It was in that golden moment prior to America’s founding as a free country, the April of 1775, that the move to disarm Virginians was occasioned. John Murray, the fourth lord of Dunmore, was moved to seize stores of gunpowder after a tart firebrand going by the name of Patrick Henry served notice that the freemen of Virginia were not fit to be slaves and would not be ruled like them.
Henry’s fight against disarmament was echoed in a struggle less than a century later, as gun control measures were installed to prevent black slaves from rising up against their Southern slavemasters. The Gunpowder Affair shows the importance of fighting for self-defense rights against tyrannical government.
In the excellent biographical work James Madison and the Making of America, Kevin C. Gutzman lays out the significance of this seminal event in U.S. history:
When the Congress closed, Madison wrote that the Virginians “universally approved” of its actions because “A spirit of Liberty & Patriotism animates all degrees and denominations of men.” Another way of putting this is that all ranks in society and all religious associations stood for American rights. Further, Madison hazarded that “Many publickly declare themselves ready to join the Bostonians as soon as violence is offered them or resistance though expedient.” Virginians in some parts were organizing themselves into military units, and Madison wanted the entire colony on a war footing.
Madison wrote to [William] Bradford excitedly the following May 9 with a description of the recent colonial response to Lord Dunmore’s seizure of the colonial gunpowder. In the days before bullets, firearms required gunpowder, which was in short supply in the colonies, and so the Virginia governor’s action amounted to an attempt to disarm the colonial militia in a single stroke. Madison was thrilled by the confrontation between the militia and the governor, and particularly by Patrick Henry’s forcing Dunmore to compensate Virginia for the gunpowder.
The confrontation between Lord Dunmore and Patrick Henry, in the backdrop of the battles at Lexington and Concord one day prior to the Gunpowder Affair, would spur along the motion for the freemen of that state to forge a Virginia Declaration of Rights.
A reflection of the collaboration between senior statesman George Mason and the young upstart James Madison, the Virginia declaration is perhaps a more sturdy foundation for liberty in political theory than America’s eventual Bill of Rights. In particular, “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” is a more comprehensive manifesto for freedom than the relatively understated “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” later penned by fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson in The Declaration of Independence.
It should be noted that in those days, Virginia was considered by the rebels to be free and independent from Britain as of May 15, 1775. While James Madison would go on to participate in the Continental Congress, witnessing the dysfunction of the Articles of the Confederation before eventually becoming the foremost luminary of The Constitution of the United States, Patrick Henry would go on to become Virginia’s first governor.
But the reason behind the words so familiar to the American ear, ringing throughout the ages in American history, was the all-too-immediate one of disarmament of American citizens. These words might as suitably be penned for the current president as the audience of the Virginia House of Burgesses whom Henry addresses (cited nearly in full because they demand to be read and comprehended):
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 toward 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 our 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 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.
No man, Mr. President, thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy 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 shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony.
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 of 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…
And what have we to oppose to 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 it 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 been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves.
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 wish 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 it, 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 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? 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 hath placed in our power.
The 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 ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we 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!
Where are the Patrick Henrys of today’s so-called opposition party? Where are the men of principle and persistence? But a handful, and they deserve our support. And if there are men and women lacking in the political opposition, then we must rise up and replace them!