3 June 2022, upd 4 June
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.
What do Samuel Pepys in London and Horatio Gates¹ in Newburgh, New York have in common?
Imagine you’re a young up-and-coming resident of London in, say, 1660. You keep an elaborate detailed daily journal in which you discuss the daily life of your city…including possible dangers of soldiers protesting in the streets and not being paid.
This fear becomes distinctly more threatening exactly 123 years later, in Newburgh, NY. The American revolution has effectively ended but many enlisted soldiers are very unhappy that they have not been paid for some time and their promised pensions remain unfunded.
The thesis I’m proposing is that American Founders were concerned with two major issues on the military front: (1) the continuing threat of foreign incursions from Britain, Spain, Holland and the native indigenous populations; (2) the continual danger of angry, frustrated sometimes marauding on-the-loose soldiers in the standing army.As a result, they needed to have the protective capability of well-armed local militias—regulated militias, that is—ready to fight in case towns or villages needed to stand off against colonizing foreign powers as well as hungry, unpaid soldiers.
Note that in those days surrounding the American Revolution, a local militia drummed up from the citizenry, armed with muskets, flintlock pistols and swords, could well manage to hold off a lot of evildoers. There were no rapid-fire rifles or semi-automatic handguns–in fact, no bullets–and of course no aerial threats to worry about. All you needed was enough locals, authorized by the town council, who could do some training in the town square and be ready if Paul Revere came riding through. Most of them already had some kind of firearm to ward off foxes and other unwelcome intruders.
Now let’s look at the timeline
1660: Samuel Pepys begins writing his legendary diary detailing his observations of all manner of daily life, including the disgruntled soldiers in the streets (e.g. 5 Nov. 1660). They’re not necessarily causing damage or threatening the populace. But no one likes to see soldiers and seamen who haven’t been paid for a while “mouldering away,” wandering at large on the streets and byways.
1781-1783: The American revolutionary war effectively ends in October 1781 with the British surrender at Yorktown, VA. A preliminary peace treaty is signed in 1782 and the final treaty is formalized in September 1783 at the treaty of Paris—two years later.
However, fighting continues here and there after Yorktown and before the Paris accord. British forces remained stationed around Charleston, and their powerful main army still resided in New York. And despite a clear victory, the war did not unite the 13 colonies under one government. We had a Declaration of Independence but no constitution and no good way of paying our massive war debts, much less soldiers who were still expected to stay ready. There was, in effect, no federal government, just a “Congress of the Confederation” or Continental Congress.
1783: In March, a half-year before Paris, several thousand veterans of the Revolution are unhappy, bored and restless. The American Continental Army, based at Newburgh, NY is “monitoring” British-occupied New York City. With the end of the war and dissolution of the Continental Army approaching, soldiers who had long been unpaid feared that the Confederation Congress would not meet previous promises calling for back pay and pensions. An unsigned letter began circulating in the army camp basically threatening the civil government; this has become known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, which, fortunately was quickly quelled by George Washington.
However, according to historian Carol Berkin,
“Now that the army was no longer needed to protect the farms and homes of American citizens, a deeply rooted hostility to the military reemerged. Fears of a standing army overshadowed any gratitude to the men who had won American independence. The army was caught in a classic catch-22: the longer they remained in uniform, the more popular opinion turned against them” (36)
As much as the men would have liked to return to their farms and shops, once they laid down their arms they knew they’d have no leverage with the government…whatever it was at the time.
So, just as back in 1660 London, we now have a lot of disgruntled, unpaid soldiers in the Colonies who are not free to simply return to their farms and blacksmithing. One can easily picture the citizenry worried about rogue soldiers with their muskets, pistols and swords potentially ravishing the countryside and villages simply to feed themselves.
1786-87: Shays’ Rebellion takes place highlighting various economic grievances among the populace. This was an armed uprising in Massachusetts in response to a debt crisis among the citizenry and opposition to the state government’s increased efforts to collect taxes both on individuals and their trades
1788, June: the U.S. Constitution is ratified
1791, December: Bill of Rights is ratified.
It seems clear that when the Founders were envisioning the need for citizens to defend their property, homes and families, they were thinking of townsfolk establishing militias and arming themselves with Brown Bess flintlock bayonet muskets, muzzle-loading American Long Rifles, flintlock pistols and “French muskets.” That is, firearms that are really only effective for groups of trained citizens banding together to defend the town…as well as the lone hunter shooting deer and wildfowl. They could never even have imagined assault rifles capable of mowing down an entire enemy line with 150 bullets, fired while the enemy was busy reloading their muskets. So the appeal to “the right to bear arms” today bears practically no resemblance to what the founding fathers could possibly have had in mind.
First: there is no easy solution. One way, based on “originalism” theory, would be to repeal the 2nd and start over, recognizing that the Founders had no clue about guns capable of firing 150 “bullets.” But, y’know, that’s just not going to happen.
The other way would be to start legislating a broad spectrum of safety and security measures—exactly as we do for automobiles: seat belts, hazard lights, locks, mandatory driver training, yearly license renewals, license plates…
And so for guns: First, outlaw automatic and semi-automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns that are able to accept detachable magazines and “bump stocks.” Red flag laws are just not going to do it on their own. And don’t even think about arming teachers. Same with “only one door” school buildings. Also, we’ll need to raise the buying age to 21 (just like alcohol) and totally close gun sale loopholes. Background checks for all buyers, no matter the age. No “gifting” of family firearms, especially to kids, without registration. “Safe storage” laws (firearm and ammo stored separately). Yearly licensing. Weapon buyback. Strict enforcement. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
In short, it’s going to take a concerted, non-partisan effort (if that’s even possible) to get us to the level of safety and security that every other country on the planet enjoys, mostly because they’re not super-glued to an outdated “right.”
¹ Gates was a British-born American army officer, a rival of George Washington, who served as a general in the Continental Army during the early years of the Revolutionary War. He took credit for the American victory in the Battles of Saratoga (1777) – a matter of contemporary and historical controversy. He has been described as “one of the Revolution’s most controversial military figures” because of his role in the Conway Cabal, which attempted to discredit and replace George Washington. Rumors implicated some of his aides in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. Gates may have agreed to involve himself, though this remains unclear. (Knight)
Berkin, Carol. “George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy,” in I Wish I’d Been There, Anchor 2007.
Durham, J. Lloyd. “Outfitting an American Revolutionary Soldier.” NCPedia.Tar Heel Junior Historian. Fall 1992.
Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys- Vol. 1. Edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. Univ. of Calif Press, 1970.
FYI: Here’s a Civil War-era musket, nearly fourscore years later — takes anywhere from 20–60 seconds to reload (Allen & Allen. Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War)
and a cartoon