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Arming America: A Novel Rewrite Of American History

Monday, May 14, 2001

While it has received rave reviews from the gun-unfriendly media,
Arming America is a flawed book in which the author's
claims aren't just wrong--they're intentionally deceptive.

By now, you have probably heard about this "stunning"1 or "brilliantly argued"2 new book by Michael A. Bellesiles, a history professor of Emory University. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture is receiving all sorts of positive attention from the usual suspects in the academic community and the media. For these reasons, it is really important to understand what Bellesiles claims and why he isn't just wrong--he is intentionally deceptive.

Arming America is a startling book that demolishes many long-cherished myths of early America about violence, guns and the effectiveness of the militia. It is a novel work, in both senses of the word "novel"--much of it is certainly "new," and much of it is highly imaginative fiction.

Bellesiles argues that the militia were, throughout American history, an ineffective force; that guns were very scarce in America before about 1840; and that few Americans hunted.

The first of these claims--that the militia were quite ineffective--is really the least controversial (at least to historians). Many Americans have grown up with a vision of "Minutemen," running out the door, Kentucky long rifle in hand to take on them "Redcoats." Historians have recognized for at least 40 years that for every success of the "citizen soldier" in defending home and nation, there were far more examples of militias turning tail in battle or simply leaving for home because harvest time had come.

Bellesiles argues that the notion that armed citizens would be a useful alternative to standing armies or a restraint on tyranny was a romantic delusion of the Framers of our Constitution. Bellesiles' goal in blackening the reputation of the militia is to demonstrate that the Second Amendment was a fantasy from the very beginning.

Bellesiles is correct that militias were never as well-trained as standing armies and seldom very effective in fighting against regular troops. Similarly, there was really no realistic alternative to at least a small standing army, especially on the sparsely populated frontiers. But the ineffectiveness of the militia is really a sideshow in Bellesiles' book. The truly novel part is Bellesiles' claims that guns were scarce in America until nearly the Civil War.

Why were guns scarce? Because not only were guns expensive but also because, "the majority of American men did not care about guns. They were indifferent to owning guns, and they had no apparent interest in learning how to use them."3 Bellesiles claims that marksmanship was extraordinarily poor and large numbers of adult men had no idea how to load a gun, or how to fire one.

To hear Bellesiles tell it, this lack of both interest and knowledge was because of the fundamentally peaceful nature of early America4 and that hunting was very rare here until the mid-1830s, when a small number of wealthy Americans chose to ape their upper class British counterparts.5 Indeed, Professor Bellesiles would have us believe that by the 1830s, a pacifist movement, fiercely hostile to not only gun ownership, but also a military and hunting of any form, was becoming a major influence on American society.6

As I continued my research, I concluded that Bellesiles was wrong about the scarcity of guns and rarity of hunting--very wrong. As I read travel accounts, memoirs, diaries and newspapers of the period for my last book, it was apparent that America was awash in guns, and hunting was very common.

At first I assumed that Bellesiles was simply mistaken--that his choice of sources had been atypical or that he had simply misread his sources because they didn't say what he wanted them to say. I have now checked a number of Bellesiles' sources with great care. I can say with great confidence that he isn't honestly mistaken; he is intentionally deceiving his readers.

Let me be very clear on this. I am not saying that Bellesiles missed books and papers that showed that early America had lots of guns and lots of hunters. Bellesiles' own sources, the ones that he listed in his footnotes, demonstrate that in some cases, he read materials that directly contradict his claims. In other cases, Bellesiles makes claims about guns and hunting in early America, but when I checked the sources that he lists, there is nothing there. Often, the sources he lists, even the particular pages that he lists, contain evidence that contradicts his claims. Most blatant of all, Bellesiles quotes parts of sentences from some sources and makes false statements about what was in the rest of the sentence.

As an example, Bellesiles quotes George Washington, concerning the 1756 emergency call-up of the Virginia militia: Colonel Washington reported on the militia to Governor Dinwiddie: "Many of them (are) unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision." In one company of more than 70 men, he reported, only 25 had any sort of firearms. Washington found such militia "incapacitated to defend themselves, much less to annoy the enemy."7

But when you examine what Washington actually wrote in that letter, you find that Bellesiles has misquoted Washington. Bellesiles leads the reader to believe that Washington was complaining that this was the general state of the militia. Washington was clearly referring to only some militia units:

"I think myself under the necessity of informing your Honor, of the odd behaviour of the few Militia that were marched hither from Fairfax, Culpeper, and Prince William counties. Many of them unarmed, and all without ammunition or provision. Those of Culpeper behaved particularly ill: Out of the hundred that were draughted, seventy-odd arrived here; of which only twenty-five were tolerably armed."

Washington considered the militia arriving inadequately armed to be "odd behaviour" and worth mentioning. This suggests that other militia units were adequately armed and brought ammunition. Washington sought to have the unarmed militiamen punished, which suggests that their behavior--arriving inadequately armed without ammunition--was exceptional, not typical.8 And yet Bellesiles portrays this unusual situation among a "few" of Washington's militia units as normal behavior for the militia that Washington commanded.

Bellesiles also claims that, "Massachusetts conducted a very thorough census of arms, finding that there were 21,549 guns in the province of some 250,000 people." Bellesiles claims that this included all privately owned firearms.9 Bellesiles' source for this claim is an inventory of "Warlike Stores in Massachusetts, 1774." But when I examined the inventory, dated April 14, 1775, I found that there is nothing there that tells what categories of firearms were counted. Certainly, it includes stockpiles owned by towns.10 But does it include all privately owned arms as well? Bellesiles claims that it does.

The sources that Bellesiles lists for this claim, however, are largely silent as to what categories of firearms were counted. None of the pages that Bellesiles lists tell us that all privately owned firearms were included in that inventory. The only information that I can find about this arms census is a note of February 13, 1775, that orders a committee to inquire "into the state of the militia, their numbers and equipments, and recommending to the selectmen of the several towns and districts in this province, to make return of their town and district stocks of ammunition and warlike stores to this Congress."11

This seems to say that only military arms possessed by enrolled militia members and publicly owned arms were counted. There is nothing that indicates that all privately owned arms in Massachusetts were counted.

The evidence from Bellesiles' own sources suggests that firearms were plentiful and that the inventory recorded only a small part of all firearms in the province. An entry for October 27, 1774 directs inhabitants of Massachusetts to be "properly and effectually armed and equipped" and that "if any of the inhabitants are not provided with arms and ammunition according to law" the town was to arm them."12 If there were really only one gun for every 11 people, as Bellesiles claims, it seems a bit odd that the Provincial Congress was ordering every militia member to be armed and the towns to provide arms to those who didn't have them. Why issue an order that was, according to Bellesiles, utterly impossible to achieve?

Other pages in this same book that Bellesiles lists as a source show quite clearly that arms were not scarce. A committee appointed to examine the problem of soldiers who lacked firearms reported on May 9, 1775:

"Whereas, a few of the inhabitants of this colony, who are enlisted into its service, are destitute of fire arms, bayonets, and other accoutrements;

"Resolved, That the selectmen of the several towns and districts in this colony be, and hereby are, directed and empowered to examine into the state of the equipment of such inhabitants of their respective towns and districts as are, or may be, enlisted into the service of this colony, and where any are deficient in arms or accoutrements, as aforesaid, it is recommended to the selectmen to supply them out of the town stock, and in case of a deficiency there, to apply to such inhabitants of their respective towns and districts as, in their opinions, can best spare their arms or accoutrements, and to borrow or purchase the same for the use of said inhabitants so enlisted: and the selectmen are also directed to take a bill from such persons as shall sell their arms and accoutrements, in the name of this colony. . . ."13

Not "most of the inhabitants of this colony, who are enlisted into its service" are without firearms; not "many," not "some," but "a few"--and it isn't clear whether the problem is firearms, bayonets, or "accoutrements" (for example, cartridge pouches). Certainly, it is possible that a person who used a musket primarily for hunting would lack a bayonet. Perhaps the Revolutionary government of Massachusetts didn't know how well its militia were armed--at least, not as well as Michael Bellesiles knows.

As the Revolutionary War continued, there are again discussions of the need to arm those soldiers "who are destitute of arms," but there is no indication that this was a problem of great concern.14 If there were a serious shortage of firearms or ammunition for the militia, as Bellesiles claims, it seems strange that the Provincial Congress on June 17, 1775 (almost two months after Redcoats fired on Minutemen at Lexington) recommended to non-militia members "living on the sea coasts, or within twenty miles of them, that they carry their arms and ammunition with them to meeting on the (S)abbath, and other days when they meet for public worship."15 Somehow, there was a shortage of guns and ammunition for the militiamen, but non-militia members still had enough arms and ammunition that they were encouraged to bring them to all public meetings.

Were guns rare in colonial Massachusetts, as Bellesiles claims? If so, you would expect the value of guns to be high, especially once the Revolutionary War started, and there was no way to import more guns from Europe. (Bellesiles claims that there were almost no guns made in the colonies.)16

The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts bought arms from many private owners in the first few months of the war, sometimes purchasing as many as 100 in a single transaction. Interestingly enough, they appear not to have seized these arms, but repeatedly appealed to the patriotism of private gun owners.17 The Journals that Bellesiles uses had records of at least 483 guns, "fire-arms," and "small arms" purchased from private parties by the Provincial Congress. The arms were appraised; the values listed do not suggest that guns were rare.18

The average price of these arms comes to just under 2 pounds. Perhaps some of these contained in transactions labeled "small arms" were actually pikes or swords; let' s give the benefit of the doubt to Bellesiles and only look at transactions labeled "fire-arms" or "guns" and assume that none of the "small arms" are guns. Even the "fire-arms" and "guns" transactions (total of 89 arms) show an average price of 2 pounds 5 shillings 1 pence--not a trivial amount of money for the time, but about the same as a sergeant's monthly wages in the Massachusetts army.19 If guns were scarce, it doesn't show up in their valuation.

Another example of what makes Arming America not simply wrong, but intentionally deceptive, is, "an examination of eighty travel accounts written in America from 1750 to 1860 indicate that the travelers did not notice that they were surrounded by guns and violence."20 Similarly, he tells us that hunting until the 1840s was done almost entirely by a small number of professional market hunters, or by Indians--most Americans, even on the frontier, did not hunt.21

But when I read travel accounts from the first 40 years of the 19th century, I came to the realization that if Bellesiles is right, not only will a lot of our textbooks have to be rewritten, but dozens of books written by people who lived in the period 1800-1840 will have to be rewritten as well, to bring them into conformity with Bellesiles' "research."

Somehow, Bellesiles read Rush Baynard Hall's memoir of frontier Indiana life immediately after statehood (1816)--and missed Hall's detailed description of how hunting was a common part of life for most settlers, done partly for sport, and partly because it supplied fresh meat at very little expense.22 Not surrounded by guns? Hall devotes an entire chapter to the joy of target shooting with rifles, opening the chapter with:

"Reader, were ever you fired with the love of rifle shooting? If so, the confidence now reposed in your honour will not be abused, when told my love for that noble art is unabated. . . ."23

The rifle was so common an implement and target shooting so common a sport, that when Hall went out evangelizing in a sparsely settled part of Indiana, one of his fellow preachers switched in mid-sermon to a metaphor involving rifle matches to sway the audience. They were becoming restless with analogies that meant nothing to them--but rifle matches they understood.24

Hunting and target shooting were common enough that Hall describes non-lethal hunting and target shooting accidents.25 Hall's discussions of hunting, use and misuse of guns, and target shooting occur on 41 pages of Hall's book--all of which Bellesiles seems to have either missed or disregarded.

Bellesiles read Anne Newport Royall's description of 1818 Alabama and missed her discussion of the use of guns for self-defense and hunting as completely ordinary events, incidental to the events and people that she depicts. Royall also refers to bear hunting in her native Virginia as an ordinary part of life, with no indication that it was anymore unusual than an American today driving a car.26

Even when Bellesiles admits that there is a mention of guns in one of these travel accounts, he distorts what it says. As an example, "Similarly, Ole Rynning advised his Norwegian readers to bring 'good rifles with percussion locks,' as such good guns are far too expensive in America and can be sold there for a good profit. Guns thus had an economic value, but if thought requisite for self-protection, it remained an unstated assumption."27

I had read Rynning's book, and knew what it actually said there. Rynning said to bring "good rifles with percussion locks, partly for personal use, partly for sale. I have already said that in America a good rifle costs from fifteen to twenty dollars."28 Bellesiles didn't actually lie, and say that the only possible value of a gun for a Norwegian immigrant was to sell it here; instead, he misleads, by giving the impression that the value of bringing a good gun to America was to sell it, not to use it yourself. Rynning is clear that one should bring guns both to sell and because one would need them here.

Bellesiles is really a master of this sort of careful mischaracterization of sources that doesn't quite cross the line into lying, but is clearly deceptive. Another example of Bellesiles' careful mischaracterizations of sources that doesn't quite cross the line into lying, is Charles Augustus Murray's description of his hunting trip from Britain to America in the late 1830s. Bellesiles tells us that, "Hunting in America disappointed Murray. He had expected more gentlemen hunters, but only army officers on frontier posts seemed to fit that description."29

Having spent great energy in claiming that hunting was a rare activity, done only by professional market hunters and Indians, the reader not familiar with Murray's book will slide right past that sentence and conclude that there weren't many hunters in America. But Murray met lots of hunters--they just weren't "gentlemen" hunters. Murray described how common both firearms ownership and sport hunting were in rural Virginia:

"I lodged the first night at the house of a farmer, about seven miles from the village, who joined the habits of a hunter to those of an agriculturalist, as is indeed the case with all the country people in this district; nearly every man has a rifle, and spends part of his time in the chase."30 These were ordinary farmers, not "gentlemen," as Bellesiles claims were overwhelmingly the sport hunters of that time.

Bellesiles read Murray, Rynning, Royall, and Hall. He quotes selectively and out of context from some, and mischaracterizes others, when he tells us that the travel accounts show no evidence that the travelers were "surrounded by guns." I could belabor the point, and point to two dozen travel accounts and diaries that Bellesiles seems to have missed--including common works such as Alexis de Tocqueville's Journey to America, that show that guns, violence and hunting were common in early America31--but what is the point? Once you have established that an historian is intentionally deceptive, it doesn't really matter if he is also a sloppy and negligent scholar.

Perhaps Bellesiles is right, and dozens of eyewitnesses of the time, and official documents are wrong. But when an historian repeatedly mischaracterizes, quotes out of context, or simply ignores sources because they do not fit his claims--well, let's just say that it's bit early to start revising textbooks to fit the new wisdom from Arming America.

Clayton E. Cramer ( claytoncramer.com) received his M.A. in History from Sonoma State University in 1998. His fifth book, Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform was published by Praeger Press in 1999. A more detailed critique of the Bellesiles's claims, including other diaries, travel accounts and statistical evidence, can be found at GunScarcity.

1 Alfred F. Young quoted on Amazon.com (return)
2 Peter S. Onuf quoted on Amazon.com(return)
3 Michael A. Bellesiles, Arming America: The Originas of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 295(return)
4 Bellesiles, 314-15(return)
5 Bellesiles, 320-23(return)
6 Bellesiles, 300-1(return)
7 Bellesiles, 159(return)
8 George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, June 27, 1757, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Wahington: Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 2:78-79, hereinafter Writings of George Washington(return)
9 Bellesiles, 180(return)
10 Massachusetts Provincial Congress, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775 (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 756(return)
11 Massachusetts Provincial Congress, 98(return)
12 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 34(return)
13 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 209-10(return)
14 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 332(return)
15 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 348-49(return)
16 Bellesiles, 188-91(return)
17 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 210, 336-37(return)
18 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 536-37, 584-93(return)
19 Massaschusetts Provincial Congress, 413(return)
20 Bellesiles, 304(return)
21 Bellesiles, 320-23(return)
22 Robert Carlton (Rush Baynard Hall), The New Purchase, or Early Years in the Far West, 2nd ed. (New Albany, Ind.: Jonathan R. Nunemacher, 1855), 66, 82, 139-49, 153, 160-3, 375, 448-51(return)
23 (Hall), The New Purchase, 100-113(return)
24 (Hall), The New Purchase, 228-30(return)
25 (Hall), The New Purchase, 262-3(return)
26 Anne Newport Toyall, Letters from Alabama, 1817-1822 (University of Alabama Press, 1969), 181-89, 203(return)
27 Bellesiles, 339(return)
28 Ole Rynning, ed. And trans. Theodore C. Blegen, Ole Rynning's True Account of America (1926; Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), 99(return)
29 Bellesiles, 309(return)
30 Charles Augustus Murray, Travels in North America (London, 1839, reprinted New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), 118-119(return)
31 Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 95, 103, 281(return)

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