Part 6 Michael A. Bellesiles: Mega Anti-Gun-Nut

Larry Pratt

In a glowing, sycophantic review of Professor Michael A. Bellesiles’ book Arming America: The Origins Of A National Gun Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), in the New York Times Book Review (9/10/2000), Gary Wills hails this wretched work saying that it “has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early history in America.” But this is hogwash.

If ever there was a book that sheds more dark than light on a subject, it is what this “Nutty Professor” has written. Almost any book you browse in, at random, contains information blatantly at odds with Bellesiles’ assertion that before the War Between the States — as Wills paraphrases him in his review – “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.” Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about:

— Edward Winslow (1595-1655) was a founder of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts. He wrote, among other things, “How The Pilgrim Fathers Lived.” In this work, referring to a ship which might be friend or foe, he writes: “Whereupon every man, yea boy, that could handle a gun, were ready, with full resolution that, if she were an enemy, we would stand in our just defense, not fearing them.” To those in the colony, he advises: “Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece. Let your piece be long in the barrel, and fear not the weight of it, for most of our shooting is from stands.” It seems unlikely that these things would be said if guns were scarce.

— The great American historian George Bancroft (1800-1891), in his History Of The United States, says of Patrick Henry, that when he was a boy, “it had been his delight to wander alone with the gun or angling rod.” In the late 1770s, he says: “Every county in Virginia glowed with zeal to embody its militia; marksmen, armed with rifles, chose the costume of the painted hunting-shirt and moccasins. They pledged themselves to each other to keep a good firelock, ammunition, bullet-moulds, powder-horn, and bag for balls…. The Americans were… good marksmen…. The British officers, from their own weakness and from fear of the American marksmen, dared not order a sally (during one battle — L.P.)…. [The American’s] skill as marksmen, never went out of mind” (for the British — L.P.). Concerning the American volunteers of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Bancroft says they were “skilled from childhood in the use of the gun,” they “had grown up with arms in their hands,” and were “the keenest marksmen” (emphasis mine).

— In his “History Of The American Nation” (1911), William Jackman says, about the settlement of Oregon, that it involved a thousand immigrants — men, their wives and children — “their only weapon the trusty rifle… to protect from savage violence and to procure sustenance from the wandering droves of buffalo and deer.”

— In his writings, Thomas Jefferson says this regarding why we suffered far fewer losses at Lexington than the British: “This difference is ascribed to our taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from infancy” (emphasis mine).

— In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) says: “Just before we left Bethlehem, eleven farmers, who had been driven from their plantations by the Indians, came to me requesting a supply of firearms, that they might go back and fetch their cattle. I gave them each a gun with suitable ammunition.”

— American historian Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913), writing about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, tells how a buffalo invaded their camp at one point causing an uproar, “the men rushing out with guns in hand….”

— In one account, the American Indian chief Black Hawk (1767-1838) tells how when he and other Indians arrived near the encampment of some whites, “a number of them rushed out to meet us, bringing their guns with them.”

— American historian Henry Adams (1838-1918), writing about how the success of the Americans in our War For Independence impressed the Europeans, notes: “Critics said constantly that every American had learned from his childhood the use of the rifle” (emphasis mine).

— Irish historian and essayist William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903) says about the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill: “The New England yeoman were accustomed to firearms from their childhood” (emphasis mine).

— The English historian Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy (1812-1878) says, regarding the American militia’s defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, that the Americans were “resolute recruits, accustomed to the use of firearms….”

— In his “Messages And Presidential Papers,” James K. Polk ( 1795-1849) says, about our “citizen soldiers” in our war with Mexico: “They are armed, and have been accustomed from their youth up to handle and use firearms, and a large proportion of them… are expert marksmen” (emphasis mine).

— In a new book titled The Historical Atlas Of The American Revolution Routledge, 2000), by Louisiana State University History Professor Charles Royster (Consulting Editor) and Ian Barnes, Head Of Politics And International Studies at the University of Derby, the authors report how — during our War For Independence — American anger and determination was expressed in a dispatch by a British Naval officer to London: “The Enthusiastic Zeal with which those people have behaved must convince every reasonable man what a difficult and unpleasant task General Gage has before him, even Weamin (women) had firelocks. One was seen to fire a Blunderbuss between her Father, and Husband, and from their Windows.” In this book, a caption beneath a picture of an American firing a rifle reads: “The American militia were normally expert marksmen and were often backwoodsmen experienced in Indian fighting. Some, known as minutemen, because they guaranteed to take up arms at a moments notice, fought the Redcoats on the Lexington-Boston road.”

— Speaking of the Minutemen, “Nutty Professor” Bellesiles ridicules these brave patriots. He writes (p.442), sneeringly, how artists and politicians “crafted the mythical image of the heroic Minutemen, winning American independence with his ever-ready musket.” But, in an interview, Robert A. Gross, author of “The Minutemen And Their World” (Hill & Wang, 1976) says the Minutemen were heroic. Now a teacher of history at William and Mary, Gross says: “What we can miss is the ordinary courage of human beings in everyday situations…. [The Minutemen] did what they were asked to do…. They are people who risked their lives and followed military discipline and routed the British.”

Commenting on some of what Bellesiles alleges, Gross adds that whether guns in early America were or were not easily available or scarce and limited “doesn’t in any way determine whether you think people have a Constitutional right to bear them.” He says he did an independent study with a student recently regarding the English Bill of Rights and the way this tradition was passed to Colonial Americans and the Second Amendment. His conclusion:

“I think the argument would be that in the view of those who wrote the English Declaration of Rights in 1689 that access to arms was crucial as a means of resisting tyranny. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to have them. It only means the government can’t stop people from getting access at a moment when they need them.”

— And, finally, for now, speaking of the American militia during our War For Independence, Bellesiles, as Michael Korda noted in a previously quoted piece, portrays them as “a bunch of clowns.” But, in their book For The Common Defense: A Military History Of The United States Of America (Free Press, 1984), Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski present a very different picture. Millett, when this book was published, was a History Professor at Ohio State University; Maslowski was a History Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They write, concerning the establishment of our early colonies:

    “The most important response to the dangerous military realities was the creation of a militia system in each colony…. Militiamen had to provide and maintain their own weapons…. Militia laws emphasized the importance of a well-armed citizenry in numerous ways…. Colonies also required that even men exempted from attending musters should be completely armed and equipped.”

Regarding the militia system: “During the Indian wars from 1622 to 1676, colonists gained confidence in, and glorified, this system, believing that citizen-soldiers defending their homes were far superior to an army of mercenaries…. The militia had its deficiencies, but it proved adequate, since the Indians were vanquished, not the whites.”

Millett/Maslowski quote the high-ranking British officer Lord Loudon as saying: “The Militia are the real Inhabitants; Stout able men, and for a Brush, much better than their Provincial Troops, whom they hire whenever they can get them, and at any price.” The authors add: “Almost all other British officers confused the expeditionary forces with the actual militia, thus misjudging the militia’s military potential in defense of its own terrain.”

Noting that the Continental Army complemented rather than supplanted the state militias, and at every critical juncture these forces acted in concert, Millett/Maslowski quote the British General Lord Cornwallis as saying this about the militia’s battlefield contribution: “I will not say much in praise of the militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and soldiers killed and wounded by them… proves but too fatally they are not wholly contemptible.”

In my next and final column, for now, on the book Arming America, I will report on the shocking indifference to truth shown by Bellesiles’ publisher Alfred A. Knopf — their utter lack of concern as to whether what he has written is true or false.