Battle of Athens
We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.
The veterans of World War II are now old, and mostly frail. It is hard to remember them as most of them were during the War: young, tough and determined. After they got home, those who made it through the War, they would make many changes in our society, as they proved themselves to be one of the most consequential generations in American history. On August 1-2, 1946, veterans in Athens, Tennessee demonstrated just how consequential.
Athens is the county seat of McMinn County in Eastern Tennessee, between Knoxville and Chattanooga. Since the Civil War, up to the 1930s, McMinn County, like most of Eastern Tennessee, was largely Republican, reflecting the pro Union stance of their ancestors during the War. With the coming of the Great Depression, Democrat political machines began to take power in much of Eastern Tennessee. Many of these local machines were quite corrupt. Paul Cantrell was elected Sheriff as a Democrat in 1936. Cantrell came from a family of power and influence. Many locals suspected that his election was a fraud, with ballot boxes having been switched to give Cantrell the victory.
Cantrell after the election became virtual dictator of McMinn County. He and his deputies collected vast sums by shaking down citizens for petty offenses. Buses passing through the County would be stopped by deputies and the passengers subjected to on the spot fines for pretended misdemeanors. Cantrell fostered prostitution, gambling and bars throughout the County, carefully receiving his cut of the proceeds. After 1936 elections were farcial with ballot boxes confiscated from precincts by Cantrell’s deputies and the counting, supposed to be done in public under Tennessee law, conducted behind locked doors in the McMinn County jail. With the Tennessee Democrat governor a firm political friend of Cantrell, the citizens opposed to Cantrell and his de facto dictatorship were helpless. The Justice Department investigated the County on charges of vote fraud in 1940, 1942 and 1944, but without any prosecutions. Cantrell was elected to the State Senate in 1942 and 1944. His deputy Pat Mansfield was elected sheriff. Whatever office he held, everyone in McMinn County knew that Cantrell continued to call the tune.
However, change was coming. McMinn County had a military tradition. It had sided with the Union in the Civil War, and in 1898 it had declared war against Spain two weeks before Congress did! During World War II, some 3,526 of McMinn County’s young men went off to fight, representing some ten percent of the entire population of the Country. When those who survived the War came back they had changed, as Paul Cantrell was going to find out.
Cantrell made the mistake of thinking that he could go on with business as usual. The veterans were to be fined like everyone else. Since they were young men, most of whom liked to drink and have a good time, Cantrell and his deputies had plenty of opportunities to
fleece fine them. To men who had participated in the defeat of the Wehrmacht and the forces of Imperial Japan the idea that they would now have to kowtow to Cantrell and his men was intolerable. The veterans quickly formed their own slate of candidates for the election in 1946.
Perhaps sensing that his power base was at risk, Cantrell ran for sheriff in 1946, with his ally Sheriff Pat Mansfield running for Cantrell’s senate seat. Cantrell was opposed by Knox Henry, a combat veteran of the War. A GI summed up why the veterans were running at an election rally: 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. The campaign slogan of the vets was: Your Ballot Will Be Counted as Cast.
On election day, August 1, 1946, Cantrell flooded the County with 200 deputies, the normal complement of deputies being 15. Tensions were running very high as demonstrated when an elderly black farmer, Tom Gillespie, attempting to vote was shot by a deputy, Henry Wise. Cantrell had the ballot boxes seized and taken to the Mcminn County jail, with counting to be done by his men behind closed doors. The veterans, approximately 2000 of them, quickly armed themselves, some getting rifles from a National Guard Armory in town, and surrounded the jail. The vets demanded the surrender of the ballot boxes for counting to be conducted in public as required by Tennessee law. Shooting commenced when this demand was refused. Eventually the vets dynamited the doors to the courthouse. The deputies surrendered and the ballot boxes were taken and counted in public. The veterans’ slate of candidates won overwhelmingly. By daylight on August 2, it was all over. The weapons taken from the National Guard Armory were returned, after having been cleaned. At first editorial reaction around the nation condemned the veterans. The New York Times was typical: “Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities, there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process.” However, a subsequent FBI investigation established that the veterans had been fighting against entrenched political corruption that went to the capital of Tennessee as well as to Washington. In the aftermath, only one man was prosecuted: Henry Wise, the deputy who had shot and wounded Tom Gillespie, was convicted and sentenced to one to three years in prison. The local population hailed the veterans as heroes who had rescued them from domination by a corrupt political machine that refused to abide by the rules governing elections.
The veterans of World War II had many great victories to their credit that all Americans should remember. The battle of Athens, where veterans fought for the right of Americans to rule themselves, also deserves to be recalled.
The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.
Justice Joseph Story