To read the fevered letters to the editors of Granite State newspapers invoking his name, one would think that General John Stark had stumbled on the Battle of Bennington only by chance. That he’d really run out for cigarettes.
Well, probably just tobacco, since cigarettes weren’t around when New Hampshire’s favorite Revolutionary War hero was kicking British butt. According to the Internet — and if we can’t believe the Internet, who can we believe? — tobacco may have a North American birthplace, but the cigarette was invented in 1832 when an ingenious Egyptian artilleryman at the siege of Acre didn’t have a pipe, so he put his tobacco in paper tubes used to roll gunpowder for those other deadly weapons, cannons.
Interestingly, according to the same Internet, matches weren’t available until 1852, meaning, I guess, that nicotine fiends carried around flints or bundles of little sticks to rub together. Must have been really challenging to be a chain smoker.
Uh, where was I …? Oh, yes, General John Stark. He famously told his troops, before the 1777 battle, “There are your enemies, the Redcoats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!” The Tories lost, and today un-widowed Molly’s name adorns inns, restaurants and roadside basket stores throughout Vermont and New Hampshire.
In 1809 General Stark even more famously wrote, in a toast sent to a reunion of his soldiers, “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”
Now, in the 21st century, Stark’s later words have become a one-motto-fits-all rallying cry for proponents of every kind of cockamamie “freedom”: Freedom from taxes! Freedom from seat belts! Freedom from helmets, speed limits, zoning!
Stark’s pithy phrase was a favorite cudgel of the chronically alarmed citizens who looked on with horror this year as the legislature — with the support of fully 80 percent of the people of New Hampshire — banned smoking in the few remaining restaurants and bars still allowing it. The general’s self-selected spiritual descendants howled. This was the commie camel’s nose under our Granite tent! Smokers have the right to stink up the air around them! That’s what General Stark fought for! “Live free to die — and take others with you”?
What hooey. Smoking is a filthy habit. Everything around the smoker is smelly and dirty, covered with a greasy yellow film. As a former habitual offender, I can attest to what smoking does to walls, windows and anything else in range. That same crud piles up in lungs, including those of nearby non-smokers. And, incidentally, it kills people. Smokers know this. Most would like to quit and would grudgingly admit it was high time the Granite State joined the rest of New England in voting for clean air.
“Live free or die” is a legacy we can all appropriate. John Stark, no idiot, fiercely fought those Redcoats. You don’t think he’d be equally determined to battle demon tobacco today? “Live smoke free — or die!”
Betcha he — and Molly — would have approved of seat belts. Helmets, too. NH
Concord Monitor columnist Katy Burns writes and communes with the spirits of deceased New Hampshire patriots in her home in Bow.
This article appears in the August 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine