Arming America

Written by Norman Kelley on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Arming America
By Michael Bellesiles

(Knopf, 603 pages, $30)

The new scholarship, according
to David Thelen, the Journal’s editor, was viewed as "too obscure
to appreciate and too remote from everyday life." He believed that the
profession had gotten to the point where dazzling people with the unfamiliar
and erudite had become more important than telling a good story or imparting
wisdom. Increasingly, people complained about the bad writing that had also
become a trademark of literary theory as well as cultural studies. The failure
to write clearly may have caused publishers and the reading public to forsake
academic history. According to Oshinsky, historians are in an odd position.
"Their subject is growing in popularity, yet their once considerable influence
is on the wane. Fewer people are seeking their wisdom."

This book is an exception
to the criticisms. It also demythologizes an icon of American society, and indirectly
critiques the "old school" of American historiography. Arming America:
The Origins of a National Gun Culture
by Michael Bellesiles, an Emory University
professor, is destined to be an influential book that may well change public
policy in regard to violence.

"An astoundingly high
level of personal violence," writes Bellesiles, "separates the United
States from every other industrial nation. To find comparable levels of interpersonal
violence, one must examine nations in the midst of civil wars or social chaos.
In the United States of America in the 1990s, two million violent crimes and
twenty-four thousand murders occurred on average every year. The weapon of choice
in 70 percent of these murders was a gun, and thousands more are killed by firearms
every year in accidents and suicides. In a typical week, more Americans are
killed with guns than in all of Western Europe in a year."

The FBI estimates that there
are 250 million firearms in private hands (within a population of more than
275 million) and five million new guns are purchased every year. Clearly, America
has a love affair with firearms. We are told that a high level of violence and
a love of guns stem from the nation’s colonial past. Every pioneer had
his Brown Bess and was a crack shot due to the exigencies of colonial life (i.e.,
stealing the land from the native inhabitants). In order to defend the land
from British Regulars, the original jackbooted thugs, the militia (aka the Minutemen)
assembled and fired their weapons at the "whites of their eyes." All
were marksmen used to hunting for game and defending the land from troublesome

Bellesiles has argued otherwise.
"[G]un ownership was exceptional in seventeenth, eighteenth, and early
nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier, and…guns became a common commodity
only with the industrialization of the mid-nineteenth century, with ownership
concentrated in urban areas." Bellesiles has marshaled an impressive array
of evidence and facts that argue against the mythology that guns were pervasive
in early American life. He also argues a radical thesis: Native Americans were
the original gun culture. The vaunted militia were next to useless in combating
Indians. It was European military organization, immigration and disease that
wrested the New World from its original people–not solely the gun.

The military leaders of
the Revolutionary War were of the same opinion in regard to the efficacy of
the militia, including George Washington. America’s gun culture is an "invented
tradition," not based on nation’s actual history. "It was not
present at the nation’s creation, whenever we fix that point. Rather, it
developed in a single generation, among those who experienced the onset of the
Civil War and that disaster itself."

Interestingly, historians
"have joined actively in the mythmaking." Bellesiles cites the credulousness
of historians who proclaim "that Americans all had guns because they had
to have them," yet were unable to substantiate these claims. "For
some reason these assertions seem beyond the usual need of historians for supportive

Bellesiles begins his historical
search for guns by examining county probate records (inventories of property
after a death). After looking at more than 1000 probate records from the frontiers
of northern New England and western Pennsylvania between the years 1765 and
1790, he found only 14 percent of the inventories included firearms, and 53
percent of those found were listed as either broken or defective. Bellesiles
allows for the possibility that firearms could have been passed on to heirs
before the original owner’s death, but wills generally mention previous
requests of even minor items. The book does not argue that guns didn’t
exist in early America. The author is concerned with "the normative, with
what most people did, owned, and thought in reference to guns, most of the time."

As witnessed by the recent
presidential election, the nation is forever debating violence. The introduction
of guns in Europe also proved to be a hotly debated subject. However, the concern
wasn’t over violence. Instead, guns were seen as ineffective weapons and
as a diminution of the manly arts of war. One English critic, Sir John Smythe,
thought that the weapons were of little use on the fields of battle and were
"limited by the need for constant practice and by an effective range of
only six to ten yards." Men like Smythe favored the standard of the English
militia, the long bow. However, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favored the
introduction of firearms, and in 1595 the Privy Council finally voted to replace
archers in the English military forces.

This change required a new
sociological factor in English society: the expertise to master the firearms
meant a longer training period, and thus the English militia, the army of the
commoner, became superfluous. The use of firearms would be in the sole province
of the state. "As England’s government came to encourage the use of
firearms among its troops, it not only outlawed the use of guns by commoners,
but also discouraged their use of bows and arrows."

The English government always
sought to control access to weapons, as did its colonial governments in America.
There was a profound tension in the colonial governments’ attitude toward
arms and the colonial man. The colonial governments sought to arm and train
the militia in response to the unreasonableness of the native population, who
wanted to hold on to their land. However, the governments were always concerned
that those whom they armed might turn around and foment an insurrection against
the government.

The image of today’s
bumbling militia member stumbling around in the suburbs or hinterlands has its
origins in the colonial militia. But the contemporary militia man–not the
National Guard–is better armed, if not better trained. For guns, after
all, were an expensive item for the average man in colonial America. As a matter
of fact, most men sought to escape militia duties. "Few free men welcomed
this duty, and fewer still could afford firearms, so it became necessary for
governments to supply them, with laws passed to effect that purpose."

In the South, the main purpose
of the militia was not merely protecting the colonies from Indians but the suppression
of the black population–slaves. And, as noted by Bellesiles, "Most
musters [of the militia] demonstrated a predilection toward merriment."
The militia also introduced an original American tradition: "the avoidance
of service by a great number of eligible young men."

Arming America’s
most radical thesis is the author’s contention that Native Americans became
the first gun culture in America. Indians were introduced to guns by the Europeans,
who competed for their allegiance against each other. By the mid-18th century
the Eastern Woodland Indians possessed more firearms per capita than any other
society in the world. This first American gun culture emerged from a conjunction
of the Indian desire for firearms with an acceleration of the contest for control
of North America. That the Indians did not have armies as such meant that ownership
of firearms was widespread, in that nearly all males were warriors. So, unlike
European societies, arms ownership was not restricted to the state and an elite.

The second American gun
culture began in the early to mid-years of the 19th century, Bellesiles argues,
with the introduction of interchangeable parts due to industrialization. Sam
Colt opened a new gun factory in his hometown of Hartford in 1848. While others
have argued that the development of the Colt revolver was a "natural outgrowth
of westward expansion," Bellesiles reminds readers of the facts. "Colt
invented his revolver at sea and developed it in New Jersey and Connecticut,
making the connection to the frontier tenuous at best." Colt pumped up
the hype of his gun by associating it with the image of the frontier, even though
his "sales were concentrated in the East."

American society was changing,
with the 1840s and 1850s marking a shift toward accelerating passions and violence.
"Differing paths for America, between a basically Victorian and European
conception of society and a perceived authenticity of violent Americanism, played
themselves out politically and sectionally." Those with pro-slavery sentiments
were more likely to use violence against those who held abolitionist views than
vice versa. Guns were used in just 18.1 percent in a study of 735 prominent
murders prior to 1846. Between 1846 and 1860, the figure nearly doubled, to
34.9 percent, and over the next 30 years it climbed to 59 percent.

The Civil War opened the
door to guns becoming an American way of life. The Union itself produced nearly
three million firearms, and its soldiers were allowed to take them home after
the war. The war unleashed such a sea-change of violence (remember, more than
600,000 soldiers, blue and gray, lost their lives) that New York City police
commissioners remarked that it was "a school of violence and crime."

Arming America serves
two important functions. First, it exposes the myth of the nation’s gun
heritage as an "invented tradition," unwittingly aided and abetted
by generations of American historians. (Bellesiles makes an exception for military
historians, who knew the facts but didn’t connect the dots.) Second, it
underscores how the nation’s social amnesia allows gun zealots to use the
mythology to undermine reasonable government control over firearms. Bellesiles
argues that the nation’s history with guns does not support gun advocates’
position on the Second Amendment. However, given the nation’s predilection
for myths, Americans probably won’t let the facts get in the way of a good