The Founders and the Sanctity of Gun Ownership

By Michael Adelberg | Published 2/20/2018 83

signing the u.s. constitution

The signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

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.

Related Content:  People Should Prove They Have Earned the Right to Have 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.

Minute Man Statue, Lexington, Mass (Wikimedia) 272 x 450

Minute Man Statue, Lexington, Mass (Wikimedia)

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.

Michael Adelberg


By day, Michael Adelberg is a health policy wonk in Washington, DC; by evening, he is an historian of the American Revolution; about midnight, he turns into a fiction writer and reviewer. Sleep is overrated.

Adelberg is the author of publications across all three interests, including: the award-winning American Revolution in Monmouth County: Theatre of Spoil and Destruction (History Press, 2010), and three well-reviewed novels: A Thinking Man's Bully (The Permanent Press, 2011), The Razing of Tinton Falls (History Press, 2011), and Saving the Hooker (The Permanent Press, 2014). Visit his website to learn more about him and his publications.


  • Keep your guns gentleman. You all seem to be rational and intelligent individuals. However, as 30,000 Americans are senselessly killed each year in this coutry at the hands of people possessing guns you all fail to address two major issues. Firstly, the reference to Israel and Switzerland speaks directly to my point. The old adage “guns don’t kill people, people do” is exactly right. The one MAJOR GAPING loophole in that logic is simply SO MANY PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY CANT BE TRUSTED. So I simply ask you all the next logical question; how can we prevent the wrong people from getting guns? Criminals, mentally ill, depressed or suicidal or the straw purchasers sending guns to who knows where or to whom. According to pro gun activists it’s the perfectly ok to allow the worst elements of our society to possess deadly weapons. By the way, the wrong gun owners DO POSE A TREMENDOUS RISK FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC. owning a gun may be a right but in your bravado defense you all fail to acknowledge THAT IT IS ALSO A RESPONSIBILITY. One should lose their right to possess firearms if they’ve demonstrated they’re not responsible enough to own one. Using it to intimidate (which so many gun owners LOVE to do) or in any means not consistent with self defense or hunting or target practice should result in revocation of a gun license. Leaving them untended, locked and loaded in a place where kids or childr n have access also exemplifies a complete lack of common sense and should that weapon be used to cause harm, the owner should be held responsible as if he polled the trigger himself. Mental health? Are you serious??? Who should pay for that??? The gun activists in our own federal government passed a law that prohibits doctors FROM EVEN ASKING IF THEIR WACKED OUT PATIENT OWNS A GUN!!!! While you continue to argue the importance of gun ownership I st know you’re simultaneously arguing in favor of tens of thousands of senseless killings every year in this country.
    Switzerland and Israel don’t seems to have our gun control problems because their people are responsible enough to own them. They watch the same my movies and tv shows show don’t play that BS card. With 30,000 people a year getting killed by guns and all of you are willing to turn your back on common sense gun regulations. Over the Past ten years the total of over 315,000 people have been senselessly killed by guns (while 35 have been killed by terrorism-look percent it up). With these kinds of numbers do you really believe the easy access we have to them isn’t a huge part of the problem. We’re talking about “gun control” not “gun confiscation”. Don’t let the NRA propaganda fool you. Many people, like myself aren’t fond of guns but we respect the right of reasonable and responsible people to own them.

    • Hilary said her self Australian example, they confiscated weapons.

    • Lets not be stupid. We have a right to own a Gun for our defense.

    • Not in Canada. Self defence so pretty much against the law here. If you harm a perp, you get arrested. Much like the Europeans protesting the rape gangs and getting the water canon for thei efforts.

      It all upside down now folks. Evil is living large in the world today.

    • Yes, in Canada we have a problem with Liberty. We like to point our fingers at the Americans and pretend we are better, but we are subservient to a socialist government that can fine or imprison it’s citizen through a system of Human Rights Tribunals which act as a repressive brake on free speech etc. in the best tradition of neo-communist logic. These tribunals are extra judicial and function like kangaroo courts. With our new government we also seem to have a soft spot for Muslim terrorists. And these people don’t seem to spend any time on philosophical reflections on gun ownership.

    • That concept of too many people can’t trusted is a major problem. I’m sure the current federal and some state and local governments feel that way. The idea that the people don’t know better and the government does and is better to handle our affairs is wrong and dangerous to the people. This goes for guns or anything else. This is how tyranny starts. I trust the people better, especially with the current federal government and those trying to continue it as it has been run lately.

      If you think too many people can’t be trusted, why should we trust you?!

      Check the stats, more people by a large margin are saved with the defensive use of firearms then the criminal use of firearms. I trust the people more. Not he states, local governments or the fed’s. This view I’m sure I’m not alone on.

    • Only because you, in your biased opinion and most ‘studies’ trying tp prove ‘Gun Control works’ completely disregard the use of a firearm (or any force for that matter) in which the mere presence of force acts as a deterrent. Instead they conflate and run ‘studies’ with as they admit, limited data where full statistics are NOT tracked that only involve the actual firing of a gun where the perpetrator was injured or killed. Then people like you falsely claim this is the end all of such studies and ‘proves that defensive use of firearms does not work’. All the while ignoring that the very concept of ‘show of force’ is how Law Enforcement and Military actually works.

      A lie by omission is still a lie my dear.

  • Well, all traditions and age old rules should be seen in the context in which they were made. Back then, law enforcement was not that strong, population was less and was very scattered. People needed guns to take care of themselves because there was no means to summon law enforcement without physically going there.
    Fast forward to now, in most places, average response time of law enforcement is less than 10 mins and they are just a call away from your cell phone.
    It will be interesting to see the data on :

    1. Number of people who have been saved because someone was carrying a gun and could wound/kill the attacker vs
    2. Number of people killed because psychopaths have access to guns.

    The point about Israel and Switzerland may not be applicable here (I don’t have the data) if the number of innocents being killed by psychopaths is much less compared to US.

    • Ten years ago I had the misfortune of living in an area hit hard by hurricane Wilma. No way the police force could answer all the calls. Katrina? Do you remember what happened in New Orleans? The police fled for themselves and left the citizens to fend for themselves. Ten minute response time? Not in any natural disaster on US soil in the last 100 years. I will have my properly secured firearm ready for the next emergency. You keep your phone charged if that makes you feel safe.

  • Great response Tim.The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.There is nothing ambiguous or unclear About this. The founders didn’t spend a lot of time promoting private gun ownership because MOST FAMILIES ALREADY DID! It was normal custom. The founders obviously believed in private gun ownership.

  • Great reply Tim. The founders didn’t have to go to great lengths to promote private gun ownership because most families already privately owned guns. Founders only had to call for individuals to bring the guns they already owned for the establishment of regulated militias for the common defense. This obviously means they supported private ownership. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. That’s pretty cut and clear. The arguments in this articles are absurd and senseless. The founding fathers believed in private gun ownership, period.

  • If you can divine, somehow, the inner thoughts and feelings of our long-since dead forefathers, then allow me to speak to your opinion of “no sanctity to gun ownership.” Ownership and possession of long rifles at that time in America’s history was as common as owning an ax, a bow-saw or a milk cow. Rifles were, and are still, a tool. During colonial times and for two centuries afterwards, they were openly stored in the home; and, openly carried in public with no one feeling threatened. Every family that could afford one kept a rifle in their household. The muzzle loaders of the day could be made to fire more than one round per minute. And just like any tool, proficiency and to say accuracy, came fully from the practiced skill of the hands holding it. The muzzle loader with an un-rifled barrel, which is what I guess you allude to, could be fired accurately. A muzzle loader to be fired accurately was a matter of distance, steadiness, wind and practice.

    Regarding Washington’s orders to confiscate arms in Queens County NY, could you not be overlooking the fact that post-Revolutionary war early America was full of many British loyalists. In fact, there were after the war large numbers of American colonists still fervently loyal to King George. In fact, these people did aid and abet the British military. Many of these people worked to undermine and sabotage the Revolution to keep Britain in power. The unarguably common-sense need for confiscating weapons from slave populations of the time is ridiculously self-evident.

    How did you overlook, nations like Switzerland and Israel that issue military-grade weapons to their citizens? Weapons that they are to keep in their homes and have at the ready. And these weapons are full automatics and in some cases, large bore, heavy weaponry. In these two examples, an armed citizenry are sanctioned and promoted by their governments. They are well-regulated militias.

    For the greater public good, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and the Castro brothers each decided individual gun ownership was not necessary in their country and they confiscated weapons from their citizens. History has sadly shown, time and again, what happens immediately after governmental confiscation of weapons.

    In your brief dissection of the Second Amendment, it strikes me as oddly curious that you leave out any mention of the phrase, “shall not be infringed.” Why? Our Second Amendment was thoughtfully included in our Bill of Rights by a group of men who fully believed their government and its armies would or could one day turn on its own citizenry. The Second Amendment was established as a forthright guarantee to prevent that from ever happening, FOR THE GREATER PUBLIC GOOD. It is as simply explained as that.

    Now where can I read your impassioned arguments for stricter governmental enforcement of the already vast number of gun control laws on the books? Where can I read your sincere pleas for strengthening our lax and almost non-existent mental health laws and regulations for insuring the greater public good from the certifiable lunatics that live unfettered among us? Where?

    • Bingo..!!
      Tim, you have him nailed in a corner..!!!
      Hell be trying to spin this everywhichwaybutloose, for 2 weeks..lmao…
      Key words: “INALIENABLE RIGHTS…”

      Doc, dont ever try that shit again…Do not try to make the 2nd amendment mean something else…

    • Lincoln suppressed the 1st amendment without qualms during the civil war. Less notoriety for mass killers and less celebration of their pathetic lives is in order.

      Societies w less guns (Europe, Japan) have atrocities by other means– knives, machetes, etc.

      I agree that guns should be given to those who are responsible, knives and machetes too. Suppression of reporting related to these mass killers is equally important.

    • “The Right of The People” and as such it is my right, not to be sold or taken by government fiat; not permitted by government, but given before government and only acknowledged in the Bill of Rights.
      The left is always saying education or health care or any other thing they want to bestow is a right, therefore “we” have to pay others to have it… then why are they not buying my guns and ammunition for me?

  • Right on, Michael. The strict constructionist Supremes who claim to stick to ‘original intent’ chose to ignore the historical evidence. They should have read such an analysis before they rendered their Second Amendment ruling. Actually, many similar ‘friend of the court’ briefs had been forwarded to the court, but they conveniently chose to ignore the evidence. Yet again, ideology trumped reality. hopefully not for long.

    • Agreed.
      However, should you also be able to purchase an assault weapon just because they’re available?

    • They had rapid fire weapons back then to, such as the pepperbox pistol, the Puckle gun, the Belton Flintlock, and the Nock gun to name a few.

    • Interesting read on the listed guns but none can really be considered similar to an assault weapon. The pepperbox is probably the closest to being rapid fire but only in regard to the number of barrels with which it was built. That number being 3, 5 or 7 barrels. Once all the barrels were fired each had to be individually loaded. Nothing existed like a high-capacity magazine to replenish the shot for any of the guns listed. By the time the shot was reloaded, the intended target, if missed on the first go around, would have high-tailed it before a second attempt. That being said, I’m not against gun ownership but do question the need for a rapid-fire gun for self-defense or for hunting deer.

    • What is an assault rifle, explain…?
      What is an assault bomb..?
      What is an assault knife…?
      What is an assault fork..?
      How do you distinguish a difference..?
      An expert knife handler can run through s crowd, and cut 10 people in the blink of an eye…
      An expert fork handler can stab 10 people in the blink of an eye..?

      Whats your point..?
      There is no such animal as a rifle that assaults people…people assault people.. Capiche..?

    • I’m thinking that most English teachers might agree with me that each section of the the second amendment that has a “,” after it is a independent statement of it’s own. The reason being that the “,” could more formally be read as “, and” separating each statement. This means each section separated by the “,” is a statement of it’s own. The second amendment could be read as, “A well regulated Militia, and being necessary to the security of a free State, and the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, and shall not be infringed.” Although the last part would read better if it said, “and these rights shall not be infringed. The second amendment is really four parts A +B + C + D. Seems to me that each part as its own statement is just as important as the other three parts in the second amendment. No part less important then the other. Whatever the history, the fears of another tyrant government meant the constitution wouldn’t be accepted without the Bill of Rights Amendments added. The early leaders wanted it seems the right of the new nation and its states and it’s people to have regulated Militias, security of the free nation and communities, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms, as well as not having governments (local and/or federal) interfere with any of these rights. Like it or not, the people were allowed to be armed to be abled to remain free. That’s why it’s called the First Freedom. We stay free and are able to protect our freedoms by being able stay armed and if necessary protect out freedoms by armed force if need be.

      Even the Russian newspaper Pravada had an on-line article warning the people of the US not to give up our gun rights. Even under the last czar, the article said the Russian people enjoyed the freedom to be very armed and that Russian might have been the most armed country in the world at that time. That’s why Russia was able to not only have a revolt, but a civil war fought with many arms. Of course when the Communists won, they told everybody else to come and register their arms. If they did, they were shot. That’s a worst case example of why people shouldn’t give up their gun rights. Not bing able to fight back against a government that’s become abusive is another.

    • Most English teachers would think you need a lesson in parenthetical clauses.

      “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,” is an old construction that today would occur without the comma: the second clause is parenthetical to modify the first. Basically, it says that a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.

      The remaining is still common: the causal clause. The comma has an implied “therefor”.

      A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state; therefor, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

      Hamilton wrote that the Militia would be of officers appointed by the state, chosen from the very citizenry. The Founders used as an example of the need a great instability caused by the lack of State militias—notably Shays’s rebellion, in which a bunch of farmers decided they were a militia and went rabblerousing around the State house. It took months before anything was done to stop them—eventually by a privately-hired militia—and they would have been put down in a matter of days had the State had a well-regulated militia commissioned by the State.

      Hamilton even suggested the militia would have to meet twice yearly and so forth, suggesting an upkeep of a State standing military power run by officers commissioned by the state—not just a call to beat on the doors of all with arms and tell them they’ve just now been drafted.

      The article’s got a point, anyway: they probably didn’t think much of the dangers of people with guns, other than things like mandatory registration of your firearms, bans against keeping loaded weapons in homes, and the like that were all in effect by the end of the first decade of the 19th century.

    • “Make yourselves Sheep, and the Wolves will eat you’! Ben Franklin!
      Sic Semper Tyrannis !

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