The shrillness of the gun debate is disappointing. And I am particularly disappointed by the way the “Founders” are sometimes invoked as private property libertarians who supported unrestricted gun ownership. In over twenty years of writing about the Revolutionary Era, I’ve reviewed literally thousands of documents—local and state government records and account books, militia returns and orders, veterans’ pension applications and Continental Army papers, court dockets and case papers, estate inventories and personal papers, and hundreds of pages of newspaper. So I feel like I have a pretty good sense for how the founding generation governed—particularly in lower New York and New Jersey. What follows is a short discussion of the governing record of the Founders with respect to regulating firearms.
The sanctity of gun ownership during the revolutionary war
When governing in the region I’ve studied, the Founders showed little sanctity for gun ownership. From its first days as a proto-national government, the Second Continental Congress advised States to disarm individuals suspected of disloyalty and to impound goods, if necessary, for the good of the Army. Local Committees of Safety, acting as de facto county governments prior to the first post-independence elections, assembled militias not to fight the British, but to impound useful war materials—including guns, but also livestock, foodstuffs, liquor, forage, boats, and wagons.
George Washington’s first action of 1776 was a campaign to confiscate the private arms of the citizens in Queens Co., New York. The impoundments occurred without trial, though the Army did provide receipts, which were redeemable for (nearly worthless) Continental currency. Meanwhile, local militias in New Jersey confiscated arms and livestock from people living along the Jersey shoreline. In one county, the militia was called out specifically to confiscate guns from African-Americans, both free and slave. These were not actions taken against a handful of traitors, but large actions against neighborhoods of people.
Guns were confiscated from individuals without due process. Firearms were treated similarly to other kinds of private property impounded for the war effort. In a region under British invasion, the need to win a war trumped individual property rights—including the right to own a gun.
The Federalist papers
A decade later, as the Federalists attempted to make the Constitution more attractive to a skeptical public, they added a Bill of Rights (ten amendments to the Constitution) to lessen fears that the Constitution would become “an engine of tyranny”.
The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, in its entirety, reads:
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
People will argue forever about the construction of this sentence and its meaning, but the opening phrase, “a well-regulated militia,” deserves consideration.
Drawing from the Revolutionary experience, the Founders believed that a local militia, properly officered by community leaders, was essential to resisting external threats and a potentially oppressive central government. The 2nd Amendment spoke to the Colonial and Revolutionary experience.
The Founders did not make detailed or public arguments regarding private gun ownership as a unique right. The Federalist Papers, written by the Founders to explain the benefits of the Constitution, discuss different rights in great detail: Fair treatment before the law, the right to vote, freedom of religion and the press, etc. To the degree firearms are mentioned, it is nearly always in the context of the right of Americans to organize into local militias to resist political tyranny and protect the nation from external threats.
Federalist #29 declares “it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia“; and Federalist #46 discusses the strength of a militia “with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties.” However, The Federalist Papers—85 essays and 200,000 words, many of which are devoted to articulating the rights of citizens—do not dwell on firearms as a unique property right.
Gun ownership in the early republic
The first president permitted the seizure of private property. Federalized militia—more or less led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton—confiscated a wide variety of private property from the “Whiskey rebels” of Pennsylvania (including guns). The federal government was willing to take goods in the name of restoring public order and ask questions later.
In the new nation, families often owned a gun, but it was not ubiquitous. By the late 1700s, long settled parts of the country were fully agrarian and a century removed from the frontier. The farm family estate inventories I’ve seen reveal that many families owned a gun, and many did not. And gun ownership was even less common among the large numbers of poor “cottagers” and landless laborers who drifted between agricultural and maritime pursuits.
To the British, Americans were indeed “a people numerous and armed“—but that statement is relative to the population of Britain. It was hardly an absolute.
The limits of privately-owned weaponry
The common guns of the late 1700s had limited range, limited accuracy, and a cumbersome reloading process. A man with a saber on horseback was more dangerous to a crowd of people. As no public menace was posted by one or a few guns, the Founders saw no need for “gun control”. However, local governments owned the really dangerous stuff. Casks of gunpowder, artillery, and anti-personnel weapons (i.e., grapeshot) were inventoried, secured by commissioned officers, and kept in guarded public magazines. Even the most powerful men of the day did not keep private stores of dangerous weapons. Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon, for example, had nothing more dangerous than a small number hunting rifles. Leading merchants like John Hancock and Robert Morris purchased large quantities of war materials and then turned them over to state and local governments.
I do not mean to suggest the Founders were anti-gun or anti-private property. I do mean to suggest that they were pragmatic and, with the exception of a few cosmopolitans, locally-focused. Private property rights for guns or nearly anything else was fine unless it threatened the good of the community as they defined it based on the problem of the day. When that happened, private property rights—of all types—were sacrificed.
In a few personal letters, Founders speak glowingly of the importance of an armed citizenry. Washington’s quote about guns being “liberty’s teeth” is frequently cited. These quotes can be interpreted differently, but one read is that they simply affirm the importance of a “well-regulated militia” (led by, of course, the Founders and their kinsmen).
It also must be remembered that the Founders were prodigious writers who tested ideas in their letters, much as we do in emails today. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote letters in which he stated that because the Constitution did not give the Executive the power to acquire foreign territory, the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. But he still signed the deal. That is why I focus on governing actions and public documents in this essay, rather than pulling favorite selected quotes from personal letters.
Keep the founders out of it
When it comes to gun control, argue whatever position you want. But maybe we should keep the Founders out of it. It is inconsistent with their governing record to believe that they were supporters of unrestricted private firearms.
P.S. I like skeet shooting with my boys. I don’t hunt, but a couple of my friends do, and it’s a nice part of their lives. School shootings like the recent one in Florida make me sad, but I am against curtailing these long-established activities.
This post was originally published on 11/01/15. It has been reviewed and updated by the author and republished on 02/20/18 because of its unfortunate timeliness.