Chapter 9: National Defense
9.2. How Freedom Was Lost
The destruction of the early Puritan-American views of the military, of voluntary militias, etc., as described previously, began with the first skirmish of the first world war—not World War I, mind you, but what was perhaps the first true world war. Here’s the story:
The Real First World War
In the 1750s, the French began to solidify and fortify their claims along the rivers of what is today western Pennsylvania. Some Virginians viewed this, rightly, as a competitive threat to their markets for trade with Indians, but especially for real estate. Chief among the motivated was a massive land speculation group, subsidized by government land-grant in the area, called the Ohio Company of Virginia. The acting governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, himself was given shares in order to keep him interested. With orders from the crown to prevent French encroachments upon British territory by force if necessary, Dinwiddie nevertheless could not fund a large enough force to be a menace. So, he bought time with an emissary to advise the French to “desist.”1
The emissary he chose was a lanky, 21-year-old army officer, early heir of a decent estate, connected to the Ohio company, who out of a lust for military fame (just as we saw earlier with Hamilton and others) jumped at the chance to go. With the seasoned Iroquois leader Tanaghrisson as a tracker and guide, the young man led a tiny troop westward into the woods. Unskilled in French or diplomacy, and untested in battle, he was unaware of what he would soon set in motion.
Meanwhile, the French, upon hearing of the coming British emissary, decided the most prudent course would be to send their own to meet him. Out went Joseph de Jumonville along with 35 men. Word soon made it to the British troop that it was being scouted. Tanaghrisson quickly located the French and led his friends to their encampment. But they got too close.
Upon being discovered, the officer commanded his company to fire on the French. Once they realized they were surround with no avenue for retreat, the French asked quarter. Jumonville, wounded, presented his diplomatic letter; the British officer accepted, walked a few paces, and began reading. Then to everyone’s shock, Tanaghrisson approached the wounded Jumonville and said, “You are not yet dead, my father”; he hacked the Frenchman’s skull several times with his hatchet, and literally washed his hands in the brain matter.2 It was an Iroquois blood-atonement ritual: Tanaghrisson had been holding a personal vendetta against the French, and he used Dinwiddie’s troop to put him in position to make the sacrifice.
The kill would have much larger consequences. Upon hearing of their defeat, the French prepared a larger detachment headed by Jumonville’s half-brother who was eager for revenge. A month later they cornered the British troops in a makeshift fort at Great Meadow. Everything went wrong for the British: their Indian allies left them and, in fact, switched sides; their provisions were meager, many of their animals died; they were outnumbered, and their enemy had an advantageous position in the woods nearby; it began pouring rain, rendering the exposed British muskets useless, whereas the woods provided the French dry enough shelter to fire volleys for some time; worse yet, the demoralized British fighters at last broke into a large stock of the only supply they still had left—rum. Within no time, they were outgunned, soaked, beaten physically and morally, and half of them were drunk.
At eight-o-clock that night, a call rang out for the negotiation that no one knew would change the course of history. The French offered generous terms of surrender if the British would leave Ohio territory for the space of a year. The British emissary’s friend and translator returned that night with a copy of the terms, and the two struggled to read the rain-soaked document, written in French, by candlelight. For some reason, apparently, they did not realize that the document described the death of Jumonville a month earlier as not merely a kill, but an “assassination.” By signing that document, as he did a few minutes before midnight on July 3, 1754, that 21-year-old George Washington officially declared the British crown responsible for an act of war against France. The next morning—a not-so-happy Fourth of July—the beaten British began their journey back to Virginia with the news.
It was the beginning of the Seven Years’ War—the “French and Indian War”—which would spread throughout the world, sucking in Prussia, Austria, parts of the left-over Holy Roman Empire, Sweden, Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, India, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and more. It was truly the first world war, and it was truly sparked by Washington’s ambling into the frontier seeking glory as a military agent of a British public-private partnership, the Ohio company. That war would lead to the compilation of such massive debt on the part of the British that the crown began looking throughout its Empire for new sources of revenue. When it was realized in the 1760s that the American colonies were the least taxed by far, a wave of tariffs and other measured were instituted. These led to revolts like the Boston Tea Party, and eventually the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and thus, of course, America’s own war debts, and then the problems with Hamilton and the central banks, etc. In short: no Jumonville, no War, no debt, no centralized government in America.
Now that may sound like a stretch to many readers. And indeed, we must not be so reductionistic as to cite Jumonville’s death as the cause of the American Revolution, and certainly not all of our tyrannical woes today; but were it not for the lust for war-fame—a kid itching for a fight in order to make a name for himself—things would have been much different, and very likely much more peaceful. Even the definitive historian on the subject thinks so: “Without the Seven Years’ War, American independence would surely have been long delayed, and achieved (if at all) without a war of national liberation.”3 Indeed, it was not only America:
it would be difficult to imagine the French Revolution occurring as it did, when it did—or, for that matter, the Wars of Napoléon, Latin America’s first independence movements, the transcontinental juggernaut that Americans call “westward expansion,” and the hegemony of English-derived institutions and the English language north of the Rio Grande.4
All of this can be laid at least in part on the use of military force to gain advantage in speculative markets—to enrich a big corporation and its interested shareholders in high government positions. And young Washington strode right into the midst of this practice, with his brothers Lawrence and Augustine on the corporate side, and he on the military.
Carryover to the Constitution
It was this same Washington who would later team with Hamilton in the call for a strong national military-industrial complex, as we have seen, built on the back of brand-new Constitutional powers for a standing army. But there was still a significant faction, a majority in fact, that expected traditional freedoms. As we have seen, the battle over the Constitution produced numerous responses on this issue. The epitome of that opposition was inscribed by Benjamin Workman, a math professor in Philadelphia, writing under the name “Philadelphiensis”:
My fellow citizens, the present time will probably form a new epoch in the annals of America: This important, this awful crisis, bids fair to be the theme of our posterity for many generations. We are now publicly summoned to determine whether we and our children are to be freemen or slaves; whether liberty, which we have so recently purchased with the blood of thousands of our fellow countrymen, is to terminate in blessing or curse.
In regard to religious liberty, the cruelty of the new government will probably be felt sooner in Pennsylvania than in any other state in the union. The number of religious denominations in this state, who are principled against fighting or bearing arms, will be greatly distressed indeed. In the new constitution there is no declaration in their favor; but on the contrary, the Congress and President are to have an absolute power over the standing army, navy, and militia; and the President, or rather Emperor, is to be the commander in chief. Now, I think, that it will appear plain that no exemption whatever from militia duty shall be allowed to any set of men, however conscientiously scrupulous they may be against bearing arms. Indeed from the nature of the qualifications of the president, we may justly infer, that such an idea is altogether preposterous: He is by profession a military man, and possibly an old soldier: Now such a man, from his natural temper, necessarily despises those who have a conscientious aversion to a military profession, which is probably the very thing in which he principally piques himself.5
So many State delegates so greatly feared the military powers surrendered in the Constitution that the appeasement measures for the anti-federalists—the Bill of Rights!—specifically addressed the issue. Not many people realize that the Second Amendment—so revered by conservatives—had roots in the repeated warnings against the dangers of a standing army. The Congressional discussions of this amendment reveal that the original intent of the right to bear arms was as a potential defense against our own federal government. It was meant specifically to alleviate the historical threat which the Constitution had just enshrined as a federal power.
While the final form of that Amendment may not be explicit enough for us to see it, the Congressional debate makes it clear. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts introduced it:
This declaration of rights, I take it, is intended to secure the people against the mal-administration of the Government; if we could suppose that, in all cases, the rights of the people would be attended to, the occasion for guards of this kind would be removed. . . .
What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. . . . Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights of people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army on their ruins. This was actually done by Great Britain at the commencement of the late revolution. They used every means in their power to prevent the establishment of an effective militia to the eastward.6
Later in the discussion, Mr. Gerry moved to change the language so that a standing army could not even be considered as “a secondary” security to the militias. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina preferred to be more explicit. He proposed an Amendment which added,
A standing army of regular troops in time of peace is dangerous to public liberty, and such shall not be raised or kept up in time of peace but from necessity, and for the security of the people, nor then without the consent of two-thirds of the members present of both Houses; and in all cases the military shall be subordinate to civil authority.7
Thus it is clear that the Second Amendment was intimately related to the standing army powers delegated to the central government by the Constitution itself.
This view was maintained for several years afterward. St. George Tucker, a prominent professor of law at College of William and Mary, and later a federal District Court Judge, assumed the same connection between individual’s right to bear arms and the threat of a standing army. In his 1803 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, he called our Second Amendment the “true palladium of liberty,” for,
Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.8
In regard to original intent, a mere Amendment would not be enough to withstand the military powers its larger brother, the Constitution itself, gave to the new central government. This problem is best illustrated with a tale of two rebellions—one taking place prior to, and the other after the constitutional settlement. In the first, the lack of central military powers ultimately left the decision to form a militia up to the people of the State. In the second, the national government used its coercive power to raise an army of 13,000 to squash a revolt.
Next section: A Tale of Two Rebellions
- Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 41.(↩)
- Anderson, 52–9.(↩)
- Anderson, xviii.(↩)
- Anderson, xviii.(↩)
- Storing, 3:107(↩)
- Annals of Congress, 1:749–50; quoted in Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, eds., The Founders’ Constitution, 5 vols. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 5:210, emphasis added.(↩)
- Quoted in Kurland and Lerner, The Founders’ Constitution, 5:211.(↩)
- St. George Tucker commenting on Blackstone’s Commentaries, quoted in Kurland and Lerner, eds., The Founders’ Constitution, 212.(↩)