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.


  • You need to understand that back then, firearms to their point of view consisted of Muskets that took ~30 secs to reload per shot. They probably did not consider the rapid automatic firearms into consideration when they drafted the 2nd amendment.

  • I’ve read a lot of stupid comments on this blog.It seems all the gun nuts have come out of the woodwork to criticize an article that deals with FACTS, not NRA propaganda. It’s impossible to reason with people who live in fear, never trusting anyone, and who believe everyone and especially our own government is out to get them. WOW, what losers!

  • How many lives a year do guns save? Why do we never consider that figure when we look at the real impact of gun ownership. Why do suicides, and accidents count but actual instances where guns saved lives not?

    Doctors kill over 100,000 patients a year through malpractice. You are FAR more likely to be killed by a misdiagnosis or incompetent physician than you are a gun. Yet nobody talks about banning doctors.

    In the last century tyrannical governments killed 30 million of their own citizens. Between the Russians, Chinese, Nazi’s, Cambodians, Rwandans etc etc etc they killed huge numbers of people–usually through starvation but sometimes with a bullet to the back of the head. In most of those cases the first things those regimes did was ban private ownership of guns. Yet we have insane people who think it can’t happen here and we will always have benevolent overlords in Washington. There’s an old saying about Safety and Liberty…those who give up liberty for the promise of safety will have neither safety nor liberty!

    There is not a single place on the face of the earth you can point to where gun control has worked–and crime went down. Why would anyone advocate for something that has no track record of working?

    Gun ownership has increased tremendously over the last 30 years…yet the crime rate has steadily fallen and the murder rate has likewise fallen. If guns cause crime/murder…please reconcile that for me.

    There are countries in South America with total bans of gun ownership that have far higher incidents of gu related crime than the US….how is that possible? Guns are outlawed?

    I’m a former combat veteran with more than 10 years active duty. I’ve had all kinds of training, etc on an AR (scary black rifle with a 30 round magazine). I’ve trained my wife and daughter how to use it when I’m not home and both are competent. In a free country who the hell are you to tell me I don’t have the right to decide what tools I choose to defend my home and family with.

    “A well educated young population being necessary to the preservation of a free society–the right of the people to keep and read books shall not be infringed.” Gee…if the amendment had been written into the Constitution that way you morons would be arguing that only young people have a right to books….

    If you have any command of the language you understand that the prefatory clause of the 2d Amendment does not limit the declarative clause… If you actually read the Supreme Court case DC v Heller you will see this is covered in exhaustive detail and the textual meaning is unambiguously clear.

    Of course the absurdity of you position is illustrated by your argument that the Framers of the Constitution just screwed up and stuck a enumerated Congressional power from Article 1 (the power to raise and equip an Army and a militia) and misplaced it in a laundry list of individual rights. C’mon….really? That’s what you are saying? That they didn’t know the difference between a power and a right? Why the hell does a nation have a right to equip a military. Its a stupid argument. Certainly a nation has the POWER to do so…but a collective RIGHT to equip the militia? Hogwash….

    Lastly, we have 300 million guns in this country and 20 million illegal aliens. You propose to confiscate 300 million guns with one breath but with the other ask how realistic it is to deport 20 million law breaking foreigners? I’m not advocating either. But again, the absurdity of either position is astounding. Even is only 20 million of those guns are “assault weapons” how are you going to make that work exactly?

  • Avoid war by accepting your own enslavement.

    Or if you have dignity, integrity and pride (not the pride about sodomy with men) you will want to hide your guns and never ever give them up. That would be fighting for freedom and there is no more worthy a goal.

  • I am sure General Gauge would have agreed with everything you said especially since the colonials had rifled barrels (think of them as “sniper” rifles) and the Red-Coats had inaccurate smooth bore muskets.

    “But please be careful when discussing the Founders.” Do you think they would have approved of Bathhouse use of “phone and pen”? How about abortion and gay marriage……

    The 2nd amendment is about keeping “the people” (funny how you NEVER used that term in yous biased liberal rant) safe from Tyranny it has noting to do with hunting but then You are in lockstep with your masters in DC and I would expect nothing less!

  • As to your question of militias, I refer you to this quote:

    “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.”
    — George Mason, in Debates in Virginia Convention on Ratification of the Constitution, Elliot, Vol. 3, June 16, 1788

    As to the authors questioning of the 2nd Amendment being a states right and not an individual right, I would have him read it very slowly.

    The only mention of the State is in the need for the security there of. I believe that if the founding Fathers had meant to give the right to the State, the last part of the amendment would read thus: “the right of the State to keep and bear arms”, not “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

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