Remembering Forgotten Founders

March 23rd marked the 243rd anniversary of Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech. June 7th is the 242nd anniversary of the call for American independence. September 17th will be the US Constitution’s 231st birthday.

As we note these milestones, we should also remember often forgotten Founders who joined to “pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the independence and creation of our great nation.

Patrick Henry is remembered most for his 1775 speech: “. . . I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” No one who heard this speech ever forgot it.

Henry went on to serve in both the Virginia Assembly and as Governor. He chose not to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention because: “I smelt a rat.”

Richard Henry Lee’s June 1776 motion in the 2nd Continental Congress called for independence: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

It would take until July 2, 1776 to approve this Resolution and another two days to approve a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson offering reasons for independence. However, in writing to his wife Abigail, John Adams predicted July 2nd would be celebrated as the most memorable epocha in American the history.

Lee’s revolutionary spirit continued after independence as, like Patrick Henry, he too refused to attend the Constitutional Convention and he also opposed ratification.

While Lee served in the Continental Congress, George Mason was in the Virginia Assembly helping to draft the Virginia Constitution and 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which is similar to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Although Mason served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he was just one of three who refused to sign it.

These “Antifederalists” believed the Constitution needed a bill of rights. They also feared federal power to tax people without the consent of state legislatures – an issue that had led to the Revolution. They warned federal actions would trample state interests – and possibly a majority of the American people given the Constitution’s power for Congress “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper . . . .”

Lee and/or other so-called “Antifederalists” authored 18 pamphlets listing reasons to oppose the Constitution. While the “Federalist Papers” of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay have survived the tests of time, “Letters from the Federalist Farmer” are largely forgotten.

The Antifederalist author(s) called for guarantees of: trial by jury, protection from ex post facto laws, the right of habeas corpus, freedom of press, right against self-incrimination and “infamous punishment,” meeting accusers and witnesses face-to-face, the “right [to] and justice freely and without delay,” security from unreasonable searches and seizures (of persons, houses, papers, or possessions), and judgements by one’s peers.

While the Antifederalists lost their battle to stop ratification of the Constitution, their push for a bill of rights did lead to adoption of the first ten amendments in 1791. These Founders may be forgotten but their work lives on today.