The Nature of the Union: Patrick Henry answered by James Madison and analyzed by Jefferson Davis.

The Nature of the Union: Patrick Henry answered by James Madison and analyzed by Jefferson Davis.
Photo by Anthony Garand / Unsplash

What exactly is the nature of the government framed by the Constitution . . . a confederation of sovereign states or a consolidated nation of "we the people"? Many in the founding generation, like Patrick Henry, worried that the proposed constitution of 1787 was intended to and would result in a consolidated nation rather than a confederation of sovereign states.

James Madison answered Patrick Henry during the Virginia debates. Interestingly, however, a generation later, men like Joseph Story, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln, in defiance of Madison's explanation, held that the Constitution created just what Henry feared: a consolidated nation of "we the people" rather than a confederation of individual, sovereign states. Of course, this was a major bone of contention between the North and South during the era of the Civil War.

In this excerpt, Henry expresses his concern, Madison answers, and Jefferson Davis contextualizes the concept.

August Glen-James, editor

Who are parties to it [i.e., the Constitution]? The people—but not the people as composing one great body; but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties . . .

Patrick Henry:

That this is a consolidated government is demonstrably clear; and the danger of such a government is, to my mind, very striking. I have the highest veneration for those gentlemen [i.e., its authors]; but, sir, give me leave to demand, What right had they to say, We, the people? My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask, Who authorized them to speak the language of “We, the people,” instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated national government of the people of all the states.

[On the next day, Henry followed up thusly:]

The fate of this question and of America may depend on this. Have they said, We, the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between States? If they had, this would be a confederation: it is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, sir, on that poor little thing—the expression, ‘We, the people,’ instead of the States of America.

James Madison:

Who are parties to it [i.e., the Constitution]? The people—but not the people as composing one great body; but the people as composing thirteen sovereignties: were it, as the gentleman [i.e., Patrick Henry] asserts, a consolidated government, the assent of a majority of the people would be sufficient for its establishment, and as a majority have adopted it already, the remaining States would be bound by the act of the majority, even if they unanimously reprobated it: were it such a government as is suggested, it would be now binding on the people of this State, without having had the privilege of deliberating upon it; but, sir, no State is bound by it, as it is, without its own consent. Should all the States adopt it, it will be then a government established by the thirteen States of America, not through the intervention of the Legislatures, but by the people at large. In this particular respect the distinction between the existing and proposed governments is very material. The existing system has been derived from the dependent, derivative authority of the Legislatures of the States, whereas this is derived from the superior power of the people.

Jefferson Davis:

It must be remembered that this was spoken by one of the leading members of the convention which formed the Constitution, within a few months after that instrument was drawn up. Madison’s hearers could readily appreciate his clear answers to the objection made. The “people” intended were those of the respective states—the only organized communities of people exercising sovereign powers of government; the idea intended was the ratification and “establishment” of the Constitution by direct act of the people in their conventions, instead of by act of their legislatures, as in the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. The explanation seems to have been as satisfactory as it was simple and intelligible. Henry, although he fought to the last against the ratification of the Constitution, did not again bring forward this objection, for the reason, no doubt, that it had been fully answered. Indeed, we hear no more of the interpretation which suggested it, from that period, for nearly half a century, when it was revived, and has since been employed, to sustain that theory of a “great consolidated national government” which Madison so distinctly repudiated.