Our opponents in the gun control movement, when they do try to argue down to the philosophical underpinnings of the gun culture in this country, do little more than display their stunning ignorance of history. I’ll ignore for a moment the utterly false notion that self-defense was never mentioned by any of the founders (Adams mentioned it, several founders carried pistols for self-defense, and it’s mentioned in many state analogues to the 2nd Amendment), and concentrate instead of the notion that militia in the colonial or early republic was anything like the top-down organized instrument of state power that our opponents advocate in their imaginary history of the United States.
A recent publication by Dave Kopel on this very matter was recently published in the American Bar Association’s Administrative and Regulatory Law News (see here if you want the cited version):
Without formal legal authorization, Americans began to form independent militia, outside the traditional chain of command of the royal governors. In Virginia, George Washington and George Mason organized the Fairfax Independent Militia Company. The Fairfax militiamen pledged that “we will, each of us, constantly keep by us” a firelock, six pounds of gunpowder, and twenty pounds of lead. Other independent militia embodied in Virginia along the same model. Independent militia also formed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maryland, and South Carolina, choosing their own officers.
Private militias? Why that sounds to be a bit “insurrectionist,” don’t you think? But not only do our opponents tell us that the founders never conceived a right based on self-defense, they tell us they never conceived a right to arms based on the right of privately organized militias to toss off the yoke of oppressive government!
The events of April 19 convinced many more Americans to arm themselves and to embody independent militia. A report from New York City observed that “the inhabitants there are arming themselves . . . forming companies, and taking every method to defend our rights. The like spirit prevails in the province of New Jersey, where a large and well disciplined militia are now fit for action.”
In Virginia, Lord Dunmore observed: “Every County is now Arming a Company of men whom they call an independent Company for the avowed purpose of protecting their Committee, and to be employed against Government if occasion require.” North Carolina’s Royal Governor Josiah Martin issued a proclamation outlawing independent militia, but it had little effect.
This sounds a lot less like a top-down, government sanctioned movement, than a bottom up, grassroots rebellion. That is indeed what it was to anyone who is not a fool or self-deluded. I encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s basically a good summary of what you may find in a larger, more detailed book on the subject, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” by David Hackett Fischer. From the book:
As the Lexington militia gathered on the Common, Captain Parker exchanged a few words with each individual. He did so less as their commander than as their neighbor, kinsman, and friend. These sturdy yeomen did not expect to be told what to do by anyone. They were accustomed to judge for themselves. Many were hardworking dairy farmers in a community that was already known as a “milk town” for the Boston market. Their ages ranged from sixteen to sixty-six, but most were mature men in their thirties and forties. They were men of property and independence who served on juries, voted in town meetings, ran the Congregational church, managed their own affairs, and felt beholden to none but the Almighty.
This does not comport with the top-down organization, more similar to the modern National Guard, that our opponents imagine colonial militia were like. It is more akin to that of a modern day volunteer fire department, only in an age where that was everyone’s responsibility, and not just the few who chose to serve. It’s pretty clear there was very little or no official state sanction during the early days of the American Revolution, when most of the fighting was being done by independent militias, controlled more by civil society than by government.
If our opponents chose to argue that our modern society is devoid of the kind of “republican virtue” our founders thought was necessary for a free people, they’d likely find a lot of agreement from our side. We are not the same society, and that is one reason we’ve chosen to argue the self-defense aspects of the right more than the civic aspects of an armed population. It’s also part of the reason this country will probably, from here on out, always have some degree of gun control, the forms of which today were largely alien to the founding period.
So why do many in the gun control movement feel a need to imagine history? I think it is precisely because they are fundamentally uncomfortable with the republican virtues of this country’s founding. They are more at home with the virtue of a Bismarckian state rather than a Lockean republic. They are children of social democratic virtues; of state, central planning, and command economies, which would have been utterly foreign and lamentable to people schooled on Locke, Smith, and Montesquieu. But regardless of the values they cherish, or their pursue, it is simply wrong to project social democratic values on what was a very republican age. It is more honest to insist they are simply old, tired and worn ideas who’s time is up. There was a time when progressives indeed argued that. Perhaps it says something about their relative influence on the culture today that they feel they must couch their foreign ideas in the flag of American republicanism in order to find any appeal among the people.