The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
Early Hints Toward the Second Amendment
The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.
—General Philip Henry Sheridan, 1869
The winter of 1610 in Jamestown, Virginia, is simply known as the “starving time.” Many settlers fled to join the Powhatan Indians to keep from starving. When summer arrived, the colonial governor sent a message to the Indians asking for the English settlers to be returned.
It’s unclear exactly how the Powhatan tribe responded, but the colony reported to the English that they received “noe other than prowde and disdaynefull answers.”1
The Powhatan people most likely fed the refugee settlers and gave them shelter and hospitality, but the Virginia governor nonetheless dispatched soldiers to get “revenge.”
Howard Zinn, in his People’s History of the United States, reports that when the soldiers found an Indian encampment, their actions demonstrated that the English could be every bit as brutal as Columbus was in Haiti.
Zinn writes that the soldiers “killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard ‘and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water’” (“shooting out their brains in the water”).
These types of gun-based skirmishes became common on what was then the American frontier—and 12 years later, Zinn reports, “the Indians, alarmed as the English settlements kept growing in numbers, apparently decided to try to wipe them out for good. They went on a rampage and, lacking guns, nonetheless massacred 347 men, women, and children with knives, bows and arrows, and spears. From then on it was total war.”2
Thus, genocidal battles on the frontier helped to lay the groundwork for America’s gun culture. Howard Zinn calls it “total war,” while other historians, such as Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz and John Grenier, referred to these conflicts as “savage war.”
These historians draw a direct line from colonial “savage war” to the Second Amendment, and to modern US warfare and the militarization of American police via the war on drugs.
“Today, called ‘special operations’ or ‘low-intensity conflict,’” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “that kind of warfare was first used against Indigenous communities by colonial militias. . . . These voluntary fighting crews made up of individual civilians—‘rangers’—are the groups referenced as militias, as they came to be called, in the Second Amendment.”3
Here, again, is part of the Second Amendment’s roots—in genocide and in the centuries-long “total war” that European settlers waged against Native Americans.
Gun Culture’s Ebb and Flow
[Using guns,] Pizarro captured Atahuallpa within a few minutes after the two leaders first set eyes on each other. Pizarro proceeded to hold his prisoner for eight months, while extracting history’s largest ransom in return for a promise to free him. After the ransom—enough gold to fill a room 22 feet long by 17 feet wide to a height of over 8 feet—was delivered, Pizarro reneged on his promise and executed Atahuallpa.
—Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
“Not until the New Englanders learned to fight like Indians could they defeat the Indians,” writes David Kopel in a Washington Post article titled, “The American Indian foundation of gun culture.”1
Kopel shows that the British had been so afraid, for so many centuries, of peasant uprisings that they banned guns and didn’t encourage military marksmanship. Thus, there was virtually no “gun culture” in 17th-century England, so the whole idea of sharpshooters (like King Arthur’s bowmen of Middle Ages England) had died out.
The result was that when British soldiers in North America went off to kill Indians, they did so arrayed in straight lines and with brute-force shooting—whichever side fired the most bullets generally killed the most guys on the other side.
But the Indians of North America didn’t cooperate like European armies and just stand in a conspicuous line to be shot at.
They grew up in a hunting and gathering culture, by and large, that emphasized skill and stealth. They hid behind trees and hills, sneaked up behind British forces, and even set traps for the hapless Brits.
On the American frontier, that meant that even with superior firepower, the English were routinely suffering losses to the Indians. The Indians knew the land better, and they were fighting to protect a homeland that had sustained the Indians and their culture for thousands of years.
In his history of early Virginia, titled American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund S. Morgan writes that in the middle of the 17th century, “[s]ince the Indians were better woodsmen than the English and virtually impossible to track down, the method was to feign peaceful intentions, let them settle down and plant their corn wherever they chose, and then, just before harvest, fall upon them, killing as many as possible and burning the corn.”2
Without trickery and guns, early American settlers would have been wiped out by Native Americans on their own land. But guns (and a fondness for violent brutality) made the difference.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote on August 2, 1816, reflecting on that era to his protégé James Madison, “After Braddock’s defeat, on the Monongahela in 1755, the incursions of the Indians on our frontiers spread panic and dismay thro’ the whole country; insomuch that it was scarcely possible to procure men, either as regulars or militia, to go against them.”3
But the English settlers were determined to dominate the land they had stolen and settled—and to utterly destroy the indigenous people they encountered on the stolen land.
And that required guns and the marksmanship skills that come with a developing gun culture.
In less than a generation, the European invaders of North America figured out that if they were going to be effective at stealing Indians’ land, they’d better quickly become good shots.
Thus, by the time of the American Revolution, George Washington’s army—and white people across the continent generally—had become proficient marksmen, and personal gun ownership had become much more commonplace among both “pioneers” and urban wealthy people (guns were as expensive then, relative to income, as cars are now, but nobody was writing gun loans or leases, so they weren’t as common as cars are today).
How Slavery Laid the Foundation of the Second Amendment
I think slavery is the next thing to hell.
—Harriet Tubman to Benjamin Drew, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, 1855
Europeans used guns and formed loose militias to wage a genocidal war against the once-thriving Native American population in North America. Militias in the South at first served the same role, but as the American frontier pushed westward, the role of local militias shifted.
By the mid-18th century, rich plantation owners located east of the Appalachian frontier were generally protected by the British military, which enforced the treaties between Native American tribes and the British empire.
As a result, white men in the South soon served in militias for a very different purpose. Rather than keeping Native Americans out of the plantations, the militias were deployed to keep African slaves on the plantations—or to return any who may have escaped. These militias were known as “slave patrols,” and they were well regulated by the slave states.
In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, the colonial government passed laws in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their white male employees to be members of the Georgia militia and those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who might be planning uprisings.
As Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California, Davis, Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”1
It’s the answer to the question posed by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: well-regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.
Sally E. Hadden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, writes, “Although eligibility for the militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller.” There were exemptions so that “men in critical professions,” like judges, legislators, and students, could stay at their work.2
Generally, though, she documents how most southern men between 18 and 45—including physicians and ministers—had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.
And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.
By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and put down slave uprisings. Slavery can exist only in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the gun-toting slave-patrol militias.3