- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

The North wins again.

Lawmakers from Massachusetts managed to outflank their Virginia counterparts on the House floor last week, powering through a bill that officially designates Salem as the birthplace of the U.S. National Guard — based on the town’s claim to having the country’s first militia starting in 1629.

But Rep. Morgan H. Griffith, a freshman Republican from Virginia, thought the claim sounded suspicious, given Jamestown’s founding more than a decade before the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

After some digging, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation provided him data that a militia was formed in Jamestown in 1624, which is five years before Salem’s claim. Armed with the information, he issued a call to the old gang from Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia — which were part of the Virginia colony — and asked them to stand up for their history.

“The real problem is that Massachusetts has first-colony envy,” Mr. Griffith told The Washington Times.

His effort fell a little short: The bill handing the claim to Massachusetts passed by a vote of 413-6, with four lawmakers voting “present.”

“The House’s recognition of Salem as the birthplace of the National Guard is a great honor for the city and its residents,” Rep. John F. Tierney, Massachusetts Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, said in a statement to The Times. “The Army’s Center for Military History confirmed the accuracy of the facts in the bill, and I was pleased that over 400 of my colleagues, including a bipartisan mix of members from Virginia, voted in favor of the bill. I hope the Senate moves to pass this bill in the coming days.”

According to the legislative findings, Capt. John Endicott organized Salem’s first militia in 1629 along the lines of the existing English system.

The bill goes further, though, to declare the city “as the birthplace of the national guard of the United States.”

The Center for Military History said it did confirm the facts about  Salem’s militia starting in 1629, but said it didn’t weigh in on whether that meant Massachusetts was first.

“We’re not disputing it; we’re saying, ‘Here are the facts.’ We left it up to the Congress how they want to interpret it,” said Frank Shirer, chief of the archives for the Army’s Center for Military History, based at Fort McNair.

He also said Virginia and Massachusetts aren’t the only ones to make the claim.

St. Augustine, Fla., argues it had a militia in the 1570s.

Massachusetts and Virginia have been rivals since the beginning.  

Massachusetts produced John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, and John F. Kennedy; Virginia produced George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

But Massachusetts has arguably done the better marketing job — particularly when it comes to Thanksgiving, where most schoolchildren learn the story of Squanto and the Pilgrims.

Virginia offers up its claim of the feast of thanksgiving celebrated by Capt. John Woodleaf when he landed at Berkley Hundred in 1619 — two years before the Wampanoag Indians shared their food with the settlers at Plymouth, Mass.

Kennedy, during his time in the White House, acknowledged Virginia’s claim, but Massachusetts continues to win the public relations war.  

Now, it is poised to notch another victory, this time on the militia front.

“By the time the Pilgrims got here, the trail had already been blazed, and most everything they claim — ‘We were first at this; first at that’ — we’d already done it, except for doing witch trials,” Mr. Griffith said.

Joining Mr. Griffith in voting “no” were fellow Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Robert Hurt and Frank Wolf of Virginia, and Reps. David McKinley of West Virginia and Justin Amash of Michigan.

Voting “present” were Reps. Robert J. Wittman and J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, Tom Rooney of Florida and Dan Benishek of Michigan.

No Kentuckians joined the protest.

The resolution couldn’t have been brought to the floor without the agreement of Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who, as majority leader of the House, controls the floor schedule — something the bill’s Massachusetts backers gleefully point out.

Mr. Cantor was oddly absent for the vote, though he did vote on the two other measures that sandwiched the militia bill: one that was taken eight minutes before it, and another just seven minutes after the militia vote.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cantor didn’t provide comment.

Mr. Griffith gave Mr. Cantor a pass, noting the busy schedule he was overseeing.

The bill still needs approval from the Senate, and Mr. Griffith said he will be alerting Virginia’s two senators — Mark R. Warner and Jim Webb — in the hope that they might make a stand in the upper chamber as well.

Virginia has a habit of tangling with other states over historical claims.

It has been embroiled for years in a dispute with Minnesota, which holds the 28th Virginia Infantry battle flag, captured by the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

In 1999, Gov. James S. Gilmore III got into a dispute with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said the Southern state should be happy to accept trash from the Big Apple’s landfills in a “reciprocal relationship” for the cultural benefits his city provided.

A few months later, Mr. Gilmore retaliated, signing a law capping dumping at the state’s largest landfills.

But federal courts had the last word, overturning parts of the law for violating the Constitution.