OPINION – This past weekend, there was very nearly a gun battle pitting private citizens intent on protecting their rights against a corrupt political machine.
It wouldn’t be the first time such an event was necessary.
Few people are familiar with the Battle of Athens that took place in 1946 in McMinn County in Eastern Tennessee. McMinn County had long been under the control of a corrupt political boss named Paul Cantrell.
Cantrell had been elected sheriff during the 1930s and presided over a reign of bribery, financing his department through false arrests, and maintaining power through voting fraud.
To prevent voting fraud, Tennessee state law mandated that ballot boxes be shown to be empty prior to the election. It also required poll-watchers and banned armed law enforcement from polling places to prevent voter intimidation. Ballots were to be counted in a public place where any voter could watch. Cantrell ignored the election laws with impunity.
There could be no accountability to the voters as long as he controlled the election process. It was akin to having the power to write his own laws.
When Cantrell was elected to the state senate in 1942, his equally power-hungry chief deputy Pat Mansfield was elected sheriff in his place.
In 1946, Cantrell decided to run for sheriff again. But this time, a number of recently returned veterans who were fed up with the official abuse decided to run a non-partisan all-GI ticket against him.
They promised to ensure honest elections and to clean up their county’s politics. For years, they had asked for state or federal election monitors to stop the fraudulent voting practices. Their reasoning for making a stand was explained by one of their candidates as follows:
The principals that we fought for in this past war do not exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy but not the form we live under in this county.
On Election Day, Cantrell brought in an army of 200 armed deputies that proceeded to brutalize and threaten the GI poll-watchers. A black voter named Tom Gillespie was beaten by a deputy and told he could not vote that day. When he persisted, Cantrell’s hired goon shot and wounded him.
At this point the situation was becoming desperate. Armed deputies in the polling places detained the GI poll watchers while Sheriff Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail to be counted.
The ex-GIs faced the choice of defending their rights against the murderous behavior of Cantrell’s men or submitting to their supposed authority. They chose to stand up for their rights.
They visited nearby National Guard and State Guard armories and secured weapons and ammunition then headed for the jail to rescue the ballot boxes. At the jail, Cantrell’s men opened fire on them and a firefight ensued for the next half hour or so.
Though numerous shots were fired, only a few individuals were wounded; none of them fatally.
Cantrell convinced the Governor to activate the National Guard to come rescue the deputies who were hunkered down in the jail. But the Guard never came.
Eventually, the GIs used dynamite to gain access to the front doors of the jail. The deputies inside surrendered and the ballot boxes were rescued. Cantrell managed to slip away in the confusion, but the ex-GIs posted guards at the jail and then cleaned and returned the rifles to the armories.
When the ballots were honestly counted, Cantrell had lost by 379 votes.
The decision to take up arms in defense of their individual rights was not sparked by a personal vendetta against Cantrell. It was based in a desire for honest representative government.
When faced with ruthless intimidation and threats of lethal force by individuals acting under the color of law, it became necessary to negate that force with firearms in the hands of private citizens.
Remember, the ex-GIs had petitioned for outside help repeatedly to ensure fair and honest elections. It was help that never came.
In the end, the rule of law was upheld—not by the self-serving political machine—but by a group of citizens who took their rights seriously enough to fight for them.
This is the primary reason for which the Second Amendment exists. It is not based in a sporting purpose or a hobby. It is the final resort to compel obedience when government officials at any level become abusive.
The gospel of Big Brother conveniently ignores this principle. But not everyone has forgotten.
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Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives talk show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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