Saturday, June 14, 2014

Gerald Gardner, Magna Carta, and the Right to Bear Arms

[This was first posted on August 10, 2012. I am reposting it now in honor of Gerald's 130th birthday.]

"... my Luger and Donna's revolver ..."

In August of 1940 the Battle of Britain was just getting under way, and it very much remained to be seen who would prevail. If the Luftwaffe managed to establish control of the skies over Britain, then the Wehrmacht would soon be marching on British soil.

It was under these circumstances that one Gerald Gardner wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph under the title "Resisting the Invader" and subtitled, "Delaying Actions by Civilians". (See Philip Heselton's wonderful book Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, Volume I, for the full text of the letter as well as more background information, sources, etc.)

The main thrust of Gardner's letter was that in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis, any civilians who found themselves behind enemy lines should engage in armed resistance against the foreign occupiers. In order to prepare for such an eventuality Gardner specifically proposed that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

Gerald Gardner was as good as his word. As a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, he had already begun distributing the few weapons he himself possessed (including pikes and coshes) to his fellow wardens. In addition, Gardner took an inventory of the privately held weapons among his neighbors, which he found lamentably inadequate for the task at hand: "We expected Hitler on the seashore any day. We had no weapons worth the name. In my three-mile beach sector there were six shotguns, my Luger and Donna's revolver, and a few other pistols, with about six rounds apiece for them. Then there were my pikes and swords."

When a small unit of regular army soldiers was dispatched to Gardner's area, he further complained about their lack of serious weaponry: "barring rifles and not much ammunition, they had nothing. No artillery, no automatic weapons. I tried to get an old Malay cannon going, with some blasting powder for explosives, but nothing came of this." Despite the lack of success with the Malay cannon, Gardner did manage to get his hands on some Sten guns for the local Home Guard, and he also showed his neighbors how to make Molotov cocktails.

Gardner, a proud Conservative, worked closely with the local Commander of the Home Guard, Major Fish, a Canadian socialist. Despite their significant political differences both men shared a common anti-authoritarian streak, and a fierce determination to "fight them on the beaches" when and if it came to that. Fish enrolled Gardner as an Armourer for his battalion despite the fact that ARP wardens were officially forbidden from taking up arms even in the event of an out and out invasion. But Fish and Gardner agreed that this prohibition was nonsensical, and, besides, Gardner "could be a warden during air raids and Home Guard during the All Clears".

One might be tempted to assume that Gardner's Churchillian sounding letter was nothing special, just an obvious and unproblematic statement of ordinary patriotic sentiments in the face of an imminent threat to British national sovereignty. But the role of civilians in warfare is a matter of perennial controversy. Wars should be fought by armies on the battlefield, and civilians should having nothing to do with it, or so one way of looking at things would have it. After all, in theory at least, the "rules of warfare" dictate that civilians should not be the targets of military attacks. But when civilians arm themselves and join the fray, as Gardner was proposing, what makes them any different from any other armed combatant? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the act of taking up arms, civilians thereby make themselves (and all nearby civilians) "fair game."

To Gardner's mind, however, there was nothing theoretical about any of this: "If each village and town had defended itself, France would never have fallen as she did, and Germany might well have been on the way to defeat now," he wrote in his letter. England must not repeat the mistake of the French: "Why should people who wish to defend themselves be prevented just to make it easy for Germany? By Magna Carta every free-born Englishman is entitled to have arms to defend himself and his household. Let us now claim our right."

The official Nazi press took notice of Gardner's "Magna Carta letter", as it became known, and responded by publicly lecturing Gardner about "advances" in "human ethics": "His suggestion is condemned as medieval and as an infringement of international law."

The Nazi position was not quite as ridiculous as one might think. All too recently Europe had witnessed first hand the mind-bending horrors of modern, mechanized warfare. The killing power of machine guns and poison gas, combined with other technological advances such as rail and air transportation and electronic communications, had all combined in the Great War to result in a truly staggering loss of life (2% of the British population, 4% of France, nearly 4% of Germany ....).

And when all out war raised its ugly head again in Europe in the 1939, it came in the form of Blitzkrieg, which made the weapons that had slaughtered so many millions in WWI look crude and primitive by comparison. What could civilians with pistols and swords and clubs hope to accomplish against Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank divisions? To many it just seemed ludicrous to think that ill-equipped and barely trained civilians could play any meaningful role in modern warfare, other than to provide a cruel pretext for savage collective retaliation against civilian populations.

Additionally there is the embarrassing (especially for Conservatives like Gardner and Churchill) fact that it was just a tad inconsistent for the British Empire to uncritically embrace the general principle that ordinary people have a right to take up arms against a foreign occupying force. For, you see, once that is conceded then one is already well on one's way down the slippery slope toward such things as "self-determination" and "national liberation". And if the point was lost on anyone in 1940, this ineluctable logic bomb exploded with full force in Africa and Asia less than a decade later, once the European "Great Powers" had settled their differences.

But desperate times have a way of focusing the mind. With Nazi aircraft directly overhead and only the English Channel separating them from Nazi jackboots on the ground, Britons knew that their choices were down to two: submit or fight. And they knew that to fight meant to fight by any and all means necessary, and this demanded that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

"While the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans."

It should be emphasized just how fitting it was for one of the most important figures in the modern Pagan revival to invoke the Magna Carta. It is even more fitting to turn to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright in order to illustrate this point. (source)

In 1776, the year in which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the behest of the Continental Congress, John Cartwright produced a work that was arguably even more radical. The title of Cartwright's book was Take Your Choice, and in it he argued for the radical reform of Parliament in order to make England truly democratic. Specifically, Cartwright argued for the principle that we now call "one man one vote" (a phrase that Cartwright used and may have coined), that is, universal male suffrage and strictly proportional representation.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1823, Cartwright's reforms had not been enacted in England. In the U.S., on the other hand, property restrictions on voting had been removed for white males, but other serious issues remained (as they do today, such as non-proportional representation in the Senate, the electoral college, and so forth). In that year Cartwright published another highly significant book on The English Constitution. In that book, Cartwright set himself the task of showing that the basic democratic principles that he had devoted his life to were based in Anglo-Saxon Common Law. This meant that the democratic reforms that appeared so radical to some were, in fact, simply a long-overdue reestablishment of ancient traditions.

As one might expect, Cartwright was generally well disposed toward the American Revolution and its leaders. The copy of his The English Constitution tha one finds online at (link) is signed and personally dedicated to John Adams. Cartwight also personally sent a copy of his book to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to thank Cartwright, and to make a few specific observations.

One thing that Jefferson found especially worthwhile about Cartwright's book was the author's conclusion that the essential rights and liberties cherished by both the English and their American cousins were traceable back to the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on British soil. Jefferson was pleased not only because this afforded the founding principles of the United States such a long and estimable pedigree, but more specifically because it decisively undercut any claim by Christianity to a central place in the English or American political and legal systems, and, thereby, resoundingly validated that principle which Jefferson held especially dear and with which his name is so closely associated: the separation of church and state.

Here are Jefferson's own words to Cartwright:

"I was glad to find in your book a formal contradiction, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed."

The opinion that Jefferson expressed in his 1824 letter to John Cartwright, that the rights and liberties cherished by the English and the Americans were rooted in pre-Christian traditions, was one that Jefferson had long held. This is shown by another letter, written just one month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This letter concerns another project, in addition to the Declaration, on which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were also working at the same time: a committee (the first of three, as it turned out) charged with designing an official "Great Seal of the confederated States." In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams described Jefferson's proposal that that Seal should portray "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed." (full text of letter, dated August 14, 1776, here.)

1 comment:

Ivan Contreras said...

I never thought of Anglo Saxon common law from that perspective, but that's really because parliamentary "democratic" government has always seemed, to me at least, to be a good excuse for disguised oligarchy, whether whig, tory, republican, etc. I also don't like how individualism is treated as some how inherently Anglo Saxon, I'm sure the non christian Anglo Saxons had respect for the individual but they certainly weren't atomistic and anti social like most "Anglo Saxon Individualists", who, at best think the community is secondary, at worst think the community does not matter and is a hindrance. I sure as hell will not believe that polytheist Anglo Saxons were whiggish, money hungry, capitalist types, as so many individualist from the Anglo sphere would like to think. Hopefully we will see more Gardners that will remind us that the Anglo Saxon tradition is just as democratic(community minded)as it is individualist.