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"For many Americans, guns seem to be a fundamental part of the American experience―and always have been."
Grand in scope, rigorous in research, and elegant in presenting the formative years of our country, Armed America traces the winding historical trail of United States citizens' passion for firearms. Author and historial Clayton E. Cramer goes back to the source, unearthing first-hand accounts from the colonial times, through the Revolutionary War period, and into the early ...
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"For many Americans, guns seem to be a fundamental part of the American experience―and always have been."
Grand in scope, rigorous in research, and elegant in presenting the formative years of our country, Armed America traces the winding historical trail of United States citizens' passion for firearms. Author and historial Clayton E. Cramer goes back to the source, unearthing first-hand accounts from the colonial times, through the Revolutionary War period, and into the early years of the American Republic.
In Armed America, Cramer depicts a budding nation dependent on its firearms not only for food and protection, but also for recreation and enjoyment. Through newspaper clippings, official documents, and personal diaries, he shows that recent grandiose theories claiming that guns were scarce in early America are shaky at best, and downright false at worst. Above all, Cramer allows readers a priceless glimpse of a country literally fighting for its identity.
For those who think that our citizens' attraction to firearms is a recent phenomenon, it's time to think again. Armed America proves that the right to bear arms is as American as apple pie.
In every American colony at the start of the American Revolution, a militia-a part-time civilian army-existed to protect the colony against outside threats and ensure order within. The creation of the colonial universal militia, with its duty to be armed for the common defense, was a return to an already obsolete English tradition. From the Anglo-Saxon period (ninth century A.D.), English law had always required freemen to fight in defense of the realm. Called variously the fyrd or the militia, this obligatory duty atrophied as the medieval period waned.
By the sixteenth century, driven by changing warfare technology and tactics, the English government replaced the universal militia system with a more highly trained select militia. Because of Queen Elizabeth I's fear of a lower class uprising, these "trainbands" or "select militias" were drawn from the middle classes or higher whenever possible. The rest of the militia was still available for military service, but most often operated as an inactive reserve, only called up for the most extreme emergencies.
The conditions of the New World revived this near-archaic universal militia system. The American colonies were, at first, a lonely outpost of Englishmen between a vast untamed continent and the Atlantic Ocean. The new and largely unknown world of America demanded both foresight and courage. The colonists lived in dread of attack by Indians and England's European enemies. Requiring every freeman to participate in the common defense of the colony was both prudent and built on a well-established English legal tradition. By 1740, all the American colonies were under British rule and, correspondingly, colonial militia laws reflected both English traditions and royal instructions to the governors.
These militia laws (with a few exceptions) required every freeman (sometimes with an upper age limit) to own guns for militia duty-and in some cases, woman heads of household were similarly obligated to own guns for their militia-age sons or servants. In many colonies, adults were ordered to arm themselves for the purpose of self-defense while traveling or attending public meetings, or church. These laws varied from colony to colony and from year to year. Due to the peculiar conditions of frontier life-with its threats of Indian attack and, later, slave rebellion-the laws varied from colony to colony, and often from year to year.
Such an obligation to serve in the militia was no different from other communal obligations, such as street maintenance, fire protection, and policing. One representative example is Connecticut's 1650 militia statute that required, "That all persons that are above the age of sixteene yeares, except magistrates and church officers, shall beare arms." As part of that obligation, "every male person with[in] this jurisdiction, above the said age, shall have in continuall readiness[s], a good musk[e]tt or other gunn, fitt for service, and allowed by the cl[e]rk of the band." The head of the household was obligated to arm any of his sons or servants who were subject to militia duty. Similar laws existed in Massachusetts, Plymouth Colony, Rhode Island, Providence (until absorbed by Rhode Island), New Haven Colony (until absorbed by Connecticut), New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. South Carolina's 1671 militia statute did not require gun ownership by militia members, but 1724, 1739, and 1743 statutes required militia members to carry guns to church, effectively imposing gun ownership. Some towns also imposed their own requirements, either in addition to the colony statutes, or before colony-wide statutes existed.
Maryland's militia statutes are murkier than other colonies' regulations: The 1642 militia law required all "English able to bear arms" to be trained as part of the militia. This law also required every housekeeper to be armed, but also to arm "each person able to bear arms" who lived in the household as well. Maryland revised the law in 1654, so that "all persons from 16 yeares of age to Sixty shall be provided with Serviceable Armes & Sufficient Amunition of Powder and Shott ready upon all occasions and that Every master of families provid Armes & amunition as aforesaid for Every such Servant...." The 1658, 1676, and 1692 laws were less universal; while all freemen might be called to militia duty, the number required to do so was dependent on how many the governor believed were necessary. These later militia laws did not explicitly obligate every freeman to own a gun; however, 1699 and 1715 statutes required masters to provide a gun to every freed male indentured servant. The previous laws mandating gun ownership still appear to have been in effect.
Pennsylvania was distinctly different from the other American colonies. The Duke of York imposed a militia law similar to that of New York in 1671, but Quaker opposition soon rendered the law ignored and unenforced. A continued three-sided struggle throughout the eighteenth century between governors, Quakers, and non-Quakers, led to the formation of voluntary militias, under the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin (among others), followed by passage of a voluntary militia law in 1756. This law explained that the Quakers "do not ... condemn the use of arms in others, yet are principled against bearing arms themselves" and allowed militia companies to organize themselves with approval of the governor. Those under 21 years of age were specifically prohibited from joining, along with all "bought servant[s] or indent[ur]ed apprentice[s]" without consent of parents, guardians, or masters. The Crown vetoed this law, however, because militia duty was voluntary, and because it did not require conscientious objectors to pay for a substitute.
The following year, Pennsylvania's legislature passed a more typical militia statute, requiring all men 17 to 55 to enroll in the militia, with exemptions for members of "those religious societies or congregation whose tenents and principles are against bearing arms." The law also exempted "all papists [Catholics] and reputed papists" from militia duty (presumably because they were not trustworthy while Britain was at war with Catholic France). Like the other Colonial militia statutes, all militia members "shall be sufficiently armed with one good musket, fuzee or other firelock well fixed" and were to appear at musters "with the accoutrements, arms and ammunition aforesaid in good order."
Not everyone required by law to own a gun actually did so. Laws and records of fines suggest that this failure to be armed became more common in the eighteenth century. Poverty seems to be the principal reason for this failure. A 1757 Rhode Island order required that "every commissioned officer, and soldier, who has a gun fit for service, shall make use of the same; and those who have none, shall be provided for." Because money was often in short supply in the American colonies, some of these laws allowed bartering crops for guns. Connecticut's 1650 militia law required any person who "cannot purchase them by such means as he hath, hee shall bring to the cl[e]rk so much corne or other merchantable goods" to pay for them. The value of the arms was appraised by the clerk "and two others of the company ... as shall be judged of a greater value by a fifth parte." In other words, the man without a gun would be provided one by the government for only twenty percent above the market price. The government acted, in effect, as a finance company.
Other colonies had different methods for arming members of the militia too poor to arm themselves. Plymouth and Virginia colonies passed laws to supply public firearms for those too poor to buy their own. Virginia's 1748 militia law recognized that, "it may be necessary in time of danger, to arm part of the militia, not otherwise sufficiently provided, out of his majesty's magazine and other stores within this colony." The phrase "part of the militia" suggests that while some members of the militia were too poor to arm themselves, this was the exception, not the rule.
Why was there this decline in gun ownership by the poor? The gap between rich and poor Virginians widened in the Colonial period, but the rising economy meant that even poor Virginians in the eighteenth century were better off than they had been in the seventeenth century. The decline in gun ownership among poor Virginians in the eighteenth century may have been because the Indians were no longer a threat. Poor Virginians, when deciding what to buy, may have found other goods of greater utility to them, when they no longer feared Indian attack.
Laws requiring gun ownership were not enough; just as now, they required follow-up tactics to ensure the compliance of independent-minded citizens. Many of these laws provided for inspection to verify that militiamen were armed and ready to fight. The 1643 Portsmouth, Rhode Island government ordered militia officers to go "to every inhabitant [in Portsmouth and] see whether every one of them has powder" and bullets. Notice that the government felt no need to make sure that everyone had a gun in which to fire that ammunition.
Maryland even hit upon a crafty incentive strategy to secure good work among its inspection officers. Militia officers verified compliance with the duty to be armed by a monthly "Sight or view of the said armes and ammunition." Those lacking arms and ammunition were fined thirty pounds of tobacco (equivalent to about u4 sterling, or a month's wages), payable to the inspecting militia officer. The commander could arm the unarmed, and force the militiaman to pay "any price ... not extending to above double the value of the said armes and ammunition according to the rate then usual in the Country."
Records of fines exist in at least one colony. In New Haven Colony, on 4 January 1643/4, twelve men were fined two shillings each "for defect[ive] guns." Four other men were fined one shilling each, "for defect in their cocks," indicating that their guns would not cock or fire, although this was considered a less serious problem than the two shilling fine defects. Two of the twelve men who were fined two shillings for defective guns were also fined six pence "for want of shott," and two others were fined one shilling for "want of shott and pouder." These fines were equivalent to part of a day's wages-enough to get a colonist's attention and compliance.
Militiamen were not the only persons obligated to own a gun. While most free white men were obligated to possess a firearm for militia duty, the obligation to own a firearm in many colonies applied to the head of the household-possibly a woman. Maryland's "Act for Military Discipline" of 1638 required "that every house keeper or housekeepers within this Province shall have ready continually upon all occasions within his her or their house for him or themselves and for every person within his her or their house able to bear armes one Serviceable fixed gunne of bastard muskett boare" along with a pound of gunpowder, four pounds of pistol or musket shot, "match for matchlocks and of flints for firelocks."
At least two colonies required immigrants to bring guns with them to the New World or required gun ownership as a condition of receiving land title. Lord Baltimore's instructions to settlers immigrating to Maryland provided a detailed list of tools, clothing, and food to bring. For each man, "one musket ... 10 pound of Powder ... 40 pound of Lead, Bullets, Pistoll and Goose shot, of each sort some." One of the conditions for receiving title to land in Maryland beginning in 1641 was bringing "Armes and Ammunition ... for every man betweene the ages of sixteene & fifty years w[hi]ch shalbe transported thether." The arms required were similar to those mandated for immigrants. New Jersey seems to have imposed a similar requirement from the very beginning of settlement.
The political structure of militias varied from colony to colony. New England militias had a strongly democratic form to them-often more democratic than legislatures and local governments. Governor John Winthrop described the election of militia officers in 1647 Roxbury, Massachusetts, with one faction supporting one Prichard, "a godly man and one of the chief in the town," while the majority preferred a George Denison. Denison, however, was not yet a citizen of the town, and could therefore not legally hold the captaincy. In other colonies, governors appointed militia company commanders, and predictably, the better class of colonists usually ended up commanding in all colonies.
Exceptions and Exemptions
From the very beginning, a few people enjoyed exemption from militia obligations. Only clergymen and a handful of Colonial officials were exempted from duty by seventeenth century militia laws. Gun ownership was also optional for these men. In the eighteenth century, several colonies expanded the exemptions list. New Jersey's 1703 statute exempted ministers, physicians, school masters, "Civil Officers of the Government," members of the legislature, and slaves.
Delaware's 1742 militia statute shows more complexity than most: "[E]very Freeholder and taxable Person residing in this Government" had to possess a "Firelock or Musket," appear at militia musters, and turn out in the event of war. However, "all Justices of the Peace, Physicians, Lawyers, and Millers, and Persons incapable through Infirmities of Sickness or Lameness, shall be exempted and excused from appearing to muster." (Millers were engaged in a critical occupation, especially in wartime-the making of flour. Why were lawyers exempted? One guess is that it was for the same reason that some states until recently exempted lawyers from jury duty: Lawyers write the laws, and jury duty was a distraction that lawyers did not wish to suffer.) They were exempt from musters, but still required to own a gun and turn out to fight in the event of war.
Delaware Quakers were exempt from all obligations related to militia duty: gun ownership, muster attendance, nightly watch duty, and, of course, fighting. Instead, to redress the imbalance, Delaware required Quakers to pay two shillings, six pence for every day that "others are obliged to attend the said Muster, Exercise, or Watch."
When the American Revolution erupted, every Colonial militia law required most free adult men, as well as many female heads of the household, to own guns.
The Duty to Carry Firearms
In at least six colonies, part of the civic duty to be armed included bringing guns to church and other public meetings, or while traveling. The statute that most clearly states the intent of such laws is a 1643 Connecticut order, "To prevent or withstand such sudden assaults as may be made by Ind[i]ans upon the Sabb[a]th or lecture dayes...." Within a month, Connecticut passed a new law that complained that, "[T]he late Order for on[e] in a Family to bring his Arms to the meeting house every Sabb[a]th and lecture day, hath not bine attended by divers persons...." The new law thus imposed a fine for failing to do so. Similar laws appeared in Maryland, New Haven, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
An even more rigorous 1743 South Carolina statute required "every white male inhabitant of this Province, (except travelers and such persons as shall be above sixty years of age,) who [are] liable to bear arms in the militia of this Province" who attended "church or any other public place of divine worship" to "carry with him a gun or a pair of horse-pistols ... with at least six charges of gun-powder and ball...." Those who did not would be fined twenty shillings-a week's wages for many colonists. Other provisions required church-wardens, deacons, or elders to check each man coming into the church, to make sure that he was armed. The purpose was "for the better security of this Province against the insurrections and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other Slaves...."
Excerpted from Armed America by Clayton E. Cramer Copyright © 2007 by Clayton E. Cramer. Excerpted by permission.
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This is clearly a heavily researched book, and it would probably serve well as a guide to the primary source materials for studying gun ownership in the colonial era. As a narrative, it seems to be primarily interested in refuting Bellesile's book Arming America. While it succeeds on that point, the experience of reading it front to back does suffer a little, but this was maybe not the author's intent. It's still an excellent book to pick up if you're interested in the history of gun ownership in the USA.
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