist in 1788, arguing against ratification of the Constitution, he now contended that since “we the people” adopted the Constitution, anyone contesting federal policy must seek reform “in a constitutional way.” Henry won his election--Henry always won his elections—but he died before he could take office. Leading politicians recognized that had Henry lived, Jefferson would likely not have been elected president. Unfortunately, this important story about what it means to be a “loyal opposition” has been largely forgotten, in part because it was actively suppressed by Jeffersonians.
John Ragosta, author and historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, brings to life this relatively unknown story of how a democracy must work if it is to survive.
Ragosta’s new book, For the People, For the Country: Patrick Henry’s Final Political Battle (University of Virginia Press), is available for sale.
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