Not too long ago I read a “quote,” supposedly uttered by George Washington, that “free people need sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from their own government.” Out of habit I looked up this “quote” in my favorite online fact-checking resource, Snopes.com, and was unsurprised to find it was just malarkey cooked up by open-carry zealots, made all the more odious by our most recent local gun tragedy. What was that my old man told me about the saddest words ever said… but if I’d thought another moment, I wouldn’t have needed to check Snopes. I knew already that George Washington, as President, had not only sent Federal troops into western Pennsylvania in 1794 to enforce an unpopular government excise tax on whiskey, but he’d actually ridden at their head—a rare instance of a sitting Commander-in-Chief personally leading an army into the field. One “Whiskey Rebellion” leader, David Bradford, fled down the Ohio to territory still belonging to the French; another, a certifiable religious nut named Herman Husbands, the so-called “Pennsylvania Madman” who believed Heaven would soon descend on the far side of the Allegheny Mountains and who therefore thought his actions were all part of God’s plan for the End Times, was sentenced as a traitor but then pardoned, possibly in consideration of his mental status; and despite all the high-blown rhetoric about God and Liberty mouthed by these men and others, resistance to Washington’s army wilted. Thus the President managed to accomplish two things: he demonstrated that the National government was both willing and able to suppress resistance to its laws, an historical precedent the Confederates should have heeded in 1861 (Washington’s army’s second-in-command was General Henry Lee, father of General Robert E.); and the avoidable collapse of western Pennsylvania’s whiskey industry gave that famous Kentucky Baptist preacher Elijah Craig’s brand-new creation, Bourbon, the chance to gain a place in the hearts of drinkers nationwide.
So, would our first President actually have approved of anyone arming against the established Government of the United States? Like Granddad Sparks would say, that notion and five cents will buy you a nickel cigar. Yet in another of history’s ironies, no so-called open-carry patriot would dare blame Washington for enforcing Federal law. The Whiskey Rebellion and its defeat had to have been the fault of that old meanie, the United States’ first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, instead. Life is funny, that is, except when it’s sad.
Still, this historical exercise led me to ponder individual freedom, Federal authority, and the history of arms control in the United States just a little further. I doubt that our ancestors would even be able to believe, much less understand, our current Second Amendment fights any more than they’d be able to comprehend that they were actually in a church house if they witnessed a modern worship service in a modern building, and I suspect that we would be just as confused if we could peer into the future at our own descendants. But gun control does in fact have a long history in the United States, and not just with the Western territorial marshals who forced travelers to the tough cow towns they guarded to surrender all firearms to their offices and deputies while within city limits. Clint Eastwood demonized this practice in the movie “Unforgiven,” but in fact Wyatt and Virgil Earp and a host of other Western lawmen were guilty of it on a regular basis, and it probably prevented a lot more gun deaths than it ever violated anyone’s rights. Let Eastwood talk about that awhile to an empty chair. But in fact, the first recorded American instance of firearms confiscation occurred before there ever was a United States, and it wasn’t enforced by either the British Crown, the government of any American colony, or in fact any regularly constituted government at all. It happened in the fall of 1770 in that seedbed of Appalachian and Kentucky civilization, the backwoods of upland western North Carolina, and it was overseen by none other than that very same religious maniac who wreaked havoc in the Pennsylvania mountains a quarter century later with the Whiskey Rebellion, Herman Husbands. Even the Bourbon creator, Elijah Craig, was involved slightly too, though indirectly. Did I mention that life is funny? That is, except when it’s sad?
More on this next week. But in addition to my favorite Santayana quote, you might consider another, this one verifiable from a later President, Harry Truman: the only thing new to you in the world is the history you don’t know.