IFAS | Militia Manual | Section 1.2

1.2 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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.