L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 91, September 25, 2000
Will Rewrite Nation's History to Suit New Tenant
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Some publicity has been generated by the prominent play given leftist college professor Garry Wills' review of the new book "Arming America: The origins of a National Gun Culture," by The New York Times.
I have not yet received a review copy of "Arming America," by Michael A. Bellesiles, though the folks at Alfred A. Knopf have promised me one.
Both Mr. Bellesiles and Mr. Wills embrace the theory that the old notion of America being "an armed nation" from 1750 to 1850—that America was conquered and defended by a rural, civilian populace mostly armed—is a myth. They go further, asserting that this myth has been invented on purpose by a modern right-wing conspiracy which they call "the gun cult."
I think it would thus be fair to characterize "Arming America" as an "anti-gun book."
Mr. Bellesiles, a colonial historian at Emory University, examined more than 1,000 probate records from New England and Pennsylvania for the years 1763 and 1790, discovered only 14 percent of these estates conveyed firearms to the decedents' heirs, and that "over half of them were unusable."
From that, both Mr. Bellesiles and his happy reviewer, Mr. Wills of Northwestern University, conclude that only 14 percent of Americans in the period 1763 to the Civil War owned firearms.
What Mr. Bellesiles has proved, Mr. Wills instructs us, is that, "Before the Civil War ... the average American had little reason to go to the expense and trouble of acquiring, mastering and maintaining a tool of such doubtful utility as a gun."
Clayton Cramer, who earned his master's degree in history at Sonoma State University in 1998, has been on the trail of Mr. Bellesiles' thesis for some time. He explodes it completely in his recent essay "Gun Scarcity in Antebellum America" (http://www.claytoncramer.com/GunScarcity.pdf)
Rather than extrapolating from probate records, Cramer goes to original, contemporary sources.
He finds Philip Gosse, an English naturalist visiting Alabama in the 1830s, writing: "The long rifle is familiar to every hand: skill in the use of it is the highest accomplishment which a southern gentleman glories in; even the children acquire an astonishing expertness in handling this deadly weapon at a very early age."
Gosse goes on to note that marksmanship skills were so "universally high" that young men had to resort to "curious tests" to prove their skill, such as driving a stout nail halfway into a post, whereupon the young men "stand at an immense distance and fire at the nail: the object is to hit the nail so truly on the head with the ball as to drive it home."
Yep. I guess those southern boys had pretty much never seen a rifle before.
Touring the young nation in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville reported that in Tennessee, "There is not a farmer but passes some of his time hunting and owns a good gun."
In 1839, Englishman Charles Augustus Murray wrote for his British readership of visiting a farmhouse in rural Virginia: "Nearly every man has a rifle, and spends part of his time in the chase."
Nor was this merely a rural phenomenon. In Charles H. Haswell's "Reminiscences of New York by an Octogenarian" (1896), he recalls that in February of 1836 a mob gathered to burn "Saint Patrick's Church in Mott Street." The effort came to naught, however, because, "The Catholics ... not only filled the church with armed men," but put so many armed men on the walls that Haswell describes the roof-line as appearing "crenellated" with them.
Does Mr. Wills embrace Mr. Bellesiles' evident nonsense because it confirms preconceived notions he wants desperately to believe? If so, was he a miserable choice to provide Times' readers with a reasonably skeptical analysis of the flaws in Mr. Bellesiles' methodology?
Were Joe Stalin's men ever any better at revising truth and history—cutting unwanted middlemen out of the old photos and sliding Comrade Joe over till he appears to be whispering in Lenin's attentive ear?
As to the flaws in Mr. Bellesiles' method, they should be fairly obvious. My own grandfather died only a decade ago, after a long infirmity. He left no written will that my mother can recall, and conveyed no firearms through probate. Mr. Bellesiles would thus conclude Clarence Edward Higginbotham never owned any guns, and had no skill in their use.
In fact, my grandfather was an accomplished and dedicated deer hunter, with a large gun closet. He taught me to shoot the rifle. As he grew older, he entrusted these weapons, one at a time, to friends and relations. If he, a 20th century resident of Ohio, saw no need for a will to convey these familiar but valued assets, how much less occasion did the average frontier American of the late 1700s have to bring lawyers and courts into the transfer of household goods to the next generation?
Finally, for the sake of argument, let us ask: If it could be demonstrated that only 14 percent of antebellum Americans had been churchgoers, could we therefore safely conclude the notion of Americans having long been a "God-fearing people" has been newly cooked up by some weird right-wing cult? And would it therefore become more acceptable to infringe the First Amendment freedom of religion—the Second Amendment being the real target of the bizarre revisionism we have been examining here today?
Americans without guns! These guys must be college professors.