Cover image for Arming America : the origins of a national gun culture
Arming America : the origins of a national gun culture
Bellesiles, Michael A.
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First edition.
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New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
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603 pages ; 24 cm
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HV8059 .B45 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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How and when did Americans develop their obsession with guns? Is gun-related violence so deeply embedded in American historical experience as to be immutable? The accepted answers to these questions are "mythology," says Michael A. Bellesiles. Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception--even on the frontier--until the age of industrialization. In Colonial America the average citizen had virtually no access to or training in the use of firearms, and the few guns that did exist were kept under strict control. No guns were made in America until after the Revolution, and there were few gunsmiths to keep them in repair. Bellesiles shows that the U.S. government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens, but it met only public indifference and resistance until the 1850s, when technological advances--such as repeating revolvers with self-contained bullets--contributed to a surge in gun manufacturing. Finally, we see how the soaring gun production engendered by the Civil War, and the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons at the end of the conflict, transformed the gun from a seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity--opposing ideas that are still at the center of the fight for and against gun control today. Michael A. Bellesiles's research set off a chain of passionate reaction after its publication in the Journal of American History in 1996, and Arming America is certain to be one of the most controversial and widely read books on the subject. From the Hardcover edition.

Author Notes

Michael A. Bellesiles is Associate Professor of History at Emory University & Director of Emory's Center for the Study of Violence. He is the author of "Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen & the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier," & of numerous articles & reviews. He lives in Atlanta.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like most students of U.S. history, Bellesiles (Emory University) believed gun-related violence was inextricably woven into the American past from its earliest days. Then he started studying county probate records as part of a project about the early American frontier. To his surprise, he found that for the years 1765 to 1770, only 14 percent of probate inventories listed a gun. Further study convinced Bellesiles that American gun culture began only with the Civil War. Sickened by the carnage associated with guns today, Bellesiles, in his second book (following Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier), is agenda driven. If U.S. society has, as he contends, been largely free of gun-related violence in the past, then it could be again. This agenda, however, does not taint Bellesiles's scholarship. Through examination of "[l]egal, probate, military and business records, travel accounts, personal letters" and other primary sources, he painstakingly documents the relative absence of guns before the Civil WarÄand the rise of the gun culture in its wake, due to an increasingly urban populace now accustomed to shooting and newly industrialized gun manufacturers tooled up to mass-produce firearms. This combination of factors, he argues, led to the violence-prone American ethos, one that fetishizes guns. Bellesiles's approachable writing style makes easily digestible this revision of the historiographical record. "The question is one of cultural primacy," Bellesiles contends. "What lies at the core of national identity?" His answer is bound to inflame today's impassioned controversy over gun control. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Historian Bellesiles (Emory Univ.) argues that until approximately 1840, Americans had no gun culture, as demonstrated by public indifference to guns, rare violence by firearm, and limited gun ownership. The gun culture was an invented tradition, aided by the US government, which placed guns in the hands of citizens. Bellesiles's work is prodigiously documented with legal, probate, militia, business, and other records. The first half of his work details the paucity of guns in the US and the efforts by early governments to form viable militias. He proves that the second amendment addressed arming the militia, not arming every citizen. Other portions of the work, such as those seeking to demonstrate the lack of violence in the US after 1800, are less convincing. He states, with limited evidence, that American mobs were less violent than those in Europe, and that there was a lack of firearms before the Civil War. Despite these limitations, this is a must for students of violence and firearms as it is the most complete and best-documented work on these subjects. All collections. J. A. Luckett; United States Military Academy

Booklist Review

Expect vitriolic debate about historian Bellesiles' analysis of when and how the U.S. came to have a "national gun culture," because it upends the traditional notion that guns are as American as apple pie. Bellesiles argues that "gun ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier." Guns became commonplace only toward midcentury, as American-made weapons began to equal European guns in quality, and the Civil War taught large numbers of men how to use them. Americans indeed developed "a fixation with firearms that any modern enthusiast would recognize and salute," but this fixation developed only in the 1870s. From the Revolution through the 1840s, government tried to arm its citizens, with limited success; it subsidized the gun industry, which ultimately mechanized production enough to produce large quantities of quality weapons. And then, Bellesiles observes, "The Civil War transformed the gun from a tool into a perceived necessity. The War preserved the Union, unifying the nation around a single icon: the gun." --Mary Carroll

Library Journal Review

Bellesiles (history, Emory Univ.; Revolutionary Outlaws), a historian of Colonial American violence and militarism, sets out to counter two conventional beliefs: that the gun was prevalent in Colonial America and that the tradition of the local citizens' militia is based on historic reality. The author asserts that guns, which were hard to obtain and simply did not function with any reliability, were rarely present in American life before the Civil War. He depicts a pre-Civil War America in which citizens shunned militia service. Mid-19th-century entrepreneurs, following the lead of Samuel Colt, developed reliable firearms for an expanding national standing army, while a market for leisure hunters arose as the frontier was tamed. Bellesiles presents compelling and unconventional evidence in this advocacy-history but treats traditional sources highly selectively. Although bound to be one of this year's most significant works, the book will be criticized by gun-culture activists as well as some of Bellesiles's professional colleagues. Its innovative arguments will find a readership in both academic and public libraries.DScott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From the Introduction On April 6, 1998, the nation's two leading news magazines featured cover photographs of a young boy with a gun. The photograph on the cover of Time magazine was of a toddler named Andrew Golden, dressed in camouflage and clutching a high-powered rifle. Newsweek featured a slightly older Andrew Golden, still in camouflage, now clutching a pistol. The two magazines chronicled the brief lives of Golden and Mitchell Johnson, boys growing up in a culture in which parents thought it a good idea to pose their three-year-olds with deadly weapons and said, "Santa gave Drew Golden a shotgun when he was six." These two children were raised with guns, and with God. Mitchell Johnson had just "made a profession of faith and decided to accept Jesus Christ as his savior." He was active in his church and impressed the adults with his piety. But the temptation of a gun can trump a claim of faith in God and all dreams of childhood innocence. On March 24, 1998, these two boys, aged eleven and thirteen, set off the fire alarm at their school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and then shot at the other children as they filed out of the building. Between them the boys had three rifles and seven pistols. In less than four minutes, they fired twenty-two shots, killing eleven-year-old Brittheny Varner, twelve-year-olds Natalie Brooks, Stephanie Johnson, and Paige Ann Herring, and their young teacher Shannon Wright, who was shielding one of her students. Golden and Johnson wounded ten other people, mostly children. The questions asked repeatedly after the Jonesboro tragedy -- as after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, and after every similar mass shooting -- seem depressingly familiar: How did we get here? How did the United States reach a point where children shoot and kill? How did we acquire a culture in which Santa Claus gives a six-year-old boy a shotgun for Christmas? For Christmas! An astoundingly high level of personal violence 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. Newspapers regularly carry stories of shootings with peculiar causes, like the case of the Michigan man who shot at a coworker who took a cracker from him at lunch without asking. In no other industrial nation do military surgeons train at an urban hospital to gain battlefield experience, as is the case at the Washington Hospital Center in the nation's capital. It is now thought normal and appropriate for urban elementary schools to install metal detectors to check for firearms. And when a Denver pawnshop advertised a sale of pistols as a "back-to-school" special, four hundred people showed up to buy guns. The manifestations of America's gun culture are well known: the sincere love and affection with which American society views its weapons are demonstrated daily on television and movie screens. Every form of the media reinforces the notion that the solution to your problems can be held in your hand and provides immediate gratification. Just as there are flight simulators that re-create the experience of flying a plane, so do video games make available to any child in America a killing simulator that will train him or her to shoot without a moment's hesitation. An entire generation, as Dave Grossman has astutely argued, is being conditioned to kill. And since the United States does not register guns, no one knows how many there are or who actually buys them. The FBI estimates that there are 250 million firearms in private hands, with five million new guns purchased every year. The National Sporting Goods Association estimates that men buy 92 percent of all rifles and 94 percent of the shotguns. Most of these men fall into the 25- to 34-year-old age group, earn between $35,000 and $50,000 annually, and do not need to kill animals for their survival. That efforts to solve violence are subject to volatile contention should not be surprising. Solutions require a knowledge of origins, and that search for historical understanding has politicized the past as well. Many if not most Americans seem resigned to, or find comfort in, the notion that this violence is immutable, the product of a deeply imbedded historical experience rooted in the frontier heritage. Frequent Indian wars and regular gun-battles in the streets of every Western town presumably inured Americans to the necessity of violence. That frontiers elsewhere did not replicate America's violent culture is thought irrelevant. In the imagined past, "the requirements for self-defense and food-gathering had put firearms in the hands of nearly everyone." With guns in their hands and bullets on their belts, the frontiersmen conquered the wilderness with a deep inward faith that, as Richard Slotkin so eloquently put it, regeneration came through violence. In short, we have always been killers. From this Hobbesian heritage of each against all emerged the modern American acceptance of widespread violence. Its fixed character has the political implication that little if anything can be done to alter America's gun culture.... The gun is so central to American identity that the nation's history has been meticulously reconstructed to promote the necessity of a heavily armed American public. In the classic telling, arms ownership has always been near universal, and American liberty was won and maintained by the actions of privately armed citizens. The gun culture has been read from the present into the past. Franklin Orth, executive vice president of the NRA, told a Senate subcommittee in 1968, "There is a very special relationship between a man and his gun -- an atavistic relation with its deep roots in prehistory, when the primitive man's personal weapon, so often his only effective defense and food provider, was nearly as precious to him as his own limbs." What, then, of the man who does not have such a special relationship with his gun? What kind of man is he? And even more frightening, what if we discover that early American men did not have that special bond with their guns? Historians have joined actively in the mythmaking. Book after book proclaims that Americans all had guns because they had to have them. Frontier settlers especially would have been armed because of the need to hunt, and to defend themselves from one another and from skulking Indians. Yet nineteenth-century historians somehow missed this special relationship of Americans with their guns, and twentieth-century historians often question their own evidence when it contradicts what is assumed to have always existed. Thus, in a wonderful book, William C. Davis refutes the familiar vision of the frontier as the site of repeated Indian attacks and murderous conduct. But he then adds: "Of course, every cabin had at least one rifle, and perhaps an old pistol or two. . . . They put meat on the table, defended the home against intruders, and provided some entertainment to the men. . . . A man was not a man without knowledge of firearms and some skill in their use." The rifle was fundamental, as every frontier father "taught his sons to use it from the age of ten or earlier. . . . They went with him to hunt the deer and bear that filled their dinner plates, and in the worst extremities, when the Indians came prowling or on the warpath, the boys became men all too soon in defending their lives and property." As supportive evidence, Davis cites a receipt showing how expensive it was to buy lead. While many historians have accepted this formulation of America's past without too many doubts, a few have claimed originality in discovering the presence of guns. Wesley Frank Craven maintained "a point that too often has been overlooked, or simply taken for granted, and that is that every able free male inhabitant of an English settlement in North America was armed." Yet Craven fails to provide even one example of this widespread gun ownership. For some reason these assertions seem beyond the usual need of historians for supportive evidence, even when the author notes the absence of such evidence. Harold L. Peterson, an outstanding scholar of the history of firearms, wrote, "At no time in American history have weapons been more important than they were from 1620 to 1690. They protected the early colonist from the attack of wild beast or savage, and were the means of providing him with food and clothing and with many of the commodities which he sent back to England." And then comes the odd twist: "Because of this importance of arms, the colonists were forced to purchase the most efficient arms that Europe produced." They produced none themselves, so they had to import them all, and as a consequence, "Americans soon outdistanced the Europeans in superiority of weapons and in skill in using them." This logic, while difficult to follow, is supported in the next sentence with the observation that "the contemporary writers only occasionally refer specifically to the type of arms used," leaving the historian with no choice but "indirect reference." It often seems that historians lack confidence in their research. Many have noted that Americans did not have very many guns, only to fall back on an insistence that most men must have owned guns. On the basis of extensive research in the source materials, one scholar of gunsmithing, James B. Whisker, observed that there was a "scarcity of firearms" in early America, which became evident "in times of national emergency." After providing ninety pages of evidence attesting to that scarcity, Whisker concluded, "It is probably [sic] that most urban and nearly every rural household in the United States had at least one gun. . . . With the exception of a few religious pacifists, every american [sic] was tied to firearms in some way: they hunted, they sought protection and they enjoyed sport, all with guns." Elsewhere, Whisker writes about Americans' unfamiliarity with firearms, citing Jeffrey Amherst's shock when he discovered that most Colonial militiamen had no idea how to use a gun, and remarking on "the generally unarmed civilians" of Revolutionary America. Defying his own research, Whisker then declared that "Americans, accustomed to firearms since birth, realized the importance of good guns." No one could be familiar with a ten-pound, four-and-a-half-foot-long flintlock from birth, though it is a favorite image within the myth of American gun ownership. The power of image and myth repeatedly overwhelms reality in discussions of early American firearms. Paul B. Jenkins, a prominent gun expert in the first half of the twentieth century, wrote that the Sharps rifle "accompanied every wagon train from the Mississippi to the Rio Grande, . . . and taught alike Pawnee, Ute, . . . and Blackfoot that . . . their Canutelike attempts to check the incoming tide of white men were predestined to be a losing game." Harold F. Williamson similarly noted that "the Sharps rifle was one of the most widely used guns in America" during the antebellum period, even though he had previously stated that Sharps invented his gun in 1848 and produced only a few hundred of them prior to 1860. A few scholars have observed that powder, ammunition, and guns were rare, and then suggest that these shortages meant that Americans had to be good shots, because they could not waste lead and powder by missing, or practicing. From that arises the notion that Americans are born able to shoot, and also that they used their guns when farming. "Most American citizens entered the nineteenth century with firearms still at their sides. Men and boys carried arms into the farm fields to work." There is little evidence for this assertion, nor any indication of what good a gun might be when plowing except to hinder the work. . . . Military historians have certainly noticed the paucity of firearms and Americans' inexperience with guns. As John K. Mahon observed, "folklore has enshrined the sharpshooting frontiersman as the conqueror of North America." But the reality, as military scholars have long argued, was that English settlers of North America relied on British Regulars for protection, and after Independence, on the U.S. Army. Though it may currently be difficult to imagine, that is the core contention of this book: that America has not always been subject to a gun culture. It has not always been this way. The evidence for this contrary thesis began with the dog that did not bark. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze," the Scotland Yard inspector asked Sherlock Holmes, was there "any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" Holmes responded, "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time," noted the inspector. "That," said Holmes, "was the curious incident." While studying county probate records (inventories of property after a death) for a project on the legal and economic evolution of the early American frontier, I was puzzled by the absence of something that I assumed would be found in every record: guns. Probate records list every piece of personal property, from acreage to broken cups. An examination of more than a thousand probate records from the frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the years 1765 to 1790 revealed that only 14 percent of the inventories included firearms; over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or otherwise defective. A musket (there were only three rifles mentioned) in good condition often drew special notice in the probate inventories and earned a high evaluation. Obviously guns could have been passed on to heirs before the death of the original owner. Yet wills generally mention previous bequests, even of minor items, and only four mentioned firearms. That was the beginning of this project, a ten-year search for "a word that isn't there." America's gun culture is an invented tradition. 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. All cultural attributes have a starting point, and a path of development. America's gun culture is unusual only in that one can determine the precise period in which a specific artifact became central to a nation's identity and self-conception. Prior to the 1860s, guns were not perceived as a significant component of America's national identity, essential to its survival. The literature on early American culture repeatedly locates the core values of most Americans in either religious or liberal sensibilities, though this is obviously a sweeping generalization. The prosperity and survival of the United States depended on the grace of God, or civic virtue, or the individual's pursuit of self-interest. The notion that a well-armed public buttressed the American dream would have appeared harebrained to most Americans before the Civil War. But starting in the 1850s, cultural and social standards began a fairly rapid shift that soon placed guns in ever more American hands and at the core of essential cultural values. By the mid-1870s, males in the United States had a fixation with firearms that any modern enthusiast would recognize and salute. That is the story that this book attempts to tell, the path of North America from indifference to a widespread use and acceptance of firearms. This book does not argue that guns did not exist in early America, nor that gun violence did not occur. Nor does this book seek to pull out a few quotations scattered through America's long historical record to strengthen a current political position. This book is concerned with the normative, with what most people did, owned, and thought in reference to guns, most of the time. The question is one of cultural primacy: What lies at the core of national identity? The modern United States, even after the various efforts to tighten restrictions on federal firearms licenses with the 1994 Crime Bill, has more than 140,000 authorized sellers of firearms. There are far fewer bookstores and schools than gunshops, a situation that would have shocked the toughest resident of the early American frontier. For the modern United States, guns are determinative; for early America, they served an often limited function. It is possible, of course, to extract a few ripe quotations here and there that argue otherwise, and reference will be made to several. But the perspective of this work is that the aggregate matters. This book seeks to examine the relationship of Americans and their guns from a number of different angles. Legal, probate, military, and business records, travel accounts, personal letters, fiction, hunting magazines, legislation, and the guns themselves are all examined. And it is the guns that often make the most compelling case. Most people have no idea how difficult it is to use and care for a black-powder muzzle-loading musket, nor how haphazard and dangerous these weapons can be when fired. One indication can be found in records of any of the many states that set aside a separate deer season for muzzle-loaders. During New York's 1994 season, for instance, only 3.5 percent of the licensed hunters using muzzle-loaders bagged their deer. Far more deer -- 19,430 to be exact -- were killed by archers. Likewise, no scholar has yet made an effort to count how many guns were actually produced or imported into North America prior to the Civil War, though a few scholars have drawn attention to the fact that almost no guns were made in America prior to the 1820s. The Civil War is the pivot of this cultural development; it was the moment when a large proportion of the country tried to replace elections with gunfire, and when millions of Americans first learned the art of war -- and how to use a gun. An exact historic coincidence of increased productivity of and demand for guns occurred during the Civil War. American armsmakers took advantage of the latest technological breakthroughs to mass-produce firearms, reaching levels of production that for the first time matched those in Europe. From that precise historical moment emerged a distinctive American gun culture, by which is meant not only a shared and widespread culture idolizing firearms, but also a fascination distinct from and unlike the popular attitude toward guns in all other cultures with which the United States shared basic values. In many ways, then, this is the story of what was not. This work studies the absence of that which was thought to be eternally and universally present -- an American gun culture -- and its slow, and largely intended, emergence in the nineteenth century. By the end of this book, the gun will be seen as the axial symbol of American culture, absolutely integral to the nation's self-image and looming ever larger in plans for its future development. In a society justly proud of its contributions to human freedom, the gun became the icon of a savage civilization. But it was not always that way. That which was once thought exceptional is now routine. That which was once perceived as subject to communal regulation is now seen as an individual right. There exists a fear of confronting the specifics of these cultural origins, for what has been made can be unmade. All historical investigation is tentative. Historians build upon one another's research and test sources against generalizations. This study is hardly unique in being, to borrow the wonderful words of R. G. Collingwood, an "interim report on the progress of our historical inquiries." History, Gordon Wood reminds us, is "an accumulative science, gradually gathering truth through the steady and plodding efforts of countless practitioners turning out countless monographs." What an historian says has little impact on present conditions. As Hegel wrote, "Amid the pressure of world events, neither a general principle nor the remembrance of similar circumstances is of any help. . . . Something like pale recollection has no power against the vitality and freedom of the present." And yet, at the very least, the study of the past may impart this one valuable lesson: that nothing in history is immutable. Excerpted from Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: In Search of Gunsp. 3
1 The European Gun Heritagep. 17
2 The Role of Guns in the Conquest of North Americap. 40
3 Guns in the Daily Life of Colonial Americap. 70
4 Creation of the First American Gun Culture: Indians and Firearmsp. 111
5 Brown Bess in the Wildernessp. 142
6 A People Numerous and Unarmedp. 172
7 Government Promotion of Gun Productionp. 208
8 From Indifference to Disdainp. 261
9 Creation of a Gun Subculturep. 305
10 The Arming of the American Peoplep. 372
Epiloguep. 430
Appendixp. 445
Notesp. 455
Acknowledgmentsp. 581
Indexp. 585