Town Hall Passions Have Deep Roots

Health care town halls have featured overflowing crowds and the rise of a popular fury not seen in decades. Some have portrayed these passionate opponents as an angry mob. Videos of these meetings show elected officials unable to comprehend the explosion of opposition to a federal takeover of medical care. Even Senator Harry Reid was flummoxed when he ungrammatically called the town hall participants “evil mongers.”

What the critics don’t understand is that Americans have always been ready to defend liberty when it is threatened.

I recently took my daughters to visit Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. Moultrie sits on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. We strolled along the sandy shoreline and peaceful fields near Charleston, where in 1776 thousands of deadly cannon shots filled the air. Throughout June 1776, the most powerful navy on the face of the earth sailed toward its target, Charleston, then the fourth largest American city. After common farmers stopped the British regulars at Lexington and Concord, King George sought to conquer the southern colonies through Charleston, and thus snuff out the rebellion.

After dozens of British warships from around the world were ordered to sail to Charleston, volunteers in the South Carolina militia knew they had little time to prepare harbor defenses. The Americans cut down hundreds of spongy soft palmetto trees.  They threw up log walls and backfilled the space in between with mud and sand 16 feet thick.

By the time the British fleet was spotted approaching Charleston, only three of four sides of Ft. Moultrie were completed. The future looked bleak for the Americans.

The hot sun and frenzied mosquitoes made our two-year-old protest the walk along the cannons now guarding the site of Ft. Moultrie. The risks and deprivations the heroes of the Revolution endured are mostly forgotten. Today, it is more likely that schools don’t even teach much about the Revolution at all.

So we sat where the mud, sand, and log parapets once stood and read our older daughter a children’s book about the brave Americans who defended Charleston.  She was in awe of the story and the scene, the modern harbor and shoreline now peaceful and familiar, where in 1776 men gazed seaward at hundreds of approaching sails that would unleash a war on them.

There is a famous painting of the scene by John Blake White called “The Battle of Ft. Moultrie.” Everyone who criticizes or mocks the town hall participants should see it, for it captures the passion for liberty that has characterized Americans for over 400 years. In the painting, hundreds of American volunteers are huddled tightly behind their wood and mud parapets. Lurking just offshore are nine terrifying ships of the line -- the Bristol, Syren, Active, Experiment, Solebay, Sphinx, Friendship, Actaeon and the Thunder. Combined, these warships commanded 300 heavy cannon, almost a gun for every American hiding behind the wood and mud walls.

The two sides exchanged cannon fire throughout June 28, 1776. The British fired off 32,000 pounds of powder and the Americans only 5,000. But the fort’s soft Palmetto logs cushioned the cannonballs and the thick mud and sand walls absorbed the exploding bombs.

During the battle, naval fire blasted the flag of the South Carolina militia off its flagpole. The flag is the familiar “Moultrie flag,” with a blue field, white moon crescent, and the simple rallying cry of “Liberty.” White’s painting shows a brave patriot, Sgt. William Jasper, ignoring cannonballs and replacing the fallen flag on a cannon plunger.

Every June 28, our family flies the Moultrie flag at home to remember Sgt. Jasper and the heroes of that battle. By nightfall, the Americans had crippled all but one British ship of the line. Those that could, sulked away from Ft. Moultrie and headed out to sea. The grounded Actaeon was boarded by Americans, who then turned her British guns on retreating British ships. Charleston was saved, and along with it the south and the Revolution.

Prior to the victory at Ft. Moultrie, General Washington had enjoyed little success in the north. The improbable American victory at Ft. Moultrie in June 1776 lifted patriot spirits across the colonies. Word of the outcome reached the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Members of Congress saw that passionate Americans could actually defeat the king’s navy and they adopted the Declaration of Independence later that week. Many other implausible and providential victories would occur during the next five years of war. But on a hot summer beach in 1776, a few hundred amateur defenders of American liberty hid behind wood and mud walls and defeated the British navy.

White’s painting of the battle now hangs in Washington D.C. It is part of the art collection of the United States Senate. The artist’s son donated it in 1901 so that our “sons may know how their fathers fought to secure the precious boon of liberty.” Let’s hope in the next few weeks some senator stumbles upon the painting and is reminded of the love of liberty that Americans have treasured for centuries.