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December 11, 2000

Too much time on my hands

Michael Bellesiles is a professor of history and author of
Arming America (Knopf, 2000)

Bellesiles clearly has too much time on his hands.” Or so wrote Charlton Heston in the December 1999 Guns & Ammo.

After reading a summary of my research in the English journal The Economist, Heston called for historians to stop wasting their time in the archives and just stick to the traditional narrative of American history. Duke law professor William Van Alstyne told Lingua Franca that my research was irrelevant, as the image of the past is far more important than the reality; while Akhil Amar of Yale law school stated that historical context is irrelevant to constitutional law—that history itself just does not matter.

What led these supposedly conservative figures to convert to post-modernism? How could such men suddenly announce that historical context is a cultural construct anyway? I’m afraid it is my fault.

For the last 10 years I have been spending a lot of time in the archives searching for every possible source of information on gun ownership in early America. During that decade I looked at legislative, military, militia and probate records.

Statistical analyses of these records all indicate the same thing: not too many Americans owned guns prior to the Civil War. Between 1770 and 1820, probate records put ownership of any kind of gun, functional or otherwise, at 14.7 percent of the adult white male property owners. Gun censuses were conducted (without opposition) by the federal and state governments on many occasions between 1793 and 1840. Repeatedly they demonstrate that, at the antebellum peak, there were enough guns in public and private hands in America for 45 percent of the militia, 20 percent of the adult white males and 4.5 percent of the total population.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that early reports of this research apparently compelled Heston, Amar, Van Alstyne and other postmodernists to abandon the material world for a relativist one. If historical research undermined a traditional vision of early America as a universally armed society, then history had to go. This immediate dismissal of my research is not driven by a competing body of research. Rather, opponents honestly state that they find it a dire threat to an individual reading of the Second Amendment.

Initially this political opposition came as a shock to me. I did not think anyone paid the slightest attention to what historians said. We certainly do not seem to have much impact on the world outside of academe, which goes its way blithely believing any old nonsense about the past despite our best efforts. Just look at any Oliver Stone movie, or at the continued insistence that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

While researching the book, I saw myself happily laboring away in dusty corners for the edification of other historians and did not pretend to any political position. In fact, the first draft did not even discuss the Second Amendment. And then came these rather interesting attacks on my book. Even while preparing the manuscript for publication, my editor at Knopf insisted I put in a section on the Second Amendment.

That single sentence has proven as controversial as any in American history: 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. Is the first half a qualifying clause or just an explanatory preamble? Do the words “well regulated” have any significance? Do we read “the people” in a collective or individual sense? Is there any limit on the arms that people may “keep and bear?” Does “shall not be infringed” preclude any form of regulation or registration?

But this is more than just a linguistic debate. For supporters of the individual right to bear arms, the Second Amendment was written as a check upon the central government, a granting of the means by which the people could overthrow tyranny. This latter point seemed to fly in the face of everything that is known about the framers of the Constitution and of the Bill of Rights. For a new government to grant the people the right and support for future rebellion seems exceedingly odd. This insurrectionist view would transform the Constitution, as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it, into a “suicide pact.”

Few subjects have been so well analyzed as the constitutional period. Some of the best books produced by the American historical profession have been on this subject; it is a long and distinguished list of scholars. And I think it is safe to say that on one point they would all agree: the Federalists hoped to build a federal government stronger than its predecessor, capable of defending the new nation from its enemies while maintaining internal order and security, and highly suspicious of the state governments. Not surprisingly, supporters of the insurrectionist perspective do not quote the Federalists often. They far prefer to quote the anti-federalists.

Let me remind you, the anti-federalists lost.

But, more importantly, it is an error to think the anti-federalists themselves favored an individual right to gun ownership. All members of the revolutionary generation knew the importance of disarming dangerous citizens. Loyalists and even those who insisted on neutrality were legally disarmed by the state authorities during the Revolution. Catholics, Indians and blacks (freedmen as well as slaves) had long been denied access to firearms.

No one during the constitutional debates put forth as a grievance the disarming of individuals for political, religious or ethnic reasons. These opinions did not change after the Second Amendment passed. When confronted with internal conflict during the Whiskey Rebellion, anti-federalists favored disarming those who would threaten the state.

This, for me, was the greatest surprise: that no one in this historical debate made any reference to the wide array of gun laws in effect when the Second Amendment was ratified. In the 70 years after ratification, laws were passed regulating the quality of firearms and munitions; their storage, sale, transport and maintenance; and where and when they can be fired. There were laws giving the state the right to appropriate firearms during internal crises and to disarm politically dangerous groups, to conduct gun censuses and to forbid the concealment of firearms. Most importantly, there were laws denying the right to own guns to those seen to pose a threat to the community: blacks, slave and free, and even women on a few occasions. These laws worked because the community supported their enforcement.

Admittedly, all this research could be irrelevant. Perhaps both the historical context and the original intention of the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should not enter into our civic deliberations. On the other hand, it is my job and my great pleasure to recreate the past, to allow those long dead to speak again.

It was never my intention to enter into a highly political area of research, and when I was called upon to help write an amicus brief in the upcoming federal case of Emerson v. U.S., I initially demurred. But no historian should sit by while the past is warped and denied to suit a polemical agenda. As a consequence, I am now turning my attention to a history of gun laws in early America.
That is, assuming I can find the time.

This essay was first published in the August 2000 Department of History newsletter.


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