The gun guy and illegal militia founder who became President: George Washington

Our first President understood that armed citizens are essential to American freedom


Presidents' Day should be a day of reflection on the virtues of the leaders who helped to preserve, protect, and defend our constitutional republic. So let's look at the record of George Washington and the armed citizenry.

In early 1775, tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies were reaching the breaking point. The previous October, King George III had forbidden the import of arms and ammunition into the colonies, a decision which the Americans interpreted as a plan to disarm and enslave them. Kopel, How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution, 38 Charleston Law Review 283 (2012).

Without formal legal authorization, even from the Continental Congress, Americans began to form independent militias, outside the traditional chain of command of the royal governors. In February 1775, George Washington and George Mason organized the Fairfax Independent Militia Company.

According to Mason's Fairfax County Militia Plan for Embodying the People, "a well regulated Militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen"
was needed to defend "our ancient Laws & Liberty" from the Redcoats. "And we
do each of us, for ourselves respectively, promise and engage to keep a good Fire-lock in proper Order, & to furnish Ourselves as soon as possible with, & always keep by us, one Pound of Gunpowder, four Pounds of Lead, one Dozen Gun Flints, & a pair of Bullet-Moulds, with a Cartouch [cartridge] Box, or powder-horn, and Bag for Balls." 1 The Papers of George Mason 210-11, 215-16 (Robert A. Rutland ed., 1970). Similar militias were being formed all over the American colonies, with no formal authorization and no chain of command to the established government. The legal bases of the militias were the natural rights of self-defense and self-government.

Because Virginia's House of Burgesses had been suspended by the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, the defiant Virginians assembled in Richmond in March 1775 as a special convention. There, delegate Patrick Henry gave his famous speech, "The War Inevitable." William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817). As Henry accurately explained, all petitions for peaceful conciliation with the British had been "spurned with contempt." The British army in North America had only one purpose: "to force us to submission." Because war was inevitable, Henry argued, it was better to fight now, before the British could take Americans' guns:

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 the 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?…Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath 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.

Indeed, a few weeks later, on the evening of April 18, the British army occupying Boston would march off to Lexington and Concord to conduct house-to-house searches to seize firearms and gunpowder. The American resistance to arms seizures would mark the beginning of the American Revolution.

Persuaded by Henry's eloquence, the Virginia Convention formed a committee—including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson—"to prepare a plan for the embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient" to defend the commonwealth. The Convention urged "that every Man be provided with a good Rifle" and "that every Horseman be provided . . . with Pistols and Holsters, a Carbine, or other Firelock." ("Firelock" was a synonym for "flintlock," the most common firearms of the time.) Journal of Proceedings of Convention Held at Richmond 10-11 (1775).When the Virginia militiamen assembled a few weeks later, many wore canvas hunting shirts adorned with the motto from the conclusion of Henry's speech: "Liberty or Death." Henry Mayer, A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Revolution 251 (1991).

As Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the War of Independence, Washington had to deal with soldiers who were adamant about their personal independence. Even Americans who enlisted in the Continental Army often refused to sign up for more than a year. At the end of their year, they might leave for home, in the middle of a campaign. George Washington's surprise attack on the British at the Battle of Trenton, Dec. 26, 1776, was a risky, successful gamble to win a victory before the imminent expiration of enlistments left him without a functioning army. The previous winter, the American expedition to take Canada had been forced to launch a premature, unsuccessful attack on Quebec City because half the American enlistments would expire in January.

The militias posed even more problems. For one thing, they were reluctant to be sent on distant deployments, so Washington did not always have the manpower he needed for a given batttle. On the other hand, by fighting part time and working on their farms the rest of the time, American citizen-soldiers kept the economy afloat.

The sedentary nature of the militia created, surprisingly, a superiority in tactical mobility. British naval dominance (before the French arrived later in the war) meant the British army could always move faster than the Continental Army and could attack anywhere near the coast. But the militia, comprised of most able-bodied adult males, could rise wherever the British deployed. As historian Daniel Boorstin put it, "[t]he American center was everywhere and nowhere—in each man himself." Daniel
Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience 370 (1965).

The Americans could better afford losses in battle because a large fraction of the adult population was available to fight. Redcoats or German mercenaries imported from across the Atlantic were more difficult to replace. The British could capture cities on or near the coast—such as Boston, New York City, or Savannah. Yet control of the vast interior proved impossible. Many militiamen had learned warfare from Indian fighting. In the mountains, swamps, and forests, they denied use of the country to the British. The militiamen had the advantages of intimate knowledge of the terrain, support from much of the local population, and the ardor that comes with defending one's homeland.

Whether in the militia or the Continental Army, the guns deployed were mostly personal firearms. As late as 1781, George Washington insisted that enlistees in the Continental Army provide their own guns. Letter from George Washington to Joseph Reed (June 24, 1781), in 22 The Writings of George Washington 258 (Jared Sparks ed., 1834); Letter from George Washington to Thomas Parr (July 28, 1781), in id. at 427.

Americans' experience with firearms helped make them effective fighters. In 1789, historian David Ramsay recounted the June 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill: "None of the provincials in this engagement were riflemen, but they were all good marksmen. The whole of their previous military knowledge had been derived from hunting, and the ordinary amusements of sportsmen. The dexterity which by long habit they had acquired in hitting beasts, birds, and marks, was fatally applied to the destruction of British officers." 1 A History of the American Revolution 190 (Lester H. Cohen ed., Liberty Fund, 1990) (1789).

As Washington wrote in 1777, "Our Scouts, and the Enemy's Foraging Parties, have frequent skirmishes; in which they always sustain the greatest loss in killed and Wounded, owing to our Superior skill in Fire arms." Letter from George Washington to John A. Washington (Feb. 24, 1777), in 7 Writings of George Washington, at 198.

Washington worried, however, that although militiamen were good shots, they were troublesome to employ in a long campaign, for the militia's "want of discipline & refusal, of almost every kind of restraint & Government, have produced . . . an entire disregard of that order and subordination necessary to the well doing of an Army." Letter from George Washington to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress (Sept. 2, 1776), in 5 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, at 733 (Worthington Chauncey Ford et al. eds., 1904-37).

A modern study of Washington's use of the militia in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey concludes that, while the militia usually could not, by itself, defeat the Redcoats in an open field battle, it was essential to American success:

Washington learned to recognize both the strengths and the weaknesses of the militia. As regular soldiers, militiamen were deficient. . . . He therefore increasingly detached Continentals to support them when operating against the British army. . . . Militiamen were available everywhere and could respond to sudden attacks and invasions often faster than the army could. Washington therefore used the militia units in the states to provide local defense, to suppress Loyalists, and to rally to the army in case of an invasion. . . . Washington made full use of the partisan qualities of the militia forces around him. He used them in small parties to harass and raid the army, and to guard all the places he could not send Continentals. . . . Rather than try to turn the militia into a regular fighting force, he used and exploited its irregular qualities in a partisan war against the British and Tories.

Mark W. Kwasny, Washington's Partisan War: 1775-1783, at 337-38 (1996). Thus, in 1777, when New Jersey was a major theater of the war, General George Washington implored the New Jersey county militias "by all you hold dear, to rise up as one Man, and rid your Country of its cruel invaders. . . . [T]his can be done by a general appearance of all its Freemen armed and ready to give them opposition. . . . I am convinced every Man who can bear a Musket, will take it up." 10 Writings of George Washington, at 90.

Over a decade later, President George Washington's first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress urged that "A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite." 1 Journal of the Second Session of the Senate 103 (1820). Congress finally passed militia acts in 1792, organizing the Militia of the United States. As a practical matter, extensive militia training was beyond the capability of the small federal government, so training remained the responsibility of state and local governments.

While Washington strongly supported Americans taking up arms to defend their inherent rights, he strongly opposed the use of arms over transient political disputes. So in 1794, President Washington called forth the state militias to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Indeed, Washington was the only American President to personally command the military in the field while he was President.

Washington obeyed the statutory command that before actually using the militia, "the President shall … by proclamation, command such insurgents to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes, within a limited time." First Militia Act of 1792, 1 Stat. 264 (1792). With the appearance of George Washington in command of a force of 13,000, the Whiskey Rebellion collapsed without need for fighting. Of course no one made any effort to prohibit the rebels' from possessing firearms. 

Like most land-owning Virginians, George Washington was an enthusiastic hunter. He was also a gun collector, particularly prizing a pair of pistols given him by the Marquis de Lafayette, and another pistol he received in 1755 from British Major General Edward Braddock, during the French & Indian War. This latter pistol was Washington's sidearm during the Revolution.

Like all men, including great ones, Washington had some of the character flaws typical of the men of his time. Americans who celebrate Washington's Birthday do not imagine that he was perfect; we do recognize that his patriotism, leadership, and rectitude are worthy of admiration. Whether we celebrate on Washington's actual birthday of February 22, or on the third Monday in February (pursuant to a congressional act in 1971), we honor the ethos of responsible firearms ownership that made American independence and liberty possible.

Note: some of this essay is taken from Nicholas J. Johnson, David B. Kopel, George A. Mocsary, & Michael P. O'Shea, Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Responsibilities (Aspen/Wolters Kluwer, 2d ed. 2017).

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  1. There’s something peaceful and soothing in following a religious service – even if you don’t belong to the Church of the Holy Gun……

    1. Nothing compared to the Church of the Holy State.

  2. You know, the fact that the Whiskey Rebellion dispersed without a single shot being fired is every bit as good an anecdote against the idea that the citizenry needs to be armed against the government as the American Revolution is for the contrary argument. In point of fact, historically, armed rebellions against government almost never are successful. And these days, we’re far less likely to be threatened by a would be King George than we are by right wing militia groups headed by white supremacists.

    I support private gun ownership, though I suspect I would be willing to go further in regulating it than most here. But the idea of brave, freedom-loving patriots defending liberty against an overreaching government is just silly.

    1. Silly, like Hong Kong, right? Oh, yea, they don’t have guns, never mind.

      1. You could arm every man, woman and child in Hong Kong and the Chinese army would still have the capacity to crush it in about five minutes. That they’ve not yet done so has mote to do with public relations than with raw military capacity. And I say that as someone who despises the Chinese government.

        1. Probably not. Hong Kong has more than 7 million people, and urban warfare sucks. Royally.

          Mosul, Iraq has less than 1/10th of that population, and it took combined Iraqi/Kurdish/US forces more than 9 months to take it back from Isis. Isis only had about 9,000 fighters, the coalition army had 10 times that.

          Could China do it? Eventually, yes. Could they do it in 5 minutes? Only by completely destroying the city, with insanely high civilian casualties….on the order of hundreds of thousands. Causing that level of civilian casualties would have immense social and political cost, and could end up sparking a nation-wide uprising.

          1. In other words, they could do it, but only at a huge cost in terms of public relations. Which is basically what I said.

            1. Not just in public relations. They wouldn’t be recapturing Hong Kong, they’d just be destroying it. Afterwards Hong Kong would be gone, except for the geography, which is the least valuable part of it.

            2. More than just PR. It would result in the entire destruction of Hong Kong. Moreover, such a dramatic action, and the massive casualties would likely result in the fall of the Chinese government.

          2. Yah, the all powerful US military is still fighting goat herders armed with AK’s after 20+ years. Please, tell me again how 100 million armed US citizens would meekly turn over their guns and file quietly into the cattle cars for the trip to the re-education camps.

        2. Just because they will probably lose doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to try.

          The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 had very little chance against the Soviets but there should be a special hell for those that would condemn them for trying when they had almost no chance. I will also point out in 1956 they had endured only about 20 years of Soviet domination, and had 35 years more to endure before they became free. Yet now its been 31 years since the Russians left, so just how futile was their sacrifice in the end?

          I happened to be traveling in Budapest in 2006 at the 50th anniversary of the uprising, Hungary certainly hasn’t forgotten them.

          1. I will also point out in 1956 they had endured only about 20 years of Soviet domination, . . . .

            More like 12 years.

          2. James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau was one of my formative years socio-political readings, along with 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, Brave New World Revisited, Brave New World, Not This August, and Tim Tadpole and the Great Bullfrog.

    2. Tell me about, we can’t go a single week without another local or state government in this country being overthrown by a rightwing white supremacist militia. WHEN WILL WE BE BRAVE ENOUGH TO OPPOSE RACISM???

      1. Flatulus, I see you forgot to take your meds again.

      2. Unlike all the many jurisdictions barely surviving under the iron heel of local and state governments?

    3. ” In point of fact, historically, armed rebellions against government almost never are successful.”

      Well, except for the for the American revolution, the French revolution, the wars of independence in South America, the Russian revolution, the Algerian war of independence, the Eritrean war of independence, the….

      More to the point, the Whiskey rebellion, in many ways was ultimately successful. The federal tariffs on Whiskey ended up being repealed….

      1. The American Revolution was a war between two sovereign nations, the US and Great Britain. The Bolsheviks gained control of the Army. The South American wars of independence were mostly competing bands of armed thugs fighting for control over an area. You have a better example with the French Revolution.

        I didn’t say armed rebellions against government *never* succeed, but if an apples to apples comparison they only rarely succeed, and on the other side, you haven’t mentioned any of the many failures. And the ones that do succeed usually do so because the government gives in rather than because it lacked the firepower to crush it.

        That’s basically the story of Eastern Europe. In 1956 and 1968, Hungary and Czechoslovakia tried to abandon communism; Brezhnev sent tanks and crushed the revolutions. Gorbachev declined to do the same in 1991 so the (unarmed) rebels were successful. Could Gorbachev have done the same thing he predecessors did and kept the Soviet bloc intact? Of course.

        1. Dang dude, remind me to kick you out of my foxhole. You are the complete antithesis of the “American Spirit” and human nature in general. You have a great “never say try” attitude.

          1. I’ve never said they shouldn’t try. I’ve said that holding them up as an example of why we need a heavily armed citizenry doesn’t match the facts.

        2. The American Revolution was a war between two sovereign nations, the US and Great Britain.

          Not in the eyes of the British, it wasn’t. Perhaps they saw it (in later phases) as a war between Great Britain and France.

        3. “The American Revolution was a war between two sovereign nations…”

          “Hungary and Czechoslovakia tried to abandon communism; Brezhnev sent tanks and crushed the revolutions.”

          You’ve got an odd perspective on what is a revolution, and what’s a war between two separate countries, especially if you consider the American revolution a war between 2 separate countries, but the Hungarian revolution a “failed revolution”.

          It might be more proper to consider the Hungarian revolution a revolution which succeeded, followed shortly thereafter by a war between Hungary and the USSR, which Hungary promptly lost.

          1. I probably could have written a bit more precisely than I did, but my underlying point — that success or failure is frequently a product of how hard the greater power fight to maintain power — stands. For that matter, Great Britain didn’t actually exert all that much effort, and probably could have won the American Revolution had it decided to exert a little more effort.

        4. “The American Revolution was a war between two sovereign nations, the US and Great Britain.”

          Who did you learn history from, Michael Bellesisles? There was no “US” at the time of the American Revolution, and the American territory involved were colonies of Great Britain.

          1. He’s exaggerating with that “two”, but the fact of the matter is that the reason the American revolution turned out so well is that the states were already largely self-governing, and so didn’t have to invent much in the way of governing institutions right in the middle of a war.

            That’s the usual reason revolutions usually turn out badly even if originally successful: In the middle of a war is the worst possible time to form a government.

        5. Gorbachev didn’t because the Soviet Bloc (Warsaw Pact) and Soviet Union were fraying and crushing Eastern Bloc independence would have ripped all asunder.

    4. Sure, the IRA had no impact on Irish freedom.

    5. I agree completely! This is why the Soviet Union won in Afghanistan, and the US won decisively in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Oh, wait.

      Guerilla warfare is always asymmetric. A small number of resistance fighters is capable of harassing and tying down a larger more cohesive force. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto held out against the Nazis for longer than the organized armies of Poland and France in 1939 and 1940. The entire armed forces of the Nazi regime peaked at about nine million in 1943. Six million armed and resisting Jews distributed across Europe would have derailed much of the Holocaust.

      1. With a couple of well placed nuclear missiles, the USSR could have won in Afghanistan and the US could have won in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding on to it after they won might have been a different story.

  3. “Like all men, including great ones, Washington had some of the character flaws typical of the men of his time.”

    None worthy of mention, though, it appears.

    1. You’d have to read something more complex than the coloring books you normally indulge in, hicklib.

    2. Let’s start with yours. It’s so fun and constructive!
      You will never be the man Washington was, even at his worst. No, you are destined to die lonely and broken, reflecting on a wasted worthless life. Enjoy.

  4. re: “And these days, we’re far less likely to be threatened by a would be King George than we are by right wing militia groups headed by white supremacists.”

    Objection – assumes facts not in evidence. In fact, given the ratio of people killed by militia groups in the last 20 years to people wrongfully killed by the “king’s men” (that is, police, FBI, etc) over the same period, the available evidence suggests that you and I are substantially more threatened by our own government than by white supremacists.

    1. Those “King’s men”, the FBI and police, are the standing army we were warned about.

      1. No, that would be the actual army.

    2. The victims of Dylan Roof might beg to differ.

      1. All nine of them? That’s less than the rounding error in the estimates of lives destroyed by Gerald Goines.

        1. Dylan Roof is illustrative rather than exhaustive. And while right wing militias have not yet actually started a war, they’re sure training for one. Listen to their rhetoric. Watch video footage of their training camps. One of the side effects of having all those guns out there is that the more there are, the more likely an act of massive violence becomes. If we do have another civil war, it won’t be the good guys that start it, with a risk of genuine fascism as the outcome.

          1. We’re surely not so ignorant as to forget Waco or Ruby Ridge, both entirely avoidable tragedies? If there’s to be a war, arguably the federal government has been fighting it for decades. (And you should probably count the war on drugs and mass incarceration of black men as another front in the war).

            Current partisan politics are just a distraction to keep those the feds want to wage war upon from realizing they’re all victims of government power. (Which doesn’t mean armed rebellion is the right answer, but let’s not kid ourselves that the government isn’t in the routine habit of deploying force against the population).

            1. “both entirely avoidable tragedies?”

              I think you need to review the difference between “tragedy” and “atrocity”.

              Tragedy: “an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.”

              Atrocity: “an extremely wicked or cruel act, typically one involving physical violence or injury.”

              Ruby Ridge and Waco were atrocities, not tragedies. Nor were they really avoidable, given the politics of the time.

              Normal law enforcement relies heavily on the cooperation of the population. People don’t want to be mugged, they don’t want to be burgled. They help the police find out about such crimes, help them solve them.

              When you make something illegal that people WANT to be part of, that cooperation is absent. Everybody involved is hiding it from the police, which makes enforcing the law very, very difficult.

              As the probability of being caught violating a law drops, how are the police to maintain any degree of deterrence? Only by increasing the consequences of being caught. And if the probability of being caught becomes extremely low, as it is for violations of gun control laws, the only way to push the consequences up high enough is atrocities.

              You’ll always see atrocities being committed when the government is determined to enforce a law a significant fraction of the population regards as illegitimate.

          2. re: “Dylan Roof is illustrative rather than exhaustive.” So was my crack about Gerald Goines. My point (which you have not even addressed, much less rebutted) is that all the available evidence shows that you and I both are a far greater risk from our own government than from any “right wing militias”.

            And if you are worried about the militia rhetoric, maybe you should read up on our own police’s explicit training in the so-called Warrior Mentality. I agree that if we have another civil war, it won’t be the good guys who start it. I do not, however, automatically put all our police and politicians in that good-guys bucket.

            1. Risk assessment requires taking into account likely future scenarios, even ones that haven’t happened yet. I share your concerns about the militarization of the police and Brett’s concerns about the atrocities at Ruby Ridge and Waco. However, the available evidence is that the right wing militias are preparing for war, and the risk of a catastrophic result is there.

              Here’s the nightmare scenario. Suppose the economy goes south and Trump loses in November. Keep in mind he has zero respect for either facts or democratic institutions when they get in his way.
              The day after the election he goes on TV and tells his supporters that reports that he lost the election are fake news, that he carried all 72 states plus Canada, and that he’s not going anywhere. His heavily armed supporters then start another civil war.

              I would argue that the scenario I’ve laid out is every bit as plausible as the scenario of freedom fighters taking out another tyrant. And if you’re going to support arming people to protect us from tyranny, you have to at least take into account the opposite scenario. The police may not always be the good guys, but God knows neither are armed mobs.

              1. This same scare-mongering has been going on for over 25 years. Dylann Roof was hardly representative of some right-wing militia; he openly admitted he targeted church-goers and not gang-bangers because he knew the gang-bangers would shoot back.

                If Dylann Roof is representative of right-wing militias, then James Hodgkinson and the Dayton shooter are representative of Antifa, and the Orlando nightclub shooter is representative of Islamic terror cells.

              2. The day after the election he goes on TV and tells his supporters that reports that he lost the election are fake news, that he carried all 72 states plus Canada, and that he’s not going anywhere. His heavily armed supporters then start another civil war.

                I would argue that the scenario I’ve laid out is every bit as plausible as the scenario of freedom fighters taking out another tyrant.

                If you mean, “not at all plausible except in your fevered imagination,” then you’re right.

                1. And if you mean that the scenario of freedom fighters taking out another tyrant isn’t very plausible either, then I guess we agree.

              3. ” However, the available evidence is that the right wing militias are preparing for war, and the risk of a catastrophic result is there.”

                Well, of course they’re preparing for war. “Si vis pacem, para bellum”; If you would have peace, prepare for war. A sufficiently well known slogan that “Parabellum” became the name of a firearms cartridge!

                When war arrives it’s too late to prepare for war.

        2. On behalf of the friends and family of the mere nine people murdered by Roof in their house of worship I’d just like to say “Go fuck yourself. Then go fuck yourself some more, you vile ghoul.”

          1. I’m don’t think Rossami is trying to minimize Roof’s crime.

            First, Goines is responsible for killing two people in their house, and those people didn’t deserve that any more than Roof’s victims did.

            Secondly, Goines had a pattern of framing people. The DA is reviewing 14000 cases involving Goines and his colleagues (he was a cop for 34 years). We may never know how many people they framed, but if it was 10% of those cases, and the people framed served even two years each, that’s 2800 person-years of life gone (n.b. the two people killed that uncovered the mess may also not have been the only fatalities over the years).

            You may feel that one death is worse than a collective hundred or thousand or whatever years of wrongful imprisonment; that’s a value judgement that reasonable people can view differently. But I don’t think that Rossami was minimizing Roof’s crime by comparing him to Goines; rather he was using the enormity of Roof’s crime as a metric to show just how bad Goines’ conduct was.

            1. A person says “only nine” killed and then goes further by comparing those murders by a white supremacist to the crimes of someone else — a black man, no less — then, yes, you are trying to minimize those deaths and Roof’s crimes. And you giving the ol’ “Actually” defense is, as well. You can both piss off.

              1. Huh. I couldn’t figure out what you were getting at and then – could he be saying Goines is black? I’d somehow been assuming he was white. I had to google up a picture.

                But I don’t think it’s OK for police officers to cause deaths and frame people, regardless of the race of the officer. It’s bizarre to view that as some kind of extenuating circumstance.

  5. Washington? That socialist who signed into law forcing ship holders to buy health insurance? which later was turned into an individual mandate by Adams?

  6. I learned a lot from a history of the war written by a Brit. The most valuable lesson, as it seemed to me, was that Britain could not have won even if the French had not helped us. They might have dragged it out longer without French assistance, but they could not have won. The Brits had to ship everything but water from Britain, 3000 miles and a month or two away; even cattle, because their foraging parties were usually trounced by local militia who did not like their thieving and did not trust their payment. Command and control also suffered from the distance.

    The Brits had contempt for the colonials, as when they won their pyrrhic victory in Boston, and especially when Burgoyne lost at Saratoga, partly because his two competitors for command threw hissy fits and refused to come to his aid; the Canadian general had the benefit of orders written by Burgoyne expressly to keep his competitor from crossing the Canadian border to steal his thunder, and the New York general decided to go capture Philadelphia instead, to no benefit. The admiral who should have been helping Cornwallis at Yorktown was too busy raiding Dutch smuggling warehouses in the Caribbean and used his fleet to transport the loot back to Britain, where the courts gave it back to the Dutch. It’s been a while since I read the history, and I probably have some details wrong. But the general lesson was clear: it’s damned hard to beat local militia who don’t like you.

    It sure seemed like a useful lesson, but JFK, LBJ, and Nixon sure didn’t seem to have learned anything when it came to Vietnam.

    1. But the general lesson was clear: it’s damned hard to beat local militia who don’t like you.

      Yup. My 7th grade history teacher taught us that, wrt the revolution, more than 60 years ago.

    2. I think the Brits could’ve “won” if they’d offered the Carlisle Peace Commission deal earlier.

      Once the French entered the war…it wouldn’t have worked. If the French didn’t enter? The Brits could’ve just blockaded American ports until the Carlisle Peace deal was taken.

      1. 1. British industry was really hurt by the loss of American customers, possibly more than the Americans were. Several previous British tax measures were abandoned by pressure from British industry.

        2. Blockading the entire American coast was an expensive proposition; look at how long it took Lincoln to blockade the southern half even half effectively, and how leaky it remained.

        3. America was not an industrial power for many years after the revolution. The few industrial products they needed — plows, guns — would have taken a few years to ramp up to meet demand, but the lack would not have crippled the American economy, and smuggling would have met demand pretty well.

        The longer the British enforced the blockade, the more their industry would have struggled with nothing to make up for it, the more American industry would have grown, the more Americans would have expanded across the Appalachians, and the more the new American government would have gained legitimacy with Americans and with other nations.

        1. 1. Yep.

          2. But, they did it anyway.

          3. Smuggling is expensive. It’s hard to build up industrial power under an economic decline, without any money.

      2. The Brits had so much trouble raising as big an army as they did, that they had to hire Hessian mercenaries. The war really hurt them.

        One reason Truman dropped the two atom bombs was because he doubted the American public would have put up with a one or two year blockade. I doubt the British public would have put up with a mostly peaceful and leaky blockade for even a year or two.

        1. Which is why a simple blockade may have worked better. No need for a massive army, and the ill will it created.

        2. A blockade of Japan for one year probably would have killed more Japanese than the two a-bombs and left Japan less capable of economic recovery.

          A little noted WWII fact is that in weeks before the surrender, USN and RN battleships roamed unopposed up and down the coast of Japan bombarding steel mills and shipping facilities that were out of range of the B29 bombers.

          A long blockade of Japan would have been inhumane.

      3. And … It took ships one or two months to cross the Atlantic, blockading required many ship on station for more months, and where would they get their supplies? American supplies were not easy to get; remember, just about everything but water had to come across the Atlantic, including cattle. The sailors would not have been happy spending six months on blockade duty. Blockading French ports just a few hundred miles away, or in the Mediterranean, was difficult and expensive enough; trying to blockade a distant coast with no nearby replenishment would have been much worse.

        The blockade during the War of 1812 took the Brits a long time to establish, and they were on a full war footing against Napolean, and the public was behind it because it was a constant close threat. A distant mostly peaceful blockade would not have had the same popular support, and I suspect a bored public would have relished tales of dashing American sailors in speedy clippers running the blockade.

        1. Yeah. The British analysis I’ve heard is that the moment the British started using Redcoats to deal with the American Indians instead of allowing the colonists to handle it, they’d alienated their colonists and lost.

        2. There’s plenty of “nearby” replenishment. Halifax, Bermuda, the Bahamas. Add to the naval blockade the ability of privateers to seize American ships…
          And it would’ve been pretty effective.

          Would it have hurt the Brits to be cut of from the American trade? Sure. Would it have also hurt the Americans. Yes. And in the absence of direct British forces killing its civilians, and being offered just about everything they wanted besides independence under the Carlisle Peace deal.

          Self-rule, repeal of all the bad acts, potential representation in the UK… The colonists would’ve probably taken it.

    3. There’s an interesting book called “With Zeal and With Bayonets Only” that goes into the logistical issues the British had to deal with during the Revolution. One thing that stood out was that their units were almost always under-strength, especially for the purpose of putting down a rebellion in which loyalties throughout the colonies could be very murky at best and outright hostile at worst.

      1. Thanks. Just ordered it.

  7. Where’s Hihn to explain to us that Washington actually hated guns and tried to have them banned?

    1. Say his name three times into a mirror in the dark and he’ll show up.

    2. He ran out of bolded capital letters, and has to restock.

      1. Only the military and police need bold caps.

  8. I wonder if there’s any textbook that covers the Battle of Atehns as the last successful armed revolution against the government in the United States.

    I also wonder if there are other such instances that have never been reported or told about.

    I remember reading in high school (in the 1970s) about a town that got tired of the local town bully getting together and basically murdering him in the town square. In brad daylight. In front of the sheriffs’s station. And no one saw a thing. IIRC, I read about in Reader’s Digest. Citizens taking the law into their own hands when the law fails to act. I have read many times that the law exists to protect criminals from mob justice, which is almost always capital punishment.

    1. “…Battle of Athens as the last successful armed revolution against the government in the United States.”

      Revolutions, or just localized armed resistance against localized tyranny? Because there have been a few since 1946:

      The militiamen who protected the property of US Virgin Islands residents from being looted by their own police and National Guard after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

      The desegregation of Jonesboro LA high school in 1964, which was threatened by local authorities with fire hoses until four armed black men arrived with loaded shotguns. Without a shot being fired, the mob dispersed, the authorities retreated, and the students entered the school without incident.

      The Bundy Ranch standoff in April, 2014, during which armed federal agents were forced to holster and retreat by supporters of Bundy and other area ranchers.

  9. Great read today, Mr. Kopel. Thank you for all you do!

  10. Thank you David.

    This is another reminder that the “militia” mentioned in the 2nd Amit is not the National Guard, but rather local informally organized groups of citizenry training with, bringing their own guns and ammunition to the fight. Mentioned here, and maybe as important, the battles that started the Revolutionary War, at Lexington and Concord, were also fought by local militias, starting with those two towns, greatly outnumbered by the British foray to seize their cannon, shot, and powder. Throughout the day, militias from neighboring towns filtered in, until they outnumbered the British, who were then put to flight, losing order in their retreat back to Boston, until they were met by a relieving force From Boston, allowing them to complete their retreat in good order. Militias from neighboring colonies started arriving the next day. Involved with those MA colony militias were well known Boston area founders, such as our second President, John Adams, and esp his cousin, Samuel.

    Our Declaration of Independence was written by a committee of five led by our 2nd and 3rd Presidents, with Jefferson, the better writer, leading in that regard, and Adams, the better speaker, leading in its selling – both having been involved in the militia movement before the war. They were also involved in the writing of the Bill of Rights.

    It is thus, I believe, hard to argue that the militia of the 2nd Amdt did not mean an armed citizenry, who owned military grade arms in order to protect our country against tyranny and to protect our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The first of these is essentially the right of self defense, and the second is the right to depose a tyrannical government, by armed force, if necessary. And that requires both that the citizenry be armed, and that they be skilled in the use of those arms (“well regulated”).

    1. How can you raise a militia (or even a sheriff’s posse) in an emergency from a population unfamiliar with basic small arms?

      I have also noted, from following the history of the Overmountain Men, that militia regulations mandated personal possession of a military grade musket or rifle and ammunition sufficient for the opening of a campaign; most of the men who mustered for militia drill had hunting guns at home, deer rifles, bird guns and such, that were not prohibited by militia regulations nor consigned to militia armories. The armory could have things like cannons, casks of powder, and military arms to be rented to the few militia members who could not afford a regulation arm (if I recall correctly, it was treated as a tax for being unable to comply with regulations).

      Unfortunately we have moved away from the model of government of the people, by the people, for the people, protected by volunteers raised from the people, toward government of the people, by the government, for the government, protected by hessians loyal to the government.

  11. ‘”a well regulated Militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen”
    was needed to defend “our ancient Laws & Liberty” from the Redcoats.’

    Well regulated, and yet independent from the governing body? How fascinating.

    1. You perhaps need to educate yourself on what “well regulated” means, similar to the spontaneous organization of society in general, which is created by man, but not designed by man.

    2. well-regulated -> well trained

  12. Good thing there were no Red Flag laws, Washington would have had his guns taken away and been locked up in a mental institution, and we would still be ruled by the British!

  13. Unlike then, we’re not fighting for our independence against an invading foreign power.

    Unlike then, we have a standing army.

    This analysis is nuts.

    1. Not so much true, given the Democrats’ desire to rule the whole country from just the areas they dominate. Not all that different from Britain ruling from across the sea.

      1. Uh, Brett, that’s how a two-party system works.

        Are you going to pretend the GOP is sanguine about Democratic priorities?

      2. Not so much true, given the Democrats’ desire to rule the whole country from just the areas they dominate. Not all that different from Britain ruling from across the sea.

        It’s only the Democrats, of course, who are strong in some geographical areas and weak in others.

      3. Well yeah because I want gays, blacks, women, etc., to have equal protection EVERYWHERE/ANYWHERE within US jurisdiction.

        Do you even understand the United States at all?

        1. I see you left straights, whites, and men out of your list.

          Curious, no?

          1. Under current law, those three groups are not considered to have a problem with equal protection.

            This makes sense, since they are the plurality of the voting public. And, until quite recently, a full-on majority.

            Complaints about oppression of the majority by that self-same majority seems like maybe you’re missing a few steps.

            1. Perhaps, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race?

              1. Yeah, ignore history and the effect of informal social structures (“Old Boy’s Clubs”).

                Go ahead, tilt against the Civil Rights Acts. See how that does for you.

                1. Regardless of what protestations you make, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

                  1. Who cares about the playing field actually being level, eh?

                    Easy for a white straight dude to say.

                    1. Yes, exactly, I care about a level playing field….so the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

                    2. Your response is telling. Even as you insist it’s all about the playing field, you’re concentrating on the rules being invariable as the only metric of fairness, while ignoring the playing field.

                      That’s exactly the Plessy thinking we left behind in Brown v. Board.

                    3. You’re response is telling too It tells me, and everyone else who takes the time to think about it, that you don’t care very deeply about individual rights, which is a radical departure from the principles of the Constitution. Rather, it shows that you care about group rewards and group punishments.

                      So, again, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

                    4. It tells you I don’t make your version of individual rights the sole metric of a good society. Just like most of the rest of America hasn’t.

                      Civil rights are not about group punishments and rewards. They are, however, often in tension with individual rights. That you so easily solve that tension by just eliding the former ignores both history and the current experiences of those with backgrounds different from your own.

                      You are mixing up is and ought, as well as moral arguments and legal ones. Your ‘principles of the Constitution’ were repudiated in the 1950s, and have remained bad law ever since.

                      Your facile repetition is not getting smarter with time.

                    5. Easy for a white straight dude to say.

                      Bitch, my skin’s darker than yours, and I’ve never had an issue with working on a level playing field. This sad “check your privilege” talking point is tired and condescending.

                    6. I’ve never had an issue with working on a level playing field.

                      It’s almost as though I’m arguing for looking beyond anyone’s individual experience…

    2. The British weren’t a foreign power. The colonists were part of the British empire. It was a power that had worn out its welcome.

      And there are lots of oppressive regimes with standing armies. In fact, they can’t do without them.

      1. Poor captcrisis. Another casualty of grossly negligent public school education.

        1. You’re just throwing out empty insults now?

          No shortage of others do that, but I thought you were not one of those.

          Besides, when America became sovereign is a pretty open and philosophical question. Declaration? Victory in the Revolution? Constitutional Ratification? Declaration, but only retroactively upon Victory?
          Maybe don’t be so facile when you’re being shallow.

          1. Victory in the revolution. Prior to that, they were a British colony in revolt.

      2. ? This is a democracy, right? Are you saying the federal government is an “oppressive regime”? If so, it’s the kind Washington favored.

        1. That’s not what I’m saying. That’s what you want me to have said.

        2. LOL. The federal government today does not remotely resemble what Washington or any other founder favored.

          1. LOL, that argument seems to come out in favor of slavery.

            1. You’re right, I guess it’s time to scrap the Constitution, because slavery.

        3. And yes, our federal government is an oppressive and imperialistic regime.

          1. Ever the cry of the radical from any ideological persuasion.

    3. Britain was not an “invading foreign power,” they were the formally legitimate government of the region, being resisted by the actual oppressed residents of the region. So then, precisely the same rationale for maintaining an armed citizenry anywhere today.

  14. Gun nuts are among my favorite culture war casualties.

    Carry on, clingers . . . so far and so long as the liberal-libertarian mainstream permits, that is.

    1. Huh. Firearms and gun rights is like the only issue where conservatives have won in the culture war the past half a century or so. Maybe you could add in that few people seriously thinks wage and price controls are a good idea these days.

      And you know how conservatives have won on guns, by acting like the left: going to court, refusing to surrender, getting out and protesting, not accepting the status quo, making it a litmus test for primary elections, raising money off scare tactics, etc. etc.

  15. “he strongly opposed the use of arms over transient political disputes” — but people _will_ use them for that, so support for right to arms means support for suffering the costs of such use.

    1. There are elements missing in your comment, like any comparison of trade-offs, or scale of the problem.

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