Have you ever noticed that when you try to have a reasonable conversation about gun control, someone always spouts off that it’s ridiculous to think American government is or would become tyrannical and, even if it did, a handful of people would have no chance against the US Army? Practically speaking, that’s true. The semi-autos that civilians have access to, even the “assault style” ones, are not the same as the fully-automatic weapons our military carries into combat. While I submit that this is an unconstitutional usurpation of the right of the people to be at least as well armed as the standing army “…but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people, while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights…” (Alexander Hamilton speaking of standing armies in Federalist 29.))” Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the most government-friendly of our founders, recognized that the people needed to be as well armed as the standing army or the standing army could easily abuse the people. We’re already past that point, but let’s recognize that resistance started small in the Revolution and it will start, if it starts at all, at the local level, in the 21st century. If it ever comes down to American citizens fighting against government it’s not likely we’re going to storm Washington DC or even Ft. Wainwright. It’s more likely the first battles will take place locally, against local governments that have overstepped their bounds.
I’ll preface this by saying — I am not advocating violence. I am pointing out that it is sometimes necessary for the people to stand against their government and that the right to bear arms was enshrined in the constitution because our Founders believed liberty sometimes required the people to bring the government back into line. And there is precedence in the last 100 years for such actions being necessary.
On 2 August 1946, some Americans, brutalized by their county government, used armed force to overturn it because they wanted honest, open elections. After years of asking state and federal election monitors to prevent vote fraud — forged ballots, secret ballot counts, and intimidation by armed sheriff’s deputies — by the local political boss and receiving no help, they took matters into their own hands.
The Tennesseans of McMinn County, which is located between Chattanooga and Knoxville in the eastern part of the state, had long been independent political thinkers, but for more than a decade they had accepted bribe-taking by politicians, primarily the Sheriff, to overlook illicit bootlegging and gambling. The Sheriff’s department was financed from fines, usually for speeding or public drunkenness, promoting false arrests and harassment of citizens and especially visitors. The voting fraud extended to both Democrats and Republicans. This was despite Tennessee laws barring voting fraud, requiring that ballot boxes be certified as empty before voting, poll-watchers be in attendance, armed law enforcement officers were barred from polling stations, and ballots had to be counted publicly.
The Great Depression had ravaged McMinn County and federal patronage was successfully secured by electing Paul Cantrell, a local wealthy supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932. County fortunes improved and Cantrell was reelected to Sheriff (the principle political position in the county) in 1936, 1938 and 1940. He was elected to the State Senate in 1942 and his chief deputy, Pat Mansfield, was elected sheriff. In 1946, Cantrell against sought the office of Sheriff. However, several veterans returning to McMinn County from World War II observed how Mansfield’s deputies had brutalized the population. Holding Cantrell politically responsible for Mansfield’s policies (which apparently were a continuation of his own), they decided to challenge Cantrell politically by offering an all ex-GI, non-partisan ticket and promising a fraud-free election followed by reform of the county government if they won.
These Americans’ absolute refusal to knuckle-under had been hardened by service in World War II. Having fought to free other countries from murderous regimes, they rejected vicious abuse by their county government. These Americans had a choice. Their state’s Constitution – Article 1, Section 26 – recorded their right to keep and bear arms for the common defense. No federal or state “gun control” laws had been enacted.
“‘The principals that we fought for in this past war do not exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy but not the form we live under in this county.'” (Daily Post-Athenian, 17 June 1946, p. 1).
At end-July 1946, 159 McMinn County GIs petitioned the FBI to send election monitors. There was no response. The Department of Justice had not responded to McMinn Countians’ complaints of election fraud in 1940, 1942, and 1944.
The election was held on 1 August. To intimidate voters, Mansfield brought in some 200 armed “deputies”. When the polls closed, perhaps fearing the growing crowd of concerned voters, took the ballot boxes to the jail — in violation of the rule requiring a public count.
Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail for counting, barred the doors and armed deputies with weapons including a submachine “Tommy” gun.
Short of firearms and ammunition, the GIs scoured the county to find them. By borrowing keys to the National Guard and State Guard Armories, they got three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols, and 24 British Enfield rifles. The armories were nearly empty after the war’s end. They headed for the jail to get the ballot boxes. Occupying high ground they initiated a fire fight while deliberately leaving the back door unguarded to give the jail’s defenders an easy way out.
Running low on ammunition, the GIs eventually forced the issue by dynamiting the jail’s porch, which breached the barred door. The panicked deputies surrendered. GIs quickly secured the building.
In five precincts free of vote fraud, the GI candidate for Sheriff, Knox Henry, won 1,168 votes to Cantrell’s 789. Other GI candidates won by similar margins. McMinn Countians, having restored the Rule of Law, returned to their daily lives.
The Battle of Athens, as it became known, made national headlines. Most outsiders’ reports had the errors usual in coverage of large-scale, night-time events. A New York Times editorialist on 3 August savaged the GIs, who:
“…quite obviously – though we hope erroneously – felt that there was no city, county, or State agency to whom they could turn for justice.
… “There is a warning for all of us in the occurrence…and above all a warning for the veterans of McMinn County, who also violated a fundamental principle of democracy when they arrogated to themselves the right of law enforcement for which they had no election mandate. Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process.” (NYT, 3 Aug 1946, p. 14.)
Those who took up arms in Athens, Tennessee:
- wanted honest elections, a cornerstone of our Constitutional order;
- had repeatedly tried to get Federal or State election monitors — to no avail;
- used armed force so as to minimize harm to the law-breakers;
- showed little malice to the defeated law-breakers, who were allowed to go home to their lives without arrest (Paul Cantrell lived the rest of his life in the county as a successful auto dealership owner);
- restored lawful government.
The Battle of Athens clearly shows:
- how Americans can and should lawfully use armed force;
- why the Rule of Law requires unrestricted access to firearms;
- how civilians with military-type firearms can beat the forces of “law and order”.
Dictators believe that public order is more important than the Rule of Law. Americans have historically rejected that idea. Brutal political repression – as practiced by Cantrell and Mansfield – is lethal to many. An individual criminal can harm a handful of people, but governments alone can brutalize thousands, or millions. The world saw as many as 60 million people killed under brutal genocidal regimes in the 20th century.
Law-abiding McMinn Countians won the Battle of Athens because they were not hamstrung by “gun control”. McMinn Countians showed us when citizens can and should use armed force to support the Rule of Law. We are all in their debt.
We don’t think it can happen in America, but it already has. We think there’ll never be a need to stand up to an American government that has grown tyrannical, but there has already been that need. We think that ordinary citizens cannot stand up to armed government agents, but they already have. We’re not arguing theory here. We’re arguing history. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it and Americans in the 21st century apparently are wholly ignorant of our own history.