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.


  • I read the article and all the comments. I own a registered fire arm for protection. I keep it secured. Here’s my question to everybody – assuming that the federal government is not our enemy (we vote it into power) why does any American need a firearm like an ak47? Why not a federal law requiring background checks? I think the idea that some federal regulation of firearms will lead to the eventual banning of all guns in the U.S. is nonsense. I also think any reading of the history of the founding of this Republic and the men who made it happen supports Mr. Adleberg’s thesis. But any elected official who supported a gun ban would be hounded out of office. It’s a made up threat.

    I’d like to see a serious discussion about how to reduce gun violence without all the half baked, hysterical rants on both sides of the issue. Can’t reasonable people find a middle ground upon which to act?

  • The two examples of poor ones at best. Washington took the guns away from the loyalists of the crown. Guns taken away from slaves so the owners wouldn’t die. We have a right to have a gun to protect ourselves from government tyranny. More than 50% of the people in this country believe that the government has gone further then their constitutional powers. Your argument supports big government not the sovereignty of the people which is the basis of our constitution. No matter how many degrees you got you can’t justify your elitism.

  • There is an error in the statement that Israel and Switzerland arm their citizens with military fade weapons. In Israel, you have to be either an activated reservist or regular armed forces to get your weapon. Otherwise, they are kept in an armory. Citizen gun ownership is heavily restricted. People living in Frontier Kibitz & settlements have slightly different rules.

    Switzerland used to arm citizens with weapons and ammunition that they could take home. However, the ammunition had a seal on it that could legally be opened only under government direction. This policy has now been changed and at least the ammunition is now stored in an armory. This is now very similar to how the colonial militias were organized, hence the British raids on militia armories preceding Lexington and Concord. After you aged out of military service, in Switzerland, you could keep your military weapon, but only after it had been modified to non-automatic operation.

    Switzerland, unlike Israel, does allow citizens to own sportsman guns, and a private national organization (similar to NRA but much Lower key) sponsors a national marksmanship completion with the cooperation of the Swiss government.

    In my opinion, the Swiss have come closest to implementing the U.S. 2nd amendment as outlined in article #29 of the Federalist papers. Good reading there. The book “Paul Revere’s Ride” by David Hacket Fisher has several chapters that describe the organization of Mass. militias before and directly after “the shot heard round the world”.

    • According to a knowledgeable friend, an armed and virtuous citizenry was central to the colonial worldview that was suspicious of centralized (British) power. But local colonial leaders kept the dangerous and expensive stuff locked away in the public magazine. A muzzle loaded gun was not a public menace, a canon loaded with grape-shot was.

      The same friend also told me about an interesting story on NPR a couple of days ago about how the US moved to ban private ownership of machine guns in response to the Gangland shootings of the early 30s, including one fight that spilled over into a crowd of children, killing five. The NRA supported the move limit to machine gun private ownership because, at the time, they saw a clear distinction between “sporting” guns and anti-personnel weapons.

  • The right …shall not be infringed.

    Argue all you want…the statement of intent is clear. The fact that the founders confiscated weapons to control the population further illustrates the need for the rule.

    A good citizen will a gun poses no danger to peace loving government and its other peace loving citizens. The guns available should be up to the task of defending ones self from a tyranical government. I would say a citizen would have little chance with the ar15.

  • When reciting the constitution please don’t leave out important stuff like foreign and domestic enemy .our books are being changed just like Hitler was doing. As well the constitution. Gun ownership separates this country from all others.if you don’t like it there’s hundreds to choose from try one of those .move over there and get shot . At least here you have the right to fight for survival. Any where else you are just a good un armed target.

  • bexause a statement agrees with you position does not make it a fact! The article took a very limited set of examples from the Federalist Papers that could be contrured to support his argument. However a number of responses seemed to do a more complete review of the Federalist Papers and came away with a cometely different result. This actually goes back to the idea of a free press, a free press does not guarantee an accurate press.

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