In Defense of Fanaticism

While at my 50th college class reunion, I twice came under savage attack about gun owners' intransigence when it comes to the Second Amendment. "Why," I was asked, "won't you people compromise, even a little bit? Why are you such fanatics?"

A good question, and one whose answer was given in Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent new book, "Bunker Hill," the story of the first major battle of the American Revolution. Mr. Philbrick, who is as impartial and thorough a historian as one can find, paints a picture of the New England militiamen who fought there that is probably at variance with what is taught in school, if indeed the subject does come up in school.

The farmers and tradesmen who formed the colonial militia were hard cases. They believed that their freedom--their right to govern themselves--was absolute, and divinely sanctioned. However, this freedom did not extend to women, or people whose skin was not white, or who were Catholic, or who remained loyal to the Crown. Today we would call them extremists, and worse. In an America where inclusiveness and compromise are seen as paramount virtues, theirs is a very uncomfortable legacy. However, without them, there would not be a United States of America.

Compromise is at the foundation of the American political system, but so is the unflinching, unbending belief in a cause. The men who fought at Bunker Hill were willing to die, and to kill the soldiers who only a few decades before had been their brothers in arms, for nothing more than the right to speak and vote at a town meeting. You could regard this as fanaticism.

The abolition of slavery was, in great part, driven by fanatics. These ranged from the murderous John Brown, who was hanged, and deserved it, to the non-violent William Lloyd Garrison, a newspaper editor and Abolitionist, who wrote in the first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator: "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation….I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD."

When Garrison began his crusade in 1831, abolition was hardly a popular cause, even among Northerners who did not support slavery. More than one abolitionist died for his beliefs. But Garrison was as good as his word.

If unwavering dedication to a cause is fanaticism, Abraham Lincoln is the utterest fanatic of all. Lincoln was very far from an abolitionist. He wrote: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery…"

But when Lincoln said he meant to preserve the Union, he was, as Garrison put it, in earnest. He suspended habeus corpus, ignored a Supreme Court ruling, and raised an army and sent tens of thousands of young men to their deaths "…in order that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The Civil War began in April 1861, but Congress was not in session until July, so the decision to begin the war and prosecute it was a burden that Lincoln alone carried. And throughout its four dreadful years, he refused to compromise and seek peace until the conflict was resolved once and for all. In all other respects a great compromiser and conciliator, Lincoln was a fanatic about the Union surviving.

Whether you are seen as a fanatic depends on whether your cause is popular and politically correct. In their time the New England militia was regarded as a bunch of dangerous thugs by a good many people; Garrison was considered an annoying crank; and no American president has been so reviled during his term in office as Abraham Lincoln.

So if you believe that the Second Amendment is an absolute guarantee of your right to own guns, and that altering it, or giving up part of it, or relinquishing it altogether is wrong, take heart. You may yet be vindicated by history. It wouldn't be the first time something like that has happened.

CC image from Wikipedia.