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The Battle of Athens: An Important Lesson on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

Most Americans are unfamiliar with the Battle of Athens, a rebellion that took place in Tennessee in 1946. While gun rights advocates point to it as an example of why we need the Second Amendment, in doing so they misrepresent the meaning of the amendment, as well as the context of the rebellion and the historical lessons it offers to those wise enough to heed them.

By the mid 1930’s, McMinn County was run by the local Democratic political machine, headed by Sheriff Pat Cantrell. The U.S. Department of Justice had investigated allegations of electoral fraud repeatedly throughout the 1940’s, but had not taken action

In 1945, roughly 3,000 American GIs returned to the county from Europe and the Pacific, where they discovered the corruption that went on in their local government. By 1946, they decided to run their own candidates for county offices via a GI Non-Partisan League.

At one rally, a speaker said:

The principles 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.

During the August election, Cantrell hired hundreds of gunmen, who were deputized to patrol the precincts. As the polls closed, the deputies seized ballot boxes and took them to the local jail in the city of Athens, in violation of Tennessee state law which stated the ballots had to be counted in public.

In response, the GIs and other Athen citizens raided the nearby National Guard Armory, seizing arms and munitions. They besieged the jail for several hours until those inside surrendered and the ballots were counted publicly. There were several wounded, but no dead. The firearms were cleaned and returned to the armory. Not one man was arrested for the rebellion.

Ultimately, the GI candidate for sheriff was elected, and four GI candidates were elected to the county government. Within a year, however, problems arose with the coalition, and it eventually fell apart.

While many Americans are fond of citing this incident as an example of why the Second Amendment is necessary, they miss several small, but vital points.

One, the Second Amendment was written to make it absolutely clear that the feds had no authority to restrict the people’s right to keep and bear arms in the event that it became too tyrannical. It was written out of fear of the feds gaining too much power, while the Battle of Athens concerned a local jurisdiction. 

Second, the GIs used firearms and ammunition taken from a state-owned armory. They fought with government-owned weapons.

Third, while the corrupt government was replaced by the GI league, the coalition failed to make any long term reforms to the county.

At the same time, however, this rebellion acts as evidence of what happens when a free people have the right to keep and bear arms.

The rebels represented what the Second Amendment meant by a “well regulated militia.” They had been properly trained and drilled in the use of firearms. Their combat experience gave them a great advantage against the deputies trapped inside the jail. 

Their use of firearms from the armory also illustrates why gun ownership is necessary to the “security of a free state.” Imagine if the armory had been the sole option for firearms and their efforts to obtain the guns had failed. They would not have been able to challenge the sheriff or his deputies, and the ballots would have remained in their hands. When government has a monopoly on gun ownership, corruption and abuse is inevitable.

The blatant corruption also demonstrates the folly of believing that working within the system is the only way. Deprived of their right to vote, the people of McMinn County had no other choice but to resort to the final measure of self-defense in order to restore their liberties.

Lastly, while the new government failed to implement any lasting changes politically, the armed rebellion brought about one great achievement. Never again did the county dare attempt to seize ballots in such a flagrant act of corruption contrary to state law.

Not a single man was charged or even arrested for their participation in what was an outright rebellion against the local government. The only person charged with a crime was one of the deputies, who shot a black man while he was trying to vote.

It sent an unspoken but critical message. If law enforcement officials break the law, the people have the right to use self-defense as a final resort. It set a precedent difficult to overturn.

The Battle of Athens demonstrates the eternal truth that governments do not restrain themselves. They must be restrained by the people whom they claim to represent and whose consent they require. Restraint ultimately comes from a well armed citizenry ready to defend their rights.

As Thomas Jefferson remarked, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”