Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" opens in theaters across America today. Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, is modeled partly on Francis Marion, the legendary "Swamp Fox" of South Carolina.
There are two things about Marion that offend the sensibilities of modern audiences: The first is that he was a slaveholder. The second is that he is now accused of committing horrid atrocities against the Cherokee.
The first charge, at least, is grounded in real history. Like many others during the Founding period, Marion did own slaves. More importantly however, is that also like these other men, Marion risked life and limb to found the first country in the history of the world on the principles of equal natural rights, government by consent, and the rule of law. Abraham Lincoln described this generation as "men of iron."
The charge of hunting down Indians for sport, now being circulated in the British press, appears to be something contrived. In a letter to a friend written during the Cherokee wars, Marion noted that some of the soldiers enjoyed the "cruel work" of burning down Cherokee villages, "laughing heartily at the curling flames." But Marion thought such behavior unnecessary and unjust, and wrote that "we surely need not grudge [them] such miserable habitations." And when it came to chopping down Cherokee crops, Marion records that he "could scarcely refrain from tears."
Marion and his militia — a ragtag band of white and black soldiers known as "the Irregulars" — kept the Revolution alive in South Carolina in the face of the greatest army then assembled on the earth. There exists a popular anecdote of Marion which captures wonderfully how resolute these great men were: Seeking an exchange of prisoners, a British officer went to negotiate terms with Marion. The British officer was surprised and somewhat taken aback by the dreadful condition of Marion and his troops. They were working without pay, clothed in rags, and living in the middle of swampland. At the invitation of Marion, the British officer stayed to dine with Marion and some of his men. To the disgust and amazement of the officer, the menu consisted of nothing but sweet potatoes and water! After returning to his own troops and describing the awful conditions he witnessed, the officer remarked that the Americans were suffering all this misery for the cause of liberty. "What chance have we against such men!" he exclaimed to his British comrades.
In earlier times, Americans revered the name of Marion. No doubt this was partly due to the romantic legend created by biographer Parson Weems in the early nineteenth century. Like the cherry tree myth of Washington, Weems sought to popularize the courage, honor, justice and patriotism of this great soldier. And his fellow Americans thought the name and memory of Marion worth preserving as well. It is no coincidence that today one finds across the country streets, parks, towns, and counties bearing the name "Marion."
Of course, the Americans who named these things were of a different stock than those today who think multiculturalism a virtue, and patriotism a vice.
Like the great general of the American Revolution, George Washington, Marion was successful not because he won every battle, but because he did effectively the one thing the Americans had to do to win the war: He kept an army together and refused to quit. This spirit of perseverance is one of the pillars upon which America was built. This manliness — a word little used today — was the reason patriotic Americans made flags that bore the legend, "Don't Tread on Me."
America's Founders believed freedom required limited government. But limited government, and therefore freedom, required many things from the people. It demanded sobriety, industriousness, self-assertion, and self-restraint. It required vigilance. As James Madison observed in Federalist 55, self-government "presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." The story of Francis Marion provides a vivid example of the kind of virtues Americans must cultivate if we intend to remain free.
And speaking of cultivating virtue, we are happy to report the Supreme Court today upheld the right of the Boy Scouts to determine their own membership standards. For more information about that case, see our press release.