December 11, 2000
Too much time on my hands
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 lawthat
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? Im 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
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
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.