Our Opponents’ Poor History

Our opponents in the gun control movement, when they do try to argue down to the philosophical underpinnings of the gun culture in this country, do little more than display their stunning ignorance of history. I’ll ignore for a moment the utterly false notion that self-defense was never mentioned by any of the founders (Adams mentioned it, several founders carried pistols for self-defense, and it’s mentioned in many state analogues to the 2nd Amendment), and concentrate instead of the notion that militia in the colonial or early republic was anything like the top-down organized instrument of state power that our opponents advocate in their imaginary history of the United States.

A recent publication by Dave Kopel on this very matter was recently published in the American Bar Association’s Administrative and Regulatory Law News (see here if you want the cited version):

Without formal legal authorization, Americans began to form independent militia, outside the traditional chain of command of the royal governors. In Virginia, George Washington and George Mason organized the Fairfax Independent Militia Company. The Fairfax militiamen pledged that “we will, each of us, constantly keep by us” a firelock, six pounds of gunpowder, and twenty pounds of lead. Other independent militia embodied in Virginia along the same model. Independent militia also formed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maryland, and South Carolina, choosing their own officers.

Private militias? Why that sounds to be a bit “insurrectionist,” don’t you think? But not only do our opponents tell us that the founders never conceived a right based on self-defense, they tell us they never conceived a right to arms based on the right of privately organized militias to toss off the yoke of oppressive government!

The events of April 19 convinced many more Americans to arm themselves and to embody independent militia. A report from New York City observed that “the inhabitants there are arming themselves . . . forming companies, and taking every method to defend our rights. The like spirit prevails in the province of New Jersey, where a large and well disciplined militia are now fit for action.”

In Virginia, Lord Dunmore observed: “Every County is now Arming a Company of men whom they call an independent Company for the avowed purpose of protecting their Committee, and to be employed against Government if occasion require.” North Carolina’s Royal Governor Josiah Martin issued a proclamation outlawing independent militia, but it had little effect.

This sounds a lot less like a top-down, government sanctioned movement, than a bottom up, grassroots rebellion. That is indeed what it was to anyone who is not a fool or self-deluded. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s basically a good summary of what you may find in a larger, more detailed book on the subject, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” by David Hackett Fischer. From the book:

As the Lexington militia gathered on the Common, Captain Parker exchanged a few words with each individual. He did so less as their commander than as their neighbor, kinsman, and friend. These sturdy yeomen did not expect to be told what to do by anyone. They were accustomed to judge for themselves. Many were hardworking dairy farmers in a community that was already known as a “milk town” for the Boston market. Their ages ranged from sixteen to sixty-six, but most were mature men in their thirties and forties. They were men of property and independence who served on juries, voted in town meetings, ran the Congregational church, managed their own affairs, and felt beholden to none but the Almighty.

This does not comport with the top-down organization, more similar to the modern National Guard, that our opponents imagine colonial militia were like. It is more akin to that of a modern day volunteer fire department, only in an age where that was everyone’s responsibility, and not just the few who chose to serve. It’s pretty clear there was very little or no official state sanction during the early days of the American Revolution, when most of the fighting was being done by independent militias, controlled more by civil society than by government.

If our opponents chose to argue that our modern society is devoid of the kind of “republican virtue” our founders thought was necessary for a free people, they’d likely find a lot of agreement from our side. We are not the same society, and that is one reason we’ve chosen to argue the self-defense aspects of the right more than the civic aspects of an armed population. It’s also part of the reason this country will probably, from here on out, always have some degree of gun control, the forms of which today were largely alien to the founding period.

So why do many in the gun control movement feel a need to imagine history? I think it is precisely because they are fundamentally uncomfortable with the republican virtues of this country’s founding. They are more at home with the virtue of a Bismarckian state rather than a Lockean republic. They are children of social democratic virtues; of state, central planning, and command economies, which would have been utterly foreign and lamentable to people schooled on Locke, Smith, and Montesquieu. But regardless of the values they cherish, or their pursue, it is simply wrong to project social democratic values on what was a very republican age. It is more honest to insist they are simply old, tired and worn ideas who’s time is up. There was a time when progressives indeed argued that. Perhaps it says something about their relative influence on the culture today that they feel they must couch their foreign ideas in the flag of American republicanism in order to find any appeal among the people.

16 thoughts on “Our Opponents’ Poor History”

  1. Sebastian, this has to be one of the best posts I’ve ever read anywhere about guns, the militia, and the Founders! I agree with your conclusions completely. I shall bookmark this and your links for future reference and debates. This is GOLD!

    THANK YOU!!!!!


  2. I would submit that while I love the image of the militias that you portray, and believe it was largely (or completely) a true one in the Revolutionary period, militias in fact have had a mixed record through our nation’s history.

    Beginning with approximately the time of the early, pre-Famine Irish immigration (c. 1830s), militias of “real Americans” were often used for the suppression of immigrants, often based on religious divides. If you are aware of the archeology being conducted at “Duffy’s Notch” in our region (Malvern), where it appears up to 67 (?) new Irish immigrant railroad laborers were murdered in the 1830s, when they were blamed for bringing a cholera epidemic to the area, there has been a theory that the killing may have been conducted by the local militia, as it would have taken a fairly organized group to carry out such slaughter and then conceal it and enforce secrecy. (The professors conducting the dig have reported receiving strong resistance and hostility from old-line families who had ancestors in the area at the time.)

    In some cases there were confrontations between immigrant militias and nativist militias. When nativists threatened to burn St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Bishop “Dagger Jack” threatened that 10,000 armed Irishmen would make New York City “resemble Moscow,” referring to Napoleon’s then-recent efforts in that Russian city. When Philadelphia refused to defend Irish neighborhoods against nativist burning, on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional, since Catholics were “agents of a foreign power” (the Pope) some private, American militias came to their defense, but loosely organized Irish militia also raided adjacent, prosperous neighborhoods. The carnage resulted in the consolidation of all of Philadelphia in 1854, when all of Philadelphia County became Philadelphia City, to organize to maintain order.

    There are many cases of militias being used as mercenary strike breakers in the mid- to late 19th century and into the 20th century. I have seen a list of the members of the Bucks County Militia from c. 1860, and I recognize many of the family names as Bucks County “establishment” going back to the Revolutionary period; my assessment was that among the officers, at least, it was not the “ordinary” people who made up such militias; they very much were there to defend the “establishment.” In our coal mining regions, I’m confident that local militias very much served the interests of mine owners and local associated businesses against those of the mostly immigrant workers. Many miners were killed in labor strikes, often in raids on their encampments, and not in defense of mine owners properties, per se.

    I’d also note that the “volunteer fire companies” you mention as an analogy, in fact had blurry lines with militias, and in the 19th century were very much political entities, often given to violence to achieve political outcomes. The movie “Gangs of New York” was an extremely sloppy historical rendering, but did in many way capture the correct spirit of the times — and not only in urban areas.

    Just to close, to go further afield, there are places in the world where the term “yeoman militia” are still remembered as “loyalists to the king,” and their memory hated. So the conclusion is, historically speaking, any magic involving militias was very much confined to a narrow historical window. Beyond that they were very predictable political entities.

    1. I think the militia system was never really going to be sustainable once you had railroads and automobiles, and I agree that if there was ever much “republican virtue” in the nation at all it was mostly a passing fad.

      Of course, professional armies and police have their drawbacks too. But my main point was that the founders’ vision of a militia system was largely based on this model, even if that model was largely held together by a common enemy more than virtue.

  3. “where it appears up to 67 (?) new Irish immigrant railroad laborers were murdered in the 1830s”

    Not seeing how “fascist” railroad moguls who killed striking workers, is in ANY way related to militias.

    In fact, it is all the more reason for a militia…

    Blaming militias for racial/ethnic prejudice and violence is silly. As most of that goes on regardless of miltias. Look at Egypt for an example…

    And might I add that the concept of a “militia” is a defensive use. If it is being used offensively, it has ceased to be a militia.

    1. Perhaps I’ll put in the energy to repeat the exercise myself, later, but try Googling “labor” AND “massacre,” confining the search to Wikipedia.org. See in how many “massacres” “militias” of various levels are mentioned as participants.

      I would also comment that most of us once argued for a pretty loose interpretation of what constituted a “militia,” (George Mason’s rhetorical question “Who are the militia?) and we would be sort of reversing ourselves if we now demanded a strict, codified definition.

      1. I’d add further that you don’t have to look very far in history to find questionable interpretations of “defense.” Militias suppressing immigrants and/or strikers almost always claimed to be “defending the American way of life.”

        1. Totally unlike today, where union thugs murdering “scabs” claim to be “defending the American way of life”.

  4. It’s not that they don’t get history, it’s that they don’t WANT to get history. It’s selective and intentional misreading of history in service of a political goal.

    And we all do it, to a certain extent. Note Andy B’s recitation of militia who were not at all the kind of militia we cite. Like any organization, it can quickly become a tool for racism and oppression. The Founders attributed to the people perhaps more virtue than they deserved.

  5. “Note Andy B’s recitation of militia who were not at all the kind of militia we cite.”

    Please, tell me what exactly the difference is. If a “militia” is doing things we think are good, then we shall proudly proclaim it to be a militia; but if it does things we think are bad, it becomes by definition something else?

    Basically what I was saying was, people are people; and there was nothing about being a “militia” that rendered the people in them either completely good or completely bad.

    While we are on the subject, here’s a latter-day example: In the past Larry Pratt has held up the “militias” of dictator Rios Montt as a good example of what armed “citizens” militias can do. But I believe that as I write this, Montt is about to stand trial for his militias having killed tens of thousands of peasants. What Pratt portrayed as citizens militias have become known to the rest of the world as “death squads.” Was there some metaphysical boundary where the change occurred?

    1. So what? Since when is Larry Pratt representative of those who believe in “Our Opponents’ Poor History”? It’s not only militias that they get wrong. The ideology that’s consistent, with being anti-gun, has been a disaster throughout history.

      1. I only raised the Pratt example because he has been (arguably) identified as one of the key promoters of the “citizens militia” concept in recent history. (1990s.) He has made similar poor analogies to try to make his point, but I’ll let those go because that’s not the issue.

        The issue that I’m addressing is, that like guns themselves, armed citizens groups are only tools. They can be and have been used for both good and bad. I mean nothing more and nothing less. But to fail to acknowledge all aspects of something in history is in effect a half-truth, and a half-truth is a whole lie.

        Collectives large and small have both been known to arrive at poor decisions, through the ages. Neither is guaranteed virtue.

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