15 August 2017

Gun Ownership in Colonial Virginia

While rereading A True Relation (1608) by John Smith, a statement about most guns being packed away caught my eye. I noticed the statement because it provides corroborating evidence for an assertion that I read on the Jamestown Rediscovery website.

On 22 April 1607, according to Smith,* He, Captain Christopher Newport, and twenty others set out upriver to explore and gather food for the nascent colony. While they were away, the fort at Jamestown on which construction had barely begun, was attacked by about 400 Indians. The English colonists were fortunate in their ability to repel the attacks because most of the guns were still packed away in shipping containers. The exceptions were those possessed by "gentlemen". Smith noted, "...their Armes beeing then in drievats and few ready but certain Gentlemen of their own" (35).

The Jamestown Rediscovery website mentions restrictions on ownership and access to firearms in the England of James I.
There had been no major military battles in England since the war against Spain that ended in 1603; so, at the time of Jamestown’s settlement there was a shortage of arms and armor in England for the Virginia Company to supply to its colony. The English government strictly controlled all the military equipment, which was stored in city armories or private households of the rural gentry.
"Arms and Armor," Jamestown Rediscovery (accessed 15 August 2017).
For centuries leading up to this time, men in England had a duty to be trained in the use of arms for service in the militia, as well as for service in the defense of themselves and their neighbors. But, ownership of weapons was not yet articulated as a right. Moreover, there were restrictions, especially on concealable weapons--crossbows and firearms less than a yard in length. Additional restrictions were put into place early in the reign of James I (1603-1625).

In To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (1994), Joyce Lee Malcolm traces how the duty to bear arms became a right as articulated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. She suggests that gun ownership among the common people, as well as by the gentry, was widespread in rural England, and most of England was rural. But, she also notes that James I restricted firearm, crossbows, and hunting dogs through a series game acts in 1604, 1605, and 1609.
These acts altered the property qualification needed to hunt far more materially than any act in the preceding two centuries; made it illegal for unqualified persons to keep coursing dogs, sell game, use guns, crossbows, or other devices to take game; and brought some poaching cases before the kingdom's highest courts.
Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms, 13.
The needs for self defense and for hunting certainly differed in colonial Virginia than in the home country. Although perhaps difficult, the colonists were supplied with firearms. But, it appears that when they first arrived, guns were not individual possessions for the majority. Smith was a soldier and had pistols. Others were armed as needed, such as when on guard duty. Gentlemen possessed their own arms and these were all that were readily available during the first Indian attack.

As the settlement at Jamestown grew and expanded along the James River, those with farms certainly had firearms. That was not inconsistent with the practice in England where land owners ordinarily possessed firearms and other weapons for hunting and for self-defense. Slowly, during the fifteen years from 1607-1622, the English also began to instruct their Indian neighbors in the use of these weapons.

This training was negotiated. The English wished to offer religious training to the Natives. Opechancanough, chief of the Powhatans, agreed to this religious training on the stipulation that firearms training came as part of the package. In 1622, Opechancanough led his people to slaughter one-quarter of the English colonists, most of them in their own homes with their own weapons.

Over the course of the rest of the century, ownership of firearms expanded. As ownership expanded, the duty of Englishmen to be prepared for service in the militia also developed into a right to own and use firearms. It was a long process, and one that is not well-documented.

*21 May 1607, according to Lyon Gardiner Tyler, editor of Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907) 33. My source for Smith's True Relation is this book, 27-71, digitized at American Journeys.

09 July 2017

The Second Amendment: A Book Review

The Second AmendmentThe Second Amendment by Michael Waldman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars


On the one hand, The Second Amendment: A Biography offers a fair summary of the framing of the Second Amendment, the paucity of interpretations of its meaning by the Supreme Court, the cultural shifts and advocacy that affected political power, and the novelty of the Heller decision. On the other hand, the book seems more of a skewed legal brief than the sort of history it advocates--thorough and dispassionate. The ultimate purpose seems to be advocacy that those who wish to restrict guns need to learn the methodologies of their enemies in order to turn the tide.

Michael Waldman offers a critique of Justice Scalia's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), noting weaknesses that it reveals in Originalism when historical evidence is mixed or silent. He venerates Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent, and he suggests that lower courts are finding more of use there than in the majority opinion.

The book has merits. I learned from this book. It gave me things to think about and questions to pursue in further reading. The Second Amendment: A Biography offers historical analysis of the the era of the Framers, interpretations of the Second Amendment by the Court before Heller, the Revolt at Cincinnati (1977) that changed the direction of leadership for the National Rifle Association, the Heller and McDonald decisions, and how the these landmark Second Amendment decisions have played out in lower courts since 2010.

Dispite its seemingly comprehensive scope, it failed to meet my expectations. The author is smart and knowledgeable; he could have produced a better book. Perhaps he tried to do too much. Perhaps his political bias got in the way.

View all my reviews

07 July 2017

That's Not What They Meant

There are books that I start over and over again, always returning them to the shelf before getting far. There are many reasons for this behavior pattern. Some books require a certain mood or frame of mind that I rediscover each time I start them at the wrong time. Some books are badly written, but of such value (maybe praised by others) that I am unwilling to rid myself of their presence in my home. Some prove vexing because the arguments they provoke in the reader contain some unintended layers. Guns, Crime, and Freedom (1994) by Wayne LaPierre is one such book in this last group. I cannot recall how often I have started it, read most or all of the first chapter, and then gave up, trying again a year or more later. LaPierre drives me to his sources as I ponder his argument.

The first chapter, "That's Not What They Meant", takes issue with the argument that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution applies only to militias, not to an individual right to bear arms. LaPierre asserts, "Even a casual reading of our Founding Father's works would prove" that the Second Amendment supports an individual right (emphasis added, 4). Reading the book today, of course, a reader must be aware that in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed the view advocated by the National Rifle Association during the tenure of LaPierre's leadership.
The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.
Syllabus, District of Columbia v. Heller
If my issues with LaPierre's argument were principally focused on his conclusion, my time would be better spent pursuing Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion in Heller. But my concern is less with this conclusion than with the means LaPierre uses to get there. LaPierre focuses his argument on the speeches, writings, and events that expressed the views of and shaped the Revolutionary Generation and the documents of self-governance that they produced.

I read footnotes. When any author makes an argument that relies upon historical sources, I evaluate the way these sources are deployed. Are quotes accurate? Are arguments attributed to speeches and texts an accurate reflection of what was spoken or written? How well does a book's narrative accord with other accounts of the events? Such criticism--both affirming and refuting claims in various books--has been the guiding focus of Patriots and Peoples.

In Guns, Crime, and Freedom, LaPierre starts well enough. He states his thesis clearly in the first paragraph, then proceeds to note how the phrase, "rights of the people," appears in the Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, as well as the Second (4, emphasis added). Scalia makes a similar, but more accurate point in D.C. v. Heller. The phrase, "right of the people" (note the singular), appears in the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments, while similar language appears in the Ninth. Scalia omits the Tenth in the opinion of the court.

In my reading, I pass over this first small error without difficulty. In the third paragraph, I also pass over his labeling of those who disagree with the individual right view as "foes of the Second Amendment" (4). LaPierre states the structure of his argument: understanding what the Framers expressed and experienced affirms their belief in an individual right to bear arms. Of course, they often expressed this view in discussions favoring militias over a standing army, and consequently the words of George Mason loom large. Mason's speeches and letters, more so than any other Founders, express clearly that the "whole people" comprise the militia (Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, 4 June 1788).*

Revolutionary Focus

The beginning of the fifth paragraph gives me pause.

LaPierre asserts, "The Boston Massacre was the fuse that lit the powder keg of debate over the right of the people to be armed" (4). This strong statement concerning cause and effect calls for evidence. Was the American Revolution a battle to protect citizens against disarmament? Most historians point to other issues--taxation was preeminent. The British troops who perpetrated the massacre on 5 March 1770 were there at the behest of the tax commissioners who had been sent to enforce new taxes. The British had been regulating the importation of molasses to New England since 1733, but enforcement was lax and molasses from French colonies was cheaper and often of better quality, and hence preferred by New England's rum makers. Following the Seven Years War (1754-1763), often called the French and Indian War in U.S. textbooks, Parliament sought to offset some of the costs of its North American empire with more effective taxes and stronger enforcement. These taxes were onerous to the colonists in North America.

LaPierre's argument moves from this assertion to a discussion of the right to arms as expressed by John Adams in the trial of the British soldiers who killed five individuals on that day in 1770. Adams had been retained as counsel by Captain Thomas Preston, whom some witnesses claimed had given the order to fire. In Adams' closing arguments, he summarized some of the leading opinions of British jurists on the matter of self-defense. One of these was William Hawkins, A Treatise of Pleas of the Crown. Adams quotes Hawkins several times in the course of his argument.
“And so perhaps the killing of dangerous rioters, may be justified by any private persons, who cannot otherwise suppress them, or defend themselves from them; in as much as every private person seems to be authorized by the law, to arm himself for the purposes aforesaid.” Hawkins p. 71. §1412—Here every private person is authorized to arm himself, and on the strength of this authority, I do not deny the inhabitants had a right to arm themselves at that time, for their defence, not for offence, that distinction is material and must be attended to.
"Adams' Argument for the Defense," in Legal Papers of John Adams, vol. 3 (1965), 247-248**
LaPierre quotes Adams' own words from the end of Hawkins' words to "not for offence", but employs the modern American spellings of defense and offense. In absence of context, the term "the inhabitants" could seem to refer to those rioting as a crowd formed outside the Customs House shortly before 9:00 pm on that late winter day. Shots were fired about 9:10, according to several witnesses. LaPierre seems to think "the inhabitants" refers to the citizens of Boston, although he does not fail to mention that Adams was serving as a defense attorney for a British soldier. On the other hand, the context of the remark makes clear that Adams was speaking of the right of the British soldiers to arm themselves in self-defense. Adams grounded his defense of the soldiers as men who were private citizens as well as employees of the British government.

Of course, the words of John Adams here could also apply to the residents of Boston who resented the presence of the troops, and who had been involved in numerous violent altercations with these troops over the previous two years. But, the right of citizens to be armed, aside from those eight soldiers on trial, was never at issue. In the depositions of 96 witnesses to the event that were taken by the Grand Jury prior to the trial, the right to arms was mentioned once.
George Robert Twelves Hewes, of lawful age, testifies and says, that on the last night, about one o'clock, as he was returning alone from his house to the Town-house, he met Sergeant Chambers of the 29th, with eight or nine soldiers, all with very large clubs and cutlasses, when Dobson, a soldier, spoke to him and asked him how he fared, he told him very badly, to see his townsmen shot in such a manner, and asked him if he did not think it was a dreadful thing; said Dobson swore by God it was a fine thing, and said you shall see more of it; and on perceiving I had a cane, he informed Sergeant Chambers of it, who seized and forced it from me, saying I had no right to carry it; I told him I had as good a right to carry a cane as they had to carry clubs, but they hurried off with it into the main guard.
Frederic Kidder, History of the Boston Massacre (1870)***
The British troops seized a cane! When the right to bear arms is discussed, the focus is rarely upon a walking stick that could be employed in self-defense. So far as I know, no politician has proposed regulating crutches and canes. This single seizure of an "arm" in the wee hours of the morning following the killing of five civilians in Boston certainly offers no support to the notion that the right to arms was at stake that night. Only when Adams sought to exculpate the shooters through an assessment of their right to self-defense did the matter arise.

Aside from modernizing the spelling of two words, LaPierre quotes John Adams accurately. The words quoted do support, and strongly so, an individual right to arms for self-defense. However, they are germane to the argument of the book only through a mangling of the context. Not only that, LaPierre asserts that Adams spoke these words in his opening argument. The trial of the soldiers ran 27 November - 5 December; Adams' speech was delivered 3-4 December. His footnote correctly names the book, Legal Papers of John Adams, vol 3, but he lists the editors as Lyman H. Butterfield, and Hilda B. Zobel. His citation is incorrect. The editors are L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel. One name is wrong; the other has changed gender. Lyman H. Butterfield was the editor of many volumes of the papers of John Adams, but not this one (see "Founders Online--Printed Volumes, The Adams Papers"

If Wayne LaPierre's missteps concerning the Boston Massacre were the sole errors, I would have read the second chapter years ago. But these errors characterize the scholarship of his book. He similarly mangles the context of George Washington's popular quote in his First Annual Message to Congress, and also incorrectly lists the first initial of the compiler of his source. Similar problems could be elucidated with respect to Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech calling for an armed response, rather than further diplomatic efforts.

LaPierre advocates and offers a "casual reading". To make his case, however, he needs something more. He needs to read and write much more carefully. Near the end of the first chapter he challenges mangled histories:
Today, it is politically correct to ignore the Founding Fathers and their clear intent. For the sake of political expediency, the anti-gun lobby, the anti-gun media, and the anti-gun politicians, including the president, have twisted, tangled, and reinterpreted their words.
LaPierre, Guns, Crime, and Freedom, 9-10.
If the prefix "pro" replaced each instance of "anti" in this passage, it would serve as a fair assessment of the chapter that it concludes.

*Although this speech could serve well LaPierre's argument, he omits it from the first chapter.

**My source is the online edition: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2017. I also read Adams' speech in Samuel Willard, John Adams: A Character Sketch (1903), which the Library of Congress makes accessible at John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trial of 1770

***Frederic Kidder's book on the Boston Massacre, published one hundred years later, consists of transcriptions of John Adams' notes in the possession of Kidder with additional commentary. It is available in several reprint editions, as well as an ebook from Google Books and from the Library of Congress site cited in the note above.

15 April 2017


Conservative historian Tom Nichols offered his views concerning the growing distrust of people who know what they are talking about yesterday on PBS News Hour. It is worth watching. (click the link, not the image).

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP