Last fourth of July, while sitting in the living room of my historic farm house in Lenox, Massachusetts, which was built by Elijah Northrup in 1770 -- a fourth-generation American -- I thought about the Berkshire regiment and the American Revolution. Since the house was a tavern during the revolutionary war period I imagined that it must have hosted some lively conversation about the oppressive rule of King George the 3rd and the rising sentiment for rebellion, especially in Lenox. In 1774 the Berkshires issued the Lenox Covenant, one of the first formal acts of defiance against the Crown's taxation without representation. It was a courageous act that exposed the signers to prosecution and hanging should the revolution fail. The document was a precursor of the Declaration of Independence.
When word came that the first shots had been fired at Lexington, Col. John Paterson, (later General Paterson) notified the Berkshire militia of mostly farmers to fetch their rifles and prepare to join the revolution -- there was no military issue of weapons.
One account said they made the arduous trip over rough terrain from far western Massachusetts to far eastern Massachusetts with lightening speed, just missing the Battle of Lexington but in time for the Battle of Concord. They went on to participate in many major campaigns, including Bunker Hill and the crossing of the Delaware with General Washington. Later they joined other units of the Continental Army that assembled on Long Island for a major campaign in Saratoga against the forces of the distinguished British general, John Burgoyne. They crossed Long Island Sound, marched through Connecticut and northwestern Massachusetts, then west to Albany and north to Saratoga for the faceoff with Burgoyne. Along the way they met friendly receptions from other farmers and townspeople. The formidable British army also gathered at Saratoga from various parts of the colonies and Canada. But they did not find the same cordial welcome
Burgoyne complained bitterly that his troops were harassed and picked off by farmers with guns. He added that they didn't fight like gentleman. Unlike the British, they weren't decked out in bright uniforms, nor did they line up at point-blank range to exchange shots. Rather, he said, they fought like Indians -- sniping from behind trees and other camouflage. No wonder that Burgoyne had nothing but contempt for this rag tag army of unpaid, undisciplined, undertrained, and underequipped farmers with their own crude rifles.
The British went down to defeat in the Battle of Saratoga, the first major victory for the Continental Army. On Oct. 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his army to American General Horatio Gates. Burgoyne returned to England in disgrace and retired from the military.
Ordinary citizens with personal guns were a major factor in the Continental Army's eventual victory in the revolution -- a fact that no doubt prompted the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. But based on the experience of the American Revolution, the amendment clearly stated that the intention of that right was for national defense: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." (ratified 12/15/1791). The fledgling free America still faced threats from European armies that occupied areas of North and South America. Armed citizens would be essential for national defense.
But does that provision for national defense make any sense today? Let's think of how the scenario of the American Revolution period would translate for 21st century America.
Our first alert system, Sarah Palin sitting on her deck in Alaska with vigilant eyes on Russia, spots nuclear missiles heading toward the States. She promptly alerts the Pentagon. In turn, the Pentagon activates the modern day Paul Revere network throughout the country. In seconds, thousands of Paul Reveres rev up the engines of their SUV's and race through towns, villages, and hamlets rousing the populace: "The Russians are coming." Citizens quickly grab their firearms. A hundred million guns or more are now poised for the defeat of the Russians -- hand guns, rifles, semi-automatic weapons, fully automatic assault rifles, and more. Our 21st century Continental Army is ready.
But ready for what? To shoot down nuclear missiles? Would these armed citizens serve our national defense in any useful way? Or would they pose a national defense threat and crisis? In the ensuing fear and chaos, the weapons would most likely -- as in many similar upheavals -- be used for looting, mayhem, vigilantism, and murder.
I wonder what the Founding Fathers would say -- and what amendments they would propose for 21st century America.