The heritage of arming and organizing


Memorize: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know now what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

1.2.1 Give me liberty or give me death!

When the second revolutionary convention of Virginia met in March of 1775, the majority of those in attendance favored quiet preparations for war but wanted to continue seeking peace with the king of England and Parliament. So when resolutions were introduced proposing that Virginia formally assume a defensive posture in anticipation of war, the majority cringed at the prospect of war being inevitable. The resolutions were about to be defeated when Patrick henry rose to address the assembly. It was his speech that changed minds so that the resolutions were carried. It was his speech that first openly advocated war. It was his speech which arguably mobilized the American colonies for eventual victory.

I therefore will quote the speech in its entirety to set the context of the American Revolution and to remind us of the similar perils we face today. As you read it, keep several things in mind.

  • First, Patrick Henry was promoting war to a group of informed men who were predisposed to peace. His speech was meant to convince the skeptical rather than to agitate warmongers.
  • Second, Patrick Henry was promoting war against the greatest military power on the face of the earth, the British Empire. The men in that assembly did not have the benefit of hindsight but were contemplating a war which, from their perspective, was by no means sure to be won.
  • Third, Patrick Henry was promoting war as a necessary last resort. He was not a "trigger-happy" glory seeker. He was facing facts that peaceful approaches had been impotent for over ten years of struggle.

Keeping these facts in mind will keep us from mistaking Patrick Henry for an impatient, violent man and keep his speech in proper perspective. And now, let Patrick Henry's words speak for themselves.

"No man, Mr. President, thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very honorable gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining, as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I should speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery. And in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty towards the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

"Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of Hope. We are apt to shut out eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my own part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

"I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. And, judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry, for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparation which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation the last arguments to which kings resort.

"I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy in this quarter of the world, to call for this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.

"And what have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty, and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not already been exhausted?

"Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned with contempt from the foot of the throne.

"In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we are to be free; if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending; if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained we must fight! I repeat sir we must fight! An appeal to arms, and to the God of hosts, is all that is left us.

"They tell us, sir, that we are weak - unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

"Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature has placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.

"Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone: it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery. Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable. And let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

"It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our the clash of resounding arms. Our brethren are already in the field. Why stand here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"

Thus was Patrick Henry's speech. Thus were the resolutions to prepare for war carried. Let me make a few more remarks so you can see the parallels with our situation today and so there is no misunderstanding.

  • Neither Patrick Henry, nor the resolutions he sought to approve advocated attacking the British army. They simply advocated being ready for the inevitable British attack. Neither does the Free Militia propose to attack anyone but only to be prepared to defend.
  • Just as the colonists sought to alleviate unjust taxation without representation with every possible form of peaceful means, there has been an ongoing attempt with all branches of the federal government to demonstrate how unconstitutional many laws, programs, and taxes are, to no avail. The Constitutional is routinely ignored and petitions to obey it are met with an "insidious smile" but no serious action.
  • The great danger of Patrick Henry's day was the growing strength of British forces along with the growing measures to disarm the colonies. Today we see the multiplication of police officers, agencies, prisons, and government power simultaneous with attacks on personal gun rights.

1.2.2 The beginning of the American Revolution

Contrary to popular belief, the American Revolution was not fought because the colonists were taxed without representation. It is true that for years preceding the revolution, taxes and fair representation were the issues that energized patriots. These were the questions that first caused friction between the colonies and England. But no American patriot took up arms to kill a British soldier because he thought his taxes were too high.

American patriots took up arms against the British and began the revolution only when and precisely because the British attempted to disarm them.

The first incident was when the British tried to confiscate stores of gunpowder and weapons to disarm the militia in New England. Almost at the same time (news travelled slowly in those days) the British confiscated the colonists' gunpowder in Williamsburg. The events in New England resulted n bloodshed; in Virginia the bloodshed was averted. But both historic confrontations took place because the British attempted to disarm citizens.

March 23, 1775. Patrick Henry gave his famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech.

April 18, 1775. British soldiers set out from Boston to confiscate muskets, gunpowder, and cannons from the colonists. Paul Revere rode out of town to warn the Americans.

April 19, 1775. The British encountered their first resistance by minutemen at Lexington Green. After pushing on to Concord, the British were repelled, and then routed, by the American minutemen and sustained casualties.

April 21, 1775. Still unaware of fighting in New England, the governor of Virginia ordered British marines to confiscate all gunpowder held in the public magazine at Williamsburg.

May 2, 1775. Captain Patrick Henry led an armed militia of Virginians on a march to Williamsburg. Soon five thousand men sprang to arms and joined the march.

May 4, 1775. The British agreed to compensate the Virginians for the gunpowder that was confiscated before the armed militia arrived in Williamsburg, thus averting armed conflict.

Two lessons should be noted about these two incidents which really started the American Revolution. First, the British government's attempts to disarm American colonists, even though the colonists had not attacked the British, was considered to be an act of war by the Americans. They knew that if they were successfully disarmed, the British would be unchecked in their attempts to subjugate and enslave them.

Second, when the acts of war were perceived, it was not Americans acting under the authority of the British Crown that opposed them. It was ordinary armed citizens outlaws as the British saw them who fought.

Our country sprang into being and is founded on the principle of ordinary citizens like you and me arming and organizing ourselves to fight tyranny.

1.2.3 The Declaration of Independence

About a year after hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. This declaration officially severed political ties with England and established the thirteen American colonies as independent states.

On the one hand, it took quite a long time to finalize and ratify the Declaration of Independence considering that the country had already been at war with Great Britain for a year and there was no real prospect for a peaceful resolution. But what this delay accomplished was a consensus among the delegations from all thirteen colonies about the justification of revolution and independence. It is therefore enlightening to examine their rationale in the Declaration of Independence since it represents the universal position of the leaders of all the colonies as to why America was justified in its revolt against the king and Parliament.

The relevant text is the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence which reads as follows:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such a form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. "

What follows is an enumeration of particular abuses by Britain, many of which were particular to that day. I shall not comment on these except to say that one complain rings very literally true today: "He has erected a Multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance." We also are harassed by every conceivable kind of regulatory agency, trivial law, and arrogant official which "eat our substance" through confiscatory taxes that get us coming (income taxes), standing (property taxes), and going (sales taxes).

Now for some relevant thoughts on the second paragraph:

  • "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Man is granted certain rights by God. These rights precede the formation of any government. Since governments are established by God and derive their authority from him, they cannot legitimately take away rights that have been graciously given by God.
  • "That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Notice it says, "among these are." This is not a comprehensive list of man's rights. Even the Bill of Rights is not a comprehensive list as indicated by the Ninth Amendment. But our rights can be organized or classified under the headings of life, liberty, and happiness.
  • "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." This demonstrates that governments are formed to protect our rights, not to give them.
  • "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government." This clearly advocates dissolution of any government which does not act to defend the rights of the people. Notice that "the People," that is, individuals, have the right to make this adjustment. In our present case, we do not need to change, abolish, or replace the Constitution; what we need is to change our government so it will conform by force if necessary to the Constitution.
  • "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." No one should be quick to resist minor and isolated abuses of power. These are inevitable in any government staffed by human beings.
  • "And accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Americans have indeed suffered evil after evil from the government infractions of free speech, gun restrictions, exorbitant taxes, and violations of property and state rights for a very long time.
  • "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to thrown off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." For now we will not consider whether or not such a systematic abuse of power exists in the United States. What is important to note is that when systematic abuses exist it is the people's (remember this means you and me, not elected officials or law enforcement agencies) RIGHT and DUTY to "throw off such Government."

If you become convinced that the federal government is bent on systematic violations of our personal liberties, it is your moral duty and obligation to join with others so convinced to restore true liberty for all Americans.

This is a radical conclusion, but our forefathers were "radicals" and this is the premise upon which our nation was founded and has its being.

1.2.4 Guns are not the problem

Americans have a rich heritage of arming and organizing themselves into militias. We have not even considered the Old West where virtually everyone had a gun for self-defense. Nor have we considered the fact that up until the turn of the century, states required by law that every able-bodied adult male citizen possess a gun and ammunition.

But aren't guns the cause of all kinds of evil? Ostensibly, recent movements to restrict private gun ownership or use have been intended to reduce accidents and violent crime. But facts simply do not support this.

Fewer accidents occur with guns than by many other common things in life.

  • In 1987, there were only 1,695 accidental deaths involving firearms in the United States (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 59).
  • It is 26 times more likely that you will die in an auto accident than by a gun accident (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 60). Yet there is no organized movement to ban car ownership like there is for guns which are Constitutionally protected.
  • Accidents involving firearms have decreased by 42% from 1970 to 1983 (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 60).

There is no basis for the belief that restricting gun ownership or use will significantly reduce violent crime. While it would be stretching the truth to say that gun ownership prevents crime, it certainly does not cause it.

  • Violent crimes such as murder have not been invented since the advent of firearms but have occurred as long as sinful man has existed. Crime is encouraged by culture and sin, not mechanical instruments.
  • Florida has the nation's highest violent crime rate and 8.6 gun dealers per 10,000 people. North Dakota has the lowest violent crime rate and 25.8 gun dealers per 10,000 people. This is consistent with crime and gun dealer rates in other states. (U.S. News & World Report, 1/17/94). There is no correlation between gun sales and crime.
  • Gun control activists point to Great Britain as an example of a country with strict gun control and low crime rates. However, the British murder rate was lower than America's BEFORE the instituted gun control and their rate of increase in murders is FASTER than in the U.S. (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, pp. 77-78).
  • The countries of Switzerland, Israel, Denmark, and Finland have the world's very highest per capita gun ownership and some of the world's lowest rime rates (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 78). Therefore, there is no correlation between gun ownership and crime.
  • Taiwan, Mexico, and Jamaica have much stricter gun control than the U.S. and much higher murder rates. Since 1974, possession of just a single bullet in Jamaica has been punishable with life imprisonment! Yet Jamaica has six times as many gun deaths per capita as our murder capital, Washington, D.C. (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, pp. 78-79). There is no correlation between gun laws and crime.
  • The National Sheriff's Association, American Federation of Police, and the National Police Officer's Association of America all officially support gun ownership by law-abiding citizens (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 111).

So-called assault rifles are not the weapon of choice among criminals. They are singled out for gun control not because they threaten the law-abiding citizen but because they threaten an unconstitutional government.

  • One gets the impression from television and newspapers that so-called assault rifles are responsible for most murders since headlines often tell of maniacs shooting masses of people. In fact, only 4% of homicides involve any kind of rifle and less than 1% involve assault weapons (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, pp. 150, 154).
  • The anti-assault rifle craze in the media is analogous to coverage of aircraft crashes. Although many more people are killed in care accidents, it is the isolated case of an airliner crash that gets the publicity because the story is more sensational. Likewise, the coverage of murders with "assault rifles" distorts the truth that assault rifles kill very few people.
  • In fact, military rifles are designed to wound rather than kill. The .223 caliber cartridge of the M-16 is much lighter than a .30-06 hunting rifle. Moreover, military cartridges have "full metal jackets" to minimize tissue damage because killing the enemy eliminates one soldier while wounding him occupies several to remove him from the field and tend to his wounds.
  • Furthermore, genuine assault rifles have not been legal for private, unlicensed ownership since 1968. The Department of Defense defines an "assault rifle" as a military rifle that discharges multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger (i.e., a machine gun). Today's focus is on semi-automatic weapons which by definition are not assault rifles.
  • No legally registered automatic assault weapon has ever been used in a crime in the United States (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, p. 149). Either such weapons are not used for crime, or those who do use them totally ignore gun control laws.
  • In Switzerland, every able-bodied adult male trains two or three weeks each year in the army and is required to keep an automatic assault rifle and ammunition in his home (Fodor's Guide to Switzerland, pp. 60-61). Yet violent crime is virtually non- existent in Switzerland.

Do not believe gun control activists who claim they only want to regulate and not eliminate gun ownership and use by law-abiding private citizens.

  • Nazis in Denmark, the military in Greece, and officials in Hungary have all used pre-existing gun owners lists to confiscate weapons (Alan Gottlieb, Gun Rights Fact Book, 1988, pp. 88-89).
  • The stated purpose of Handgun Control is the elimination of guns in the hands of private citizens. Waiting periods and registration are simply the tactical first step towards disarming the public totally ("Handguns Under Heavy Fire," 3/13/94, p. B-6).

1.2.5 Discussion questions

What were your first impressions of Patrick Henry when you read his speech? Do you think he was a realist or an alarmist? Subversive or patriotic? Principled or power-hungry? Bold or foolhardy?

Read Patrick Henry's speech again in the light of today's situation (substitute America for Great Britain, Congress for Parliament, etc.). Using a highlighter, highlight the statements and ideas that apply now. What are the main parallels between Patrick Henry's day and ours?

Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Christian theologian Loraine Boettner wrote, "We desire peace, but not the kind that is found in the slave camp or cemetery." What do you say?

Why do you suppose that the American Revolution was ignited over guns instead of taxes, even though taxes had been the main issue for so long?

What is your definition of a "right" and where do rights come from?

What is the purpose of the government and where does it gets its authority?

What is the proper, just, and moral response of an American citizen to a government which systematically violates the "unalienable rights" of the people? Why?

If a person would publicly advocate the ideas of Patrick Henry or the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence today, how do you think he would be labeled and treated by the federal government? By the news media? By the typical American citizen?

What does this tell you about the direction this nation is headed?

What was your initial reaction when you read the statement, "If you become convinced that the federal government is bent on systematic violations of our personal liberties, it is your moral duty and obligation to join with others so convinced to restore true liberty for all Americans"? What is your reaction after having time to reflect upon it?

Are you ready, willing, and able to join in such a cause provided that you are convinced your personal liberties are in peril? What are your reasons?

Do you believe that wide-spread gun ownership causes crime, prevents crime, or is virtually irrelevant to the issue? Why?

Do you think it is a virtue or a vise to own an "assault rifle"? Why?

The main ideas of this section

American patriots took up arms against the British and began the revolution only when and precisely because the British attempted to disarm them.

Our country sprang into being and is founded on the principle of ordinary citizens like you and me arming and organizing ourselves to fight tyranny.

If you become convinced that the federal government is bent on systematic violations of our personal liberties, it is your moral duty and obligation to join with others so convinced to restore true liberty for all Americans.

There is no basis for the belief that restricting gun ownership or use will significantly reduce violent crime. While it would be stretching the truth to say that gun ownership prevents crime, it certainly does not cause it.

So-called assault rifles are not the weapon of choice among criminals. They are singled out for gun control not because they threaten the law-abiding citizen but because they threaten an unconstitutional government.

Further reading

At the very least, you should obtain, read, and absorb a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

If you desire to read and study these issues in more depth, I recommend the following books available from the Free Militia.

Gottlieb, Alan. Gun Rights Fact Book (Bellevue, Washington, Merrill Press, 1988), 168pp.

Gottlieb, Alan. The Rights of Gun Owners (Bellevue, Washington, Merrill Press, 1981), 235 pp.

Henry, William Wirt. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches (Harrisonburg, Virginia, Sprinkle Publications, 1993 reprint), 3 volumes, 1946 pp. Written by the patriot's grandson.

Norval, Morgan. Take My Gun If You Dare! (El Dorado, Arkansas, Desert Publications, 1979), 103 pp.

Syrett, Harold C. (editor). American Historical Documents (New York, New York, Barnes & Noble, 1960), 427 pp. Excerpts and complete texts of important legal documents from 1606 through 1962.

Tyler, Moses Coit. Patrick Henry (New York, New York, Bert Franklin, 1898/1970), 454 pp. This is a fantastic and arousing biography of the great patriot. I highly recommend it.

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