Hillsdale College’s Professor of History Emeritus, Dr. John Willson, recounted briefly the scandal that befell Emory University historian Michael A. Bellesiles a decade ago. The latter wrote a book claiming that gun-ownership in Early America was greatly exaggerated and the U.S. “gun culture” only arose after the Civil War. But other historians found whopping errors that looked hard to make accidentally, a panel of independent scholars called it “misleading,” Gary Wills changed his mind and denounced the author as an outright fraud, Columbia University Trustees stripped Bellesiles of his prestigious Bancroft Prize and he resigned from Emory. His book, said The New York Times recently, “included citing nonexistent sources and making mistakes in reading documents, all of which favored his thesis.”
Willson observed drily, “it takes just about thirty-seven seconds on a limited research tool–the internet–to find out that a non-warrior culture in New England defined gun-control by requiring households to…OWN GUNS!” But was it completely so? Bellesiles’s misbehaviour is undeniable, but might there still have been a kinder and gentler Early America? One which was less eager to own, brandish and use firearms to intimidate and even to kill? The Plymouth Fathers may have been portrayed inaccurately as coming ashore, in 1620, bristling with black-powder muzzle-loading doglocks, matchlocks, wheellocks, arquebusses, blunderbusses and scores of various pistols; they were devout Christians after all, and so possibly they were pacifists.
There are rumours (unsubstantiated) of a version of the Mayflower Compact banning all weapons apart from “rounded-edged scissers and tweesors” (sic), and William Bradford is (sometimes) said to have told John Carver, “We shell eschew Violense in order to Reason with the Native Inhabitants and the Beastes of the Forest Wilde, as behoves our Faith in the Lord.” Carver’s reply is unknown. Later sketches of the Pilgrims purportedly show Mary Brewster and the 13-year-old Mary Chilton knitting meditation mats, and Humility Cooper making small clay pots which might have been used to contain (organic) yoghurt.
It may be grasping at straws to believe that local laws mandating household gun-ownership referred to squirt-guns (those fun-loving Pilgrims), but then maybe not; Progressives must be allowed to hope.
Decades later, The Rev. Cotton Mather wrote (perhaps) that “owning gunnes is Proofe Positive of Wychcraft,” and The Rev. Jonathan Edwards is (possibly) said to have condemned gun-ownership in an early draft of his most famous sermon, “Cinders in the Hands of an Angry God” (he later seems to have removed the reference to firearms and toned-down the title). The sole surviving copy of his sequel, “Smite Them Not With Gunnes, Huggeth the Enemies of the Lord and Giveth Them Counselling,” has been mislaid.
American Colonists may have had no reason to own guns. They could protect themselves from the Amerindians by bribing them with rum or blankets infected with smallpox, they could scare off French interlopers by speaking to them harshly, and bears could usually be deterred by fitting (very) strong doors on log cabins.
Their lack of firearms may have put them at a disadvantage in hunting deer for meat, but most of the early settlers were presumably ovo-lacto vegetarians (and even pure vegetarians, vegans, or followers of a Macrobiotic Diet with its healthy balance of Yin and Yang). Wrought-iron spits, often seen in museums of Early Americana, were probably used for roasting nut-loaves rather than portions of (innocent) animals.
Owning no guns may have put Early Americans at a similar disadvantage against the French in the fur trade, but (some) experts believe that the colonial hunters sang their traditional folksongs and the distressed beavers killed themselves without further encouragement. Having heard the songs, it is at least possible.
This is not to say that there was absolutely no demand for firearms in the Thirteen Colonies; a few brutal colonists may have wanted them to assist in smuggling or urban gang warfare (i.e., King George’s Crips versus The Boston Bloods). But as part of Britain’s protectionist legislation, The Molasses Act of 1733 may have originally been titled “The Molasses and Gun Control Act,” with the latter well-meaning portion tabled in committee.
American commitment to peaceful values may be seen in 1775, with Paul Revere’s famous ride through Massachusetts’ Middlesex County (and the even more Progressive neighbouring county of Singlesex). It propelled five-hundred rebel colonists (called Minutemen because it took them about an hour to reach the battlefield while they battled with their consciences), to confront seven-hundred British regular troops (called regulars because their rations were rich in bran and similar roughage). The British Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith (by some accounts) described what happened next:
These colonist farmer-chappies were unarmed of course – they abhorred firearms and violence and so our boys figured that we’d make short work of them with our Brown Bess muskets. Were not we a bunch of silly-billies! Oh, I say! Two hundred or so turned their backs to us and dropped their breeches. Behind the rows of colonial backsides, others began to make rude noises. That sort of thing is simply never done! My shocked adjutant dropped his knitting. Then one of the savage blighters blew a handful of black pepper onto my horse, which sneezed and bucked me into a rather unpleasant mud-puddle. Of course we had to retreat! What completely unsporting fellows!
If this transcript is correct (and some historians do question its authenticity) then the legendary “shot heard round the world” came, not from the muzzle of a gun, rather from butt-shots or “shooting a moon.”
Almost two months later, at The Battle of Bunker Hill, British troops suffered 226 killed and around 800 wounded; many say caused by the patriots’ firearms without which the enemy casualties would have been impossible. Yet there was a well-known organic whole-food shop at the foot of nearby Breed’s Hill, and who is to say for certain that the rebels did not attack the British with tofu? Many of the original Redcoat uniforms, in British regimental museums and never dry-cleaned, show suspicious stains and not all of them could have been worn by sloppy eaters.
It is well enough known already that the voluntarily gunless American patriots conquered Montreal in the winter of 1775, armed only with hockey-sticks and cans of Molson’s. Then in March of 1776, George Washington’s unarmed Continental Army forced the British to evacuate Boston, chiefly by waving copies of the Dhammapada and exhibiting statues of the Buddha. An entire British army surrendered at Saratoga after being reasoned into non-violence, and French support inspired General Lafayette to deliver his stirring pacifist speech “Les Tuer Avec Gentillesse” (Let Us Kill Them With Kindness). Finally, in 1781, the British army was cornered at Yorktown and Cornwallis surrendered to meditating revolutionaries: when the enemy muskets were confiscated by the victors, General Washington is alleged (by some) to have asked, “I wonder what these things do. Guns, you call them?” Pacifist historians believe that he had never seen one up close before.
The English Bill of Rights, in 1688, declared that “Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defense,” and that clearly meant owning guns. Yet America’s Second Amendment, in the 1791 Bill of Rights, is unlikely to have enshrined gun ownership if nobody had guns or wanted them in the first place. In such a case, Americans would have been granted the right to raise one or more of their two arms in lawful surrender to the authorities; a civilised and suitably Progressive arrangement.
Granted there are some problems with the theory of a gunless Early America. It is hard to reconcile an unarmed Dan’l Boone, who in the famous song “killed a ‘bar’ when he was only three,” unless he distracted the bear by waving a salmon and it toppled from a tree to its death. Neither is it easy to account for the vast number of surviving Pennsylvania rifles, Kentucky rifles and squirrel guns, often so lovingly crafted and brass-inlaid by hand from figured maple, were they only intended to be decorations over a mantelpiece; but they might have been built as a pastime, perhaps to spare their clever makers from the dull sermons, hideous square-dances and dead-boring quilting-bees endemic to the period.
Aaron Burr may have shot Alexander Hamilton with a crossbow and not a duelling pistol, or the US Treasury Secretary may have died from a convenient myocardial infarction. Pacifists stand on even stronger ground with a weapons-free Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, where Louisiana cuisine alone could defeat an army of Britishers more than a century before the invention of Imodium. It is harder to explain how Samuel Colt made his fortune peddling his patented revolvers in the 1840s; and to whom if Americans did not wish to own guns. One supposes that a gun-free America, pre-Civil War, can explain how cleverly armed Mexicans conquered the Alamo.
Ultimately, the vast quantity of 18th and early 19th Century American firearms cluttering up modern antique-shops, gun shows and auction-houses may have been fabricated and made to look old, after the Civil War, by weapons manufacturers in order to convince customers of a gun-culture that never existed before. It would be no more unlikely than similar conspiracy theories later proven true; that the pyramids were made by space-aliens, or that Marilyn Monroe shot JFK from the “grassy knoll.”
But, one must admit, it is also possible that some of us are out of our tiny minds, and that we live in a land of Progressive make-believe and self-deception cohabited with the Tooth Fairy, Bunny Heaven, man-made global warming, socialised medicine and Keynesian economics. Only such wishful thinking could account for the multitudes of pundits, and even a few real-but-gullible historians, who gave rave reviews to Bellesiles’s book before critical scholars tore it to pieces.
On the gun issue and much else, we should be happy to let our real historians work it out for us. Meanwhile, everybody, own firearms and store them safely.
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