"A rebellion must have arms." -- Jeffery Record, Beating Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win.
Fort William and Mary in 1705.
On the 19th of October, in the year of our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Four, George the Third, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith (and so forth and so on) issued a confidential Order in Council forbidding the export of arms and powder to America. Like most royal secrets at the time, this one quickly leaked to operatives of Sam Adams and the Boston Sons of Liberty. (Funny how tyrants always think in similar terms and use identical actions. Indeed, it is their actions that make them as tyrants -- then and now. As I have written before, history rarely exactly repeats itself but it often echoes.)
The King was reacting to his understandable fright caused by the Powder Alarm, when in the immediate aftermath of the 1 September seizure by General Gage of the gunpowder at Charlestown, thousands of Massachusetts militiamen had marched on Boston and Cambridge, and mob action forced Loyalists and some government officials to flee to the protection of the British Army. The run-up to the Powder Alarm is described by Robert P. Richmond in his book Powder Alarm, 1774:
As the colonists' defiance grew, it became evident that it would be only a matter of time before the British Government prohibited the exportation of gunpowder and military stores to America. Now was the time to squirrel away as much powder as possible. The colonists were within their legal rights in withdrawing, town by town, the powder that had been allotted to each town according to population. The system of storing powder necessary for local self-defense in centrally located powderhouses throughout the province had been a safeguard against the French and Indians. Now, however, Gage realized that this powder intended for defense would quite likely be used against his troops. . .
For their part, the colonists knew that there was virtually no indigenous powder production, and the lack of gunpowder could cripple their resistance if the issue came to shots, as it did the following year at Lexington and Concord. The colonists turned to smuggling, of course, but their powder purchases in Europe and elsewhere could not make up the difference, especially in the short run. Indeed, when Washington arrived to take control of the militia army in front of Boston and learned how little powder was actually on hand, he was quite speechless for a considerable period of time.
What was terrifying (in 1775) was the picture of an America fighting with no weapons . . . the country was as naked and defenseless as a shucked oyster. The colonies were in the nightmare situation of trying to fight the strongest nation in Europe almost barehanded. . . The crying need was for gunpowder. There had been a few powder mills in the country, but they were long out of use. -- Helen Augur, The Secret War for Independence, 1955.
I am currently reading Kevin Phillips' book, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. In his chapter on "The Global Munitions Struggle, 1774-1776," he writes:
If powder importation was to be prohibited, then, the powder existing in the magazines of the two sides became the critical item of contention in the run-up to war. When the Boston Sons of Liberty learned of the Order in Council, they feared that the Regulars would make another attempt to seize colonial stores. Wikipedia reports:Although both sides made many mistakes during 1774 and 1775, neither underestimated the central role of ammunition. Adapting a term from Christian theology, Samuel Adams candidly proclaimed gunpowder as the "unum necessarium" -- the one thing needful.
Patriots in Rhode Island moved munitions from the fort at Newport inland for safe keeping without incident. In Massachusetts, rumors flew that troops from Boston were headed to reinforce Fort William and Mary and seize its powder and arms. On December 13, 1774, four months before his more famous ride in Massachusetts, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to sound the alarm.
So, 240 years ago this month, the colonists in New Hampshire seized the powder at Fort William and Mary.
On the morning of December 14, Patriots from the town of New Castle unsuccessfully attempted to take the gunpowder at Fort William and Mary by trickery. Meanwhile, John Langdon made his way through Portsmouth with a drummer, collecting a crowd to descend on the fort. Several hundred men responded to his call, setting out for the Castle by way of the Piscataqua River. Only one provincial officer, Captain John Cochran, and five provincial soldiers were stationed at Fort William and Mary. Despite the odds against them, they refused to capitulate to Patriot demands. When Langdon's men rushed the fort, the defenders opened fire with three cannon and a volley of musket shot. Patriots stormed the walls and Cochran's men engaged in hand-to-hand fighting before being subdued by an overwhelming number of raiders. Langdon's volunteers not only broke open the powder house and absconded with about 100 barrels of gunpowder but, to three cheers, hauled down the fort's huge British flag. Several injuries but no deaths occurred in the engagement, and Cochran and his men were released after about an hour and a half of confinement.The next day, additional rebel forces arrived in Portsmouth from across the colony, as well as from Maine. Led by John Sullivan, the rebels returned to the fort late on the night of December 15, overran the post without gunfire and removed muskets, military supplies and 16 cannon marked as the property of the King. British authorities declared the raids - for which Sullivan later received a stipend from the Continental Congress - high treason.
Unfortunately, the colonists didn't have the foresight, or the means, to remove all the heavy artillery and military stores at the fort, and these were later recovered by the British navy. Too bad, they would have come in handy at the siege of Boston. Grandpa Vanderboegh's Rule No. 32 applies here: "If God gives you a cake, take the whole damn thing. You might get hungry later."
Note that this took place a full FOUR MONTHS before the General Gage's ill-considered gun raid of 19 April 1775. This was not merely armed civil disobedience, but high treason -- theft of Royal property and an attack on the King's lackeys. This is in part what I meant during my speech on the steps of Connecticut state capitol in April of last year when I said that the Founding Fathers "did what was required."
But this post started out with the promise in the header to find parallels between 1774-1775 and 2014-2015. Why, you might ask, do I begin with the one certain contradiction to what the Founders faced and the situation as we find it today? For it is an absolute given that we, today, live in the most highly armed society in history -- ever. We have no lack of arms, no lack of powder and shot, no lack of ammunition, nor do we have at the moment any impediment to obtaining more. (Although we should always remember Kipling's dictum that you can NEVER have TOO MUCH ammunition.)
I begin with the one major difference between then and now because I apparently need to remind those of us who are timid and fearful, those of us who exaggerate the power of the federal government and minimize our own innate power, those of us who immediately crouch in the submissive position of compromise, THAT WE HAVE THIS ONE HUGE ADVANTAGE OVER THE FOUNDERS. All other comparisons between the two periods must take this fact into account up front. Whatever the other parallels that I will discuss in further installments of this series, remember that THIS is our reality, not the poverty of means faced by the Founding generation. How, then, can we do less than they? Only by means of failures of our own will, failures of our own imagination, failures of our own courage. We have the means to secure our own liberty and property and lives. We have but to recognize it.
I also begin this series with the indisputable fact of the greatest armed society in history as a warning to the analysts of the federal three-letter paramilitary police organizations and to the so-called "fusion centers" and their state-paid but federal-directed lickspittles -- in the hope that they communicate it to the various tyrant-wannabes that they serve. Clausewitz, I would remind them them, offered this truth among many: "In military affairs, quantity has a quality all its own." Try to keep that in mind, you insignificant tax-fed carbuncles. Try not to piss off the largest, most heavily armed and accoutered, armed citizenry in the history of the planet. Take my advice in the loving admonition with which it is offered. You'll live longer.