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.


  • Here’s the thing… we’re not just talking about gun ownership, we’re talking about self defense. Does anyone really believe in limiting peoples inalienable right to defend themselves? To tell people you can’t defend yourself because you committed a crime is ludicrous. Who doesn’t have the right to self defense? Nobody is required to be a victim.

    The United States federal government has committed plenty of crimes. They dropped two nukes on a country for no real reason. Why, because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (which there’s evidence it may have been a false flag). Israel attacked us more than once, the last being time 9/11. How come we don’t nuke them? Because the truth is we just wanted to test out nukes on real people. The American government is the last people on Earth who should be allowed to own nukes. But they do. Why? Because they want to be able to defend themselves, although nukes are more of an offensive weapon than defensive.

    The same federal government took part in murdering a US president, and then framed and murdered not only an innocent American citizen, but United States Marine. And I don’t make that statement lightly, I make it backed with real evidence. Just look at the Moorman photo with a magnify glass. Directly behind Zapruder, in the pergola shelter. You’ll see 2 men with rifles, one being Eladio del Valle, member of the CIA assassination squad Operation 40. And they were doing Israel’s dirty work over Dimona, so another terrorist state could own nukes.

    And that is more than sufficient reason for every American citizen to utilize their god given right to self defense. Anyone who wishes to limit another persons right to defend themselves is a predator.

  • The problem is not the gun, but the person. We have a moral debacle in America today. The First continental congress printed and issued 600 Bibles for distributing and passing out in schools for instruction. In 1962 and 1963 the Supreme Court said prayer in schools is unconstitutional. There is nothing in the Constitution that even remotely says this. Further more, the Founding Fathers were inclusive of the church in government, and they should know better than anyone else what the documents they signed should mean. The amount of money and effort the early Continental Congress put towards reaching out to Indian groups to deliver the message of the Bible to save people from what the Bible calls sin was monumental.
    Now we have a call to ban arms in America because of the Florida shooting, which was disgusting to say the least. But the fact in that matter is simple. The local jurisdiction had the ability no less than 16 times to put this person away, and on at least 2 times on Federal charges, and they did not act on the law given to them to put him behind bars and prosecute him.
    Now somehow you want me to believe that the NRA and guns are the problem.
    What we have in Florida were liberal Democrat administrators WHO DID NOT DO THEIR JOBS. Why is this not talked about and why are we not prosecuting these people for contributing to the death of all those innocent people.
    Also as a side note, assault weapons are banned in America to make for public ownership. The AR-15 is not an assault weapon. The definition of an assault weapon is a weapon that has a selector switch to go from semi-automatic to full automatic fire. A person must go through rigorous background checks to obtain those guns which are left for sale.
    I took a deer this year with an AR-15 because the platform works for me.
    How about bringing the Biblical God back into schools, and bring gun safety back into schools like we once had and we will see positive and moral changes to our society.
    By the way, we have a local college that allows guns on campus and there has NEVER been an issue.
    Thee guns are locked at night in a designated facility. The reason we have never had an issue is the mentality of the people, and not everyone is a Christian. They respect life, respect each other, and respect the hunt for food, and do it properly.
    When you cheapen life at one end of the spectrum (abortion), you also cheapen it at the other end, those who are already born. And please do not use the excuse that abortion is legal therefore we are not doing anything wrong. That is exactly what the Germans claimed during the Nuremberg trials.

    • “In 1962 and 1963 the Supreme Court said prayer in schools is unconstitutional.”

      No it didn’t, but right wingers will persist in telling this and their other lies until they’re all dead due to global warming.

  • This is a bit of an old thread, but I would like to correct the shallow read it provides:

    The actions described above are mostly the actions of the Federalists (Washington, Hamilton, et. al.) rather than the founders as a whole. Jefferson, Madison, etc. believed wholeheartedly in the sanctity of self defense regardless of weapon. Which is why he was such a fan of future weapon development such as the Girandoni air rifle – one of which he personally handed to Captain Lewis for his mapping expedition.

    My point being, that the discussion above is subsumed by the broader national discussion of what the nation as a whole should look like. On the one hand you had the Conservative Federalists who wanted a neo-monarchy (some literally), and the radical liberals among the Anti-Federalists (some were in fact not so radical).

    Ultimately, it seems the Anti-Federalists were correct – the Central government became unresponsive to the needs of the individual, all rights not explicitly protected by the bill of rights became suspect, and both the courts and the presidency took power at the expense of the legislature.

    Failing to address the fact that most Americans were not Federalists undermines the broader claims above.

  • […] with their governing record to believe that they were supporters of unrestricted private firearms.The Founders and the Sanctity of Gun Ownership published first on […]

  • Let’s not mix up the Founders with the Framers. The country was founded in 1776, the Constitution was written 12 years later, in order to save the country from the impending disaster of a multi-faceted civil war. The US under the articles of confederation was a badly failing union. Some of the Representatives who developed the Constitution were key individuals in the revolution, most were not. Nothing that happened prior to adoption of the Constitution (such as confiscating guns) should ever be held up as an example of American values. The Framers were trying to save the country from the many poor decisions made between 1776 & 1789. The first section of this article makes just that logical error.

    The second section deals with the fact that the Federalist Papers—85 essays and 200,000 words long—never speak to an individual’s right to own firearms. The Bill of Rights (the commitment to which was ultimately necessary to obtain ratification) didn’t exist when the Federalist Papers were written. It would be astonishing if the authors had addressed something that hadn’t even been created yet. The Framers and the authors of the Fed. papers felt that a bill of rights was not necessary because the structure of the Government with it’s many checks and balances would prevent any incursion of individual freedoms. The public did not agree, and a commitment to add a specific bill of rights as the first order of business was needed for adoption.

    No one has ever claimed that gun ownership is a property right, it is one of the basic inalienable human rights. Life is a right, the ability to defend that right is necessary or the right to life is mute.

    Many of the concepts in the bill of rights were not to address to tyranny of the British empire, they were to address problems created by tyrannical state governments in the early years of union. Example: The 1st amendment’s proscription against the adoption of an official religion is because the states had done exactly that. Pennsylvania’s official religion was Quaker, unfortunately, New Jersey made the Quaker religion illegal, and Quakers were subject to arrest and punishment. Things were screwed up.

    The commerce clause was because individual states had run amuck passing tariffs and trade sanctions against other states. Each state issued is own currency and then fiddled with the exchange rates in order to take advantage of out of state lenders. Interstate commerce was in shambles. Self dealing political cronyism has always been with us, but it was much worse before (excepting the Clintons, naturally).

    Gun grabbers always focus on the phrase, “A well regulated militia…” As SCOTUS properly found, the phrase is introductory, rather than conditional. What follows clearly stands alone “shall not be infringed”. The decision wasn’t difficult to reach because they know precisely where it came from. The original proposed text of the 2nd amendment was word for word out of Pennsylvania’s constitution. PA’s version was quite wordy and clearly spelled out that it represents an individual basic human right to protect one’s life. Congress debated and decided that lengthy explanation was unnecessary, as the Government is strictly forbidden to take any such action regardless of the justification used.

    Gun violence is out of hand, primarily and in large part exclusively in the locations where the authors preferred policy has been the state or municipal policy already. Mass shootings are always in gun free zones. The current murder capitol in the US changes from year to year, but they all have the two things in common, heavily restricted gun rights and the entrenched political party in office.

    The appeals to disarm the population are always couched in a supposed desire to “save lives”, but any realistic consideration of the consequences of an attempt to do so, puts the lie to the plea. When New York required the registration of certain classes of weapons, the citizens ignored the law. The authorities qucikly realized that sending the police to enforce the law would be a horrible, dangerous policy. That’s in New York, not the Midwest or the West.

  • I live in the UK where we have some of the most restrictive gun controls in the world – no pistols at all, no self-loading rifles of any kind, and licensing conditions you wouldn’t believe! Yet . . . we still have shootings! These are nearly always by illegally held firearms by criminals. In the UK, we have a right to own a weapon but woe betide you if you use it to protect yourself or your family. You will be guilty of using ‘excessive force’ unless you can PROVE you are in fear of your life and that would normally be coming under fire yourself!

    My point is that CRIMINALS will ALWAYS find ways of obtaining firearms and by their very nature have NO regard for laws. With the fall of the Soviet union, we are seeing fully automatic weapons coming into the UK from Easten Europe, the only issue being the price of them!

    Over here, we are seeing a vast increase in knife killings, how much worse would that be if like in Chicago out thugs could get hold of guns? Don’t forget in Chicago, there are NO gun shops. ALL firearms are imported from other states and yet the murder by firearm rate is one of the highest in the US! Do gun controls work? Answer – they only prevent legal ownership, not the criminal! Rant over!

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