- · vol. 1 · no. 1 · September 2000

Illustrations for this article from The Little Soldier of the Revolution (1855). Images courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.



Michael Bellesiles, who teaches at Emory University, is the recipient of the Louis Pelzer and Binkley-Stephenson Awards (1986 and 1996). He is the author of Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (Charlottesville, 1993).

Editors' note: as many readers may be aware, Professor Bellesiles's research methods and scholarly standards have become the subject of considerable debate since Common-place first published this essay in September 2000, the same month that Arming America appeared in print. In October 2002, Bellesiles resigned his faculty position at Emory University. Both the report of the independent investigative committee whose findings led to his resignation, and Bellesiles's response are available online.

Disarming Early American History
Michael Bellesiles

Part I | II | III | Notes

From Michael Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Knopf, 2000). Permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

There is a powerful and pervasive myth that America has always had a gun culture. This perception of the past informs works of scholarship, art and literature, film and television, and contemporary political debate. Few people question that frequent Indian wars and regular gun battles in the streets of every western town inured Americans to the necessity of violence. Many if not most Americans seem resigned to--indeed, even find comfort in--the notion that violence is immutable, the product of a deeply imbedded historical experience rooted in our frontier heritage. That frontiers elsewhere did not replicate America's violent culture is thought irrelevant. Any questioning of this imagined past can bring harsh denunciations from defenders of the traditional vision, apparently because they find political capital in a vision of American history littered with guns. Even historians without a political objective accept this formulation of an America universally armed from the first days of European settlement. As one historian began her study of popular uprisings in early America, "Since the first adventurers waded ashore at Jamestown, Americans of all persuasions let their guns be heard when their voices in protest were ignored." 1

The startling truth is that very little research has been undertaken into the history of America's gun culture. Statements that eighteenth-century America was the most heavily armed society in the world are presented as logically obvious, sociological equivalents of Thomas Jefferson's self-evident truths. Yet an examination of the social practices and cultural customs prevalent in early America suggest that we have it all backwards. Gun ownership was exceptional in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even on the frontier, and guns became a common commodity only with the industrialization of the mid-nineteenth century, after which gun ownership became concentrated in urban areas. America's gun culture grew with its gun industry. That industry, in turn, relied on the government for capital development and for the support and enhancement of its markets. From its inception, the United States government worked to arm its citizens; it scrambled to find sources of weapons to fulfill the mandate of the Second Amendment. From 1775 until the 1840s the government largely failed in this task, but the industrialization of the arms industry allowed the government to move toward its goal with ever-increasing speed, in spite of public indifference and even resistance to gun ownership.

The myth of universal gun ownership in early America is a perfect example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. There is an assumption that what is must have been. It is nearly impossible to believe that the current advanced civilization of the United States could be so violent unless its more primitive predecessor had been even more enamored of guns. Such a perspective is, of course, profoundly unhistorical. But more importantly, it occurs in the absence of evidence; it is supported only by rational deductive logic: early Americans must have needed guns, therefore they must have had them. Often, the lack of evidence to support this argument is simply explained away: early Americans did not talk about their guns because they all had guns; probate records contain few firearms because the heirs looted the estate before the inventory. When confronted with evidence that the vast majority of young men in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century America had no idea how to use a gun, advocates of an eternal, universal American gun culture look the other way. Best to ignore such information and retain the myth, for otherwise it just might be conceivable that we are responsible for our own culture.

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 gun shops, a situation that would have shocked the toughest resident of the early American frontier. For the modern U.S., guns are determinative; for early America, they served a limited function. It is possible, of course, to extract a few ripe quotations here and there which argue otherwise. But the aggregate, the normal experience of ordinary Americans, matters. In tracing that experience, the Civil War is critical; it is the moment when a large proportion of the country tried to replace elections with guns, and when millions of Americans first learned the art of war--and how to use a gun. An exact historic coincidence of increased productivity and demand occurred during the Civil War. American armsmakers took advantage of the latest technological breakthroughs to mass produce firearms, reaching levels of production which 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 the popular attitude toward guns in all other cultures with which the U.S. shares basic values.

All historical investigation is tentative; this work is no exception. Historians build upon one another's research, and test sources against generalizations. 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." It is my firm conviction that this precise accumulation of knowledge imparts at least one valuable lesson: that nothing in history is immutable.

Nowhere is the contradiction between fact and fancy more glaring than in the study of gun ownership in colonial America. Despite our popular perceptions of armed militiamen, gun-toting rebels, and firing Indian fighters, firearm usage was strictly limited for most of the colonial period. The ownership and use of firearms were constrained not merely by the law but also as a consequence of minimal availability and cultural attitudes. There were no gun manufactories in North America in the colonial period. None. All American firearms--with a very few exceptions--came from Europe. France, England, and the Netherlands led the world in gun production, with the lion's share of that production going to their armies. But in England, at least, that production was far from sufficient even for military purposes. The disappointment of Charles I with the unarmed state of his volunteers during the Civil War was palpable. It is no wonder that Queen Henrietta rushed off to the Netherlands to trade her jewels for arms of all kinds. 2

Those firearms made for private use tended to be works of great beauty, the product of skilled European craftsmen creating luxury goods for the rich. Few of these guns found their way to North America in the seventeenth century. The vast majority of firearms crossing the Atlantic were sent by the government for military use. It was not until the end of the colonial period that any sort of market existed to justify the regular importation of firearms by merchants, or their production by the few gunsmiths scattered through North America. It is not surprising then that guns rarely saw use outside of warfare. 3

This is not to say that colonial America was a nonviolent society. It is to say that the vast majority of violence was state sanctioned, as demanded by contemporary political and cultural attitudes, and that individuals rarely used guns in their personal quarrels. Just as a close examination of seventeenth-century battles undermines the notion that guns were the decisive weapon, so court records and contemporary accounts of crowd actions are notable for the absence of firearms. It is important here to distinguish between violence and aggression. The first is a commission of physical harm upon another person, while the second is a posturing intended to frighten or intimidate without actual physical conflict. 4 Crowds in America were like those in Europe, relying primarily on intimidation to effect their ends, on the aggressive display of social power rather than on destructive injury. When they employed weapons, American crowds, like their European counterparts, wielded stones, clubs, and farm implements--not guns.

Whites rarely assaulted other whites and almost never killed each other. This attitude toward violence was no different from that in England, except in that urban hothouse of London. Crime rates in England remained very low through the eighteenth century, and it was not until 1829 that the English created their first police force. 5 Colonial court records offer very few cases of violence. There were 559 criminal actions in North Carolina between 1663 and 1740, forty-three of which (7.7%) were murders, an average of one homicide every two years. A study of eighteen years of Virginia's seventeenth-century court records discovered twenty-three murder trials resulting in eleven homicide and four manslaughter convictions, or less than one murder a year. In the four years of 1736 to 1739, there were ten murders in Virginia, a notable increase to 2.5 murders per year. Only one murder is mentioned in the records of New Haven Colony, while in forty-six years Plymouth Colony's courts heard five cases of assault, and not a single homicide. More common was Edward Jenkins's charge that Morris Truant threatened to "break his scythe." William Byrd exaggerated, but not much, when he wrote in 1726 that "We have neither publick Robbers nor private, which Your Ldsp will think very strange, when we have often needy Governors and pilfering Convicts sent among us." 6

Until the 1760s, expressions of popular resistance to government authority remained localized, collapsing almost immediately and without violence in the face of a concerted display of force. Such a pattern was set early on. In the 1620s, the notorious "Lord of Misrule," Thomas Morton, made himself obnoxious to the leaders of Plymouth Plantation by enjoying himself with drunken parties and trading guns and powder to the local Indians in violation of James I's proclamation of 1622 (which was re-issued in 1630 at the request of the government of Massachusetts). Morton, who mocked the religiosity of the Pilgrims, refused to limit his trade or his festivals in any way. With evident reluctance, Plymouth sent a force of militia under Miles Standish to arrest Morton at his trading post at Merrymount. Morton and his followers vowed to defend their right to bear and trade arms, warning Standish that their muskets were loaded. According to William Bradford, it was fortunate that most of the muskets were not in fact properly loaded, for the people of Merrymount "were so steeled with drink as their pieces were too heavy for them." No one was hurt, "save that one was so drunk that he ran his own nose upon the point of a sword . . . but he lost but a little of his hot blood." And thus ended the story of free trade in firearms in colonial America. From that date forth, the gun trade would be regulated by the colonial legislatures and by the crown. 7

Probably the first civic uprising of any kind came in Virginia in 1635. Dr. John Pott, the man who had poisoned Powhatan in 1623, led a number of the local elite in opposing the governor, Sir John Harvey. When Harvey charged most of his council with treason, Pott called in a band of forty armed men led by Captain William Pierce. No one was injured, or even threatened, and the assembly approved these actions by Pott and Pierce. Harvey agreed to resign and returned to England, where he acknowledged to the Commissioners for Foreign Plantations that Virginia's government lacked the force to maintain its authority, "nor had I the means or power to raise any force to suppress this meeting." He returned to Virginia in January 1637, with his powers clearly spelled out in his royal orders, and arrested and dispossessed the leaders of the uprising without resistance. In this, as in every succeeding conflict other than Bacon's Rebellion in which the province acted, its success was total and courts of law settled the issue. 8

When Leonard Calvert, governor of Maryland, purchased land from the Yaocomicoe Indians, he found that they were far more interested in such metal goods as axes, hatchets, and rakes than in firearms. Calvert appreciated the advantages of the state's maintaining a monopoly on firearms, and not merely in the event of a possible Indian threat. In December 1636, he moved against the upstart William Claiborne on Kent's Island with a group of musketeers, kicking Claiborne out of the colony. Claiborne remained a thorn in the side of the Calverts for two decades, but whenever the state moved against him and his supporters with force, Claiborne gave way without violence. 9

In times of unrest in North America, competing sides jostled for control of public arms to supplement the few in private hands. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, for instance, American adherents and opponents of King Charles never actually did battle, but they certainly maneuvered a great deal. While the English were busily hacking away at each other, most Americans waited and hoped for the best. But just in case, a few activists tried to prepare for the future by hoarding firearms. In Maryland in 1643 the acting governor, Giles Brent, seized a cargo of arms from the ship Reformation, captained by Richard Ingle, a known supporter of Parliament. Ingle managed to get his ship back and returned two years later to seize control of the colony from the Catholic Calvert family. A year later, Leonard Calvert gained the help of Virginia's governor, William Berkeley, and had no trouble reclaiming control of the government. These actions occurred without loss of life. But in 1651 Parliament decided that Governors Berkeley and Calvert remained emotionally attached to monarchy and sent four commissioners and five hundred soldiers to the Chesapeake to reorganize government. The Virginia burgesses agreed with the governor that they should resist this force, especially in the face of the new Navigation Act that eliminated all foreign trade with the North American colonies. Despite this incentive and the legislature's pledge, the entire colony, which boasted a militia of nearly seven thousand troops, collapsed before a small military force. Again, the government met no resistance, armed or otherwise. 10

Maryland proved even easier to subdue, abandoning all resistance when faced with a force of two commissioners. The proprietor, Lord Baltimore, was charged with selling arms to the Indians and confiscating the arms of Protestants, and Governor William Stone was cast out of office. Oddly, in January 1655, Oliver Cromwell declared that the commissioners had gone too far in upsetting Baltimore's government. There followed a "petty civil war," as Stone seized the public arms in the name of Lord Baltimore and moved against the "Puritans" led by Captain William Fuller. On March 25, the two forces met at the "battle of the Severn." Stone was able to arm his roughly two hundred followers with the supplies he had seized from the provincial armory, but that did not make them effective soldiers. When confronted by a force of 120 well trained troops from a Commonwealth ship, Stone's forces opened fire, killing the standard bearer with their volley. Fuller's troops fired a single volley and then charged, most of the royalists throwing down their guns and fleeing or begging for quarter. Forty men were killed, only a few by gunshot, and several executed on Fuller's orders after the battle. The supporters of the Commonwealth controlled the colony for the next five years, and then this government also collapsed without a fight upon the restoration of Charles II. 11

The pattern was little different in Dutch New Netherlands. There, in 1653, John Underhill tried to rouse the English settlers on Long Island into rebellion. But there were few guns and no violence, and a Dutch official ordered Underhill to leave Long Island, which he did. This was one of three such rebellions on Long Island between 1653 and 1657, none of which exhibited any violence. In 1663 John Scott of Connecticut tried to seize the island for his province. He arrived with two hundred followers who waved their swords around a great deal and looted freely. As was almost always the case, the locals did not rise in self-defense. Their militia units did not rush onto the field to protect family and home. Instead, negotiations terminated this effort, with Governor John Winthrop Jr., of Connecticut arresting Scott and seizing the island with a body of troops. The whole farce came to an end in 1664 when Colonel Richard Nicholls arrived at Manhattan with four hundred regulars. Stuyvesant surrendered when his militia refused to fight, and Dutch rule ended. The English confiscated what arms there were and looted the city. 12

In 1669 the Dutch in New York attempted to reverse their fate with a rebellion, but the insurrection was quelled simply by arresting the leaders. 13 All of these uprisings--except the one in Maryland--were thus short-lived, and in each the near uselessness of the militia comes across clearly. The militia's performance was equally unimpressive whether the enemy was internal or external. When the Dutch attacked the coast of Virginia in 1667 and seized several ships of the valuable tobacco fleet, they met no resistance from the militia, though Governor Berkeley did raise a force that waited for the Dutch to come to it. Seven years later the Dutch returned and again raided the coast unhindered by local forces; only "the timely appearance of the royal navy saved the day." 14

At the time of this latter crisis, in 1673, the governor ordered all arms and ammunition in the colony seized for use by the militia. But there was just not enough to go around; a "diligent search and inquiry" discovered that few Virginians owned serviceable arms. In desperation, the government offered to pay for the repair of all "unserviceable armes," and, for the first time since the 1630s, spent public funds to purchase weapons. But it was a slow process. Two years later they discovered that four companies of one regiment needed two hundred muskets and swords for their 280 men. Several other companies reported similar shortages, with three-quarters of their men owning no firearms. The guns purchased in England were stored in a communal center, generally the home of one of the local "great men." While these weapons arrived too late to do much good against the Dutch, they did serve to arm most of the followers of Nathaniel Bacon. 15

Virginia enjoyed a long peace with the Indians from the end of the final Powhatan war until 1675. As the royal commissioners reported in 1677, "Few or none had bin the Damages sustained by the English from the Indians, other than occasionally had happen'd sometimes upon private quarells and provocations, untill in July, 1675, certain Doegs and Susquahanok Indians on Maryland side, stealing some Hoggs," from a settler named Matthews who had cheated them, "were pursued by the English . . . beaten or kill'd and the hoggs retaken." 16 In retaliation, some Doeg Indians killed two of Matthews's servants and his son. The Virginians responded by attacking an Indian village. The whites surprised the peaceful village with a volley and then moved in to slice and hack at the Indians with their axes and swords. Only later did they discover that this was not a Doeg but a Susquehanna village. Maryland's government was furious and Virginia's prepared for the expansion of the war, offering a coat to every Indian who brought in a scalp from a hostile Indian and calling on the King for help, appealing for arms and ammunition based on "their inability to furnish the same themselves." These actions by the settlers were an astounding case of projection. As Robert Beverley wrote, the Indians, "observing an unusual Uneasiness in the English, and being terrified of their rough Usage, immediately suspected some wicked Design against their Lives, and so fled to their remoter Habitations. This confirm'd the English in the Belief, that they had been the Murderers, till at last they provoked them to be so in Earnest." 17

It was to combat these enemies they had just created that so many Virginians turned to the leadership of "that Imposture," Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon organized his followers around a demand for more guns and a more belligerent Indian policy, insisting that the government had failed to adequately arm its subjects--and he never suggested that they should arm themselves. Governor Berkeley should have arrested Bacon immediately, but he liked the young man, had appointed him to the council, and hated to admit such a lapse in judgment. Berkeley also hoped that Bacon might prove useful in channeling the passions of the lower orders, especially those on the frontier that were begging for arms. As Beverley wrote a few years later, the settlers, their "Minds already full of Discontent" because of the collapse of tobacco prices, were "ready to vent all their resentment against the poor Indians." Bacon led a large force against the Susquehanna, but the vast majority of his troops had little interest in any military activity beyond the alcohol which accompanied their musters. So Bacon hired the Occaneechee to attack the Susquehanna, who fled before this onslaught. Bacon and his followers then attacked the Occaneechee, probably to avoid paying them. The whites set fire to the Indian village and cut down everyone who fled the burning huts. 18

Flushed with victory, Bacon marched on Williamsburg with six hundred followers to intimidate the burgesses. Fearful of "having their throats cut by Bacon," as Thomas Ludwell put it, the legislature and Governor Berkeley submitted. Bacon followed this success with a looting expedition, his troops seizing all the guns they could find. Berkeley responded by secretly taking the arms and ammunition out of Tindall Fort on the York River, leaving it defenseless. But Berkeley did not move yet, nor did he intervene when Bacon sent a force into Dragon Swamp in pursuit of hostile Indians--and thanks to Bacon and his followers, there were only hostiles. Bacon's followers succeeded in hacking some women and children to death. A frustrated Bacon turned his attention on the peaceful Pamunkey, until recently allies of Virginia who, as the royal commissioners wrote, "had [never] at any time betray'd or injuryed the English." Even though they met no resistance, their queen having ordered "that they should neither fire a gun nor draw an arrow," the whites attacked viciously, killing or taking prisoner the entire tribe. 19

Berkeley finally confronted Bacon at Jamestown with a force of unenthusiastic militiamen. Each side sat behind their defenses until the governor launched the only battle of the rebellion. The militia attacked "like scholers goeing to schoole . . . with hevie harts, but returnd hom with light heeles." Bacon's forces fired a single volley and Berkeley's men threw down their guns and ran, suffering about a dozen casualties. Bacon then set the capital on fire and fled as well. He died of disease shortly thereafter, his rebellion collapsing within days. Berkeley moved with alacrity to punish the Baconites, charging Sarah Grendon with high treason as the chief "encourager" of the rebellion for having supplied the rebels with gun powder. 20

In February 1677, twelve hundred English regulars under the command of Colonel Herbert Jeffreys arrived to clean up the mess left by the rebellion. Jeffreys brought with him the largest arsenal the British had yet carried into North America: one thousand muskets, seven hundred carbines, one hundred barrels of gunpowder, and even a crate of hand grenades. England was taking this uprising very seriously. Not that it mattered much. Governor Berkeley was now creating the most problems, denying Jeffreys' authority, seeking to punish all those who had supported Bacon, and refusing to return home as ordered by the King. But a quick show of force by Jeffreys settled the matter. Berkeley left for England and Jeffreys became acting governor. 21

There was an unusual last act to Bacon's Rebellion. The uprising had begun in a debate over the lack of arms for colonial defense. In 1678 Jeffreys reduced the pay of his forces since the Rebellion had been crushed and they were no longer on active duty. The troops began to mutter ominously. To forestall a mutiny, Jeffreys sent most of his forces home, leaving only a few hundred in Virginia until 1682. But he sent his troops home without their guns, distributing most of the seventeen hundred firearms he had brought with his force to the militia of Virginia. This act doubled the number of guns in the hands of the Virginians, who built two new armories for their storage. 22

The militia almost had an opportunity to use these guns the same year they became available. In 1682 a number of planters threatened to revive the memory of Bacon by calling for a moratorium on the tobacco harvest as a way of raising its price. Those who did not go along with the "plant-cutters' rebellion" found their fields attacked by angry neighbors. Acting Governor Sir Henry Chicheley responded to this "strange Insurrection" by calling on the militia rather than the regulars still in Virginia, but only "soe many of them as may, in this juncture, bee admitted to arms." The plant-cutters dispersed whenever the militia appeared but took to destroying crops at night. Despite the presence of the militia, two hundred plantations lost their tobacco crop in Gloucester County, and then the movement spread to Middlesex, York, and New Kent Counties. The movement just faded out after that with no violence, much like any of the contemporary fence-destroying movements in England. 23

Though it came closer than any colony to civil war in the first 160 years of English settlement, Virginia itself suffered little from Bacon's Rebellion. With the exception of the one encounter at Jamestown, whites did not kill whites. They threatened and terrorized one another, but they reserved their murderous rage for the Indians. And the rebellion ended even before the arrival of English regulars. In the 1630s the English had learned the danger of allowing firearms to fall into the hands of Indians; in 1676 they discovered that it was equally dangerous to let poor whites have access to guns. Yet battling the one seemed to necessitate the arming of the other. Unable to resolve this paradox, colonial governments began every new crisis by begging the crown for guns and troops, and ended it by frantically trying to recover those guns and get rid of the troops. The result, according to a careful student of the colonial Virginia militia, was that the militia never recovered from Bacon's Rebellion but instead sank into insignificance. 24

Roughly the same pattern was evident in the response of the New England colonies to the reign of James II (1685-88). James effectively overturned the entire system of government and social relations in New England by his creation of the Dominion of New England, and further alterations were promised. His officials were harsh and arrogant, their lack of respect for the Puritan way of life callous and offensive. The people of New England received every provocation, and yet they were unwilling to break out of the traditional modes of complaint via petition and noncompliance until they received word that William had invaded England in the name of Protestantism. It was in his name that many New Englanders finally acted, and then only to arrest James's officials and appeal to William of Orange for the restoration of their charter. There is little evidence here of a tradition of an armed people defending their rights. Their resistance was expressed with words not guns, and no shots were fired. 25

The people of New York also put up with what was widely seen as arbitrary government until after William's invasion of England. In fact it was not until May 1689 that the public responded in any way to the perceived tyranny. Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson shocked the city by pulling a pistol on a militia lieutenant with whom he was arguing. Such an action alone was without precedent; but Nicholson compounded public anger by threatening to burn the city to the ground. A militia captain named Jacob Leisler led four hundred militiamen in a peaceful invasion of Fort James, a disappointing exercise. They had hoped for a stockpile of English guns, but found instead, as Leisler reported, only fifteen usable cannon and one barrel of powder "fit to sling a bullet halfway [to] the river." 26

Leisler's forces then took over the city. They disarmed the Catholics, finding only four guns, and seized the arms of political opponents as well as gunpowder in private hands. One of his enemies wrote that "Capt. Leysler with a party of Men in Arms, and Drink, fell upon [the new customs officers] at the Custom-House, and with Naked Swords beat them thence, endeavouring to Massacree some of them, which was Rescued by Providence." These "arms" were swords and clubs, and no one was actually hurt, despite the effort "to Massacree some of them." 27

When Albany refused to go along with the New York junto, Leisler sent some militia under the command of his son-in-law, Jacob Milbourne. Milbourne spent a great deal of time talking with the leaders of Albany but was persuaded to return to New York by the presence of a group of Mohawks who promised to intervene on behalf of the people of Albany, with whom "they were in a firm Covenant chain." There were no casualties. 28

The "rebellion" began to take on comic form. Desiring an end to the whole charade, a group of thirty-six prominent New Yorkers appealed to William and Mary to terminate this rule "by the sword." A group of thirty men confronted Leisler and some companions. Leisler was almost felled by a blow from a cooper's adz, but ducked just in time. Waving his sword before him, Leisler made good his escape--again no one was seriously hurt. It is surprising that none of these men, all of whom supposedly owned guns, thought to bring one with them. 29

The only confrontation between these competing forces occurred in late 1690. Major Thomas Willett, a veteran of the assault with the adz, organized a march of 150 Long Island militiamen on New York City. They were confronted by three hundred militiamen under Jacob Milbourne's command. The two sides began shoving one another, Milbourne using his musket as a club to knock down a militia captain. Suddenly, Milbourne's troops fired, an unheard of action. Firing at point-blank range, roughly one hundred militia men killed one of their opponents. The rest ran before Milbourne's troops could reload. 30

This violent encounter was the last straw. Unwilling to fight Leisler themselves, his opponents called in English regulars. On January 31, 1691, two companies of English soldiers under the command of Major Richard Ingoldesby arrived at New York. Leisler called out the militia to defend the government in the name of William and Mary. For six weeks there was no confrontation between the militia and regulars, but they did exchange proclamations. The soldiers were quartered in city hall, three hundred militia in Fort James. On March 16, for no apparent reason, Leisler's militia began firing its cannon at the city. A few civilians were killed, nine British regulars wounded, and several of Leisler's followers killed when one of their misloaded cannon exploded. On March 19 the new governor, Sir Henry Sloughter, arrived. He immediately threatened to attack Fort James if the militia did not surrender. When Leisler hesitated, his forces threw down their guns and surrendered. And so Leisler's Rebellion came to an end, not with a battle, but with a pathetic whimper as bystanders spat on Leisler as he was marched off to jail. 31

Bacon's and Leisler's Rebellions were the only colonial uprisings in which whites fired on whites. More typical were the brief little insurrections like those in Maryland in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. In June 1676, a group of sixty men in the Patuxent region took advantage of the recent departure of Governor Charles Calvert to London to petition against taxes. When the governor's council rejected their petition, the group marched on St. Mary's, threatening to battle any militia called out. But no militia was called out. The council declared the group in rebellion but offered a pardon to those who went home. They all went home, except the two leaders, who were hanged. 32

In 1681 former governor Josias Fendall of Maryland attempted to follow Nathaniel Bacon's example, using fear of Indian attacks and the failure of the proprietary government to supply arms to the settlers as a route to power. His effort never came anywhere near success. Fendall joined with the eternal gadfly John Coode to attack the proprietor as an arbitrary governor who imposed excessive taxes and had failed to build the local arsenals required by law. Fendall and Coode apparently organized a large following along both banks of the Potomac, recruiting, as Calvert wrote, "most of the rascals" in the region. But the insurrection evaporated with the arrest of the two leaders. 33

When news of William's invasion of England reached the Chesapeake in early 1689, the Maryland government ordered the recall of all arms which had been distributed to the militia. The council announced that the guns were just being brought in for routine maintenance and would be returned, but they intended to hold on to the firearms until they discerned which way the wind was blowing. Maryland had still not built the county arsenals ordered by the legislature more than a decade earlier, so these recalled guns were brought to the central armory in St. Mary's, under the watchful eyes of the council. 34

In July, John Coode, whom the government kept mistakenly freeing, organized a protest demanding the return of the "public arms" to the militia. In the name of the new monarchs, William and Mary, he marched on St. Mary's with several hundred men armed with clubs, axes, hoes, and such. In response, the council called out the St. Mary's militia, arming them with the recalled guns, and declared the insurgents in rebellion. On July 27 the four hundred militiamen occupying Fort St. Mary announced that they would not fire upon their fellow citizens and turned the fort over to Coode's followers. 35

With the fort, and the state's guns, now in Coode's hands, the council immediately reached a deal. All Catholics left office, and Coode took effective control of the new papist-free government. He immediately ordered the confiscation of all guns in Catholic hands. In July 1691, Maryland became a royal colony. The first royal governor arrived the following year and expelled Coode from power. Coode continued to complain for another fifteen years, but no force rose in opposition to this heavy-handed exercise of arbitrary authority. 36

With the exception of Bacon's Rebellion, most encounters between dissidents and governors in that colonial period were nonevents. In the 1660s a group of sword-waving opponents threatened but did not attack Governor Samuel Stephens of North Carolina. The only political uprising in the colony's first hundred years came in 1677 when the customs collector seized the ship Carolina for nonpayment of plantation duties. Aboard the ship was a small consignment of swords, guns, and ammunition intended for the colony. The sailors of the Carolina seized the collector and distributed the arms to the public. 37 The new governor died of a fever within days of his arrival, and the next governor was, amazingly, captured by Algerian pirates while on his way to America. The colonial proprietors chose to ignore the whole affair, afraid that if word got out that they had lost control of North Carolina, the king would take the colony for himself. No one was hurt, and not a single shot was fired in what historians call "Culpeper's Rebellion." For two years the assembly ran the colony until a temporary governor arrived. It was as though the uprising had never occurred. 38

What one mostly sees in colonial America is calm and peace punctuated by some rather nasty Indian wars. Most settlers were too focused on the prosperity of their families and the health of their souls to bother about political and social issues. In January 1683, New Hampshire's governor, Edward Cranfield, arbitrarily prorogued the assembly, a unique act in New England. One member of the assembly, Edward Gove, tried to start an uprising with the cry of "liberty and reformation." Traveling from town to town, Gove raised a force of sixteen men, half of whom ran away at the first sign of trouble. The governor arrested the remainder and charged them with treason. Thus ended that rebellion. 39

Another insurrection started the following year, as Governor Cranfield ignored the tradition of assemblies' voting taxes and ordered a series of new "fees," hoping the name change would baffle the public. There were a few sporadic attacks around the colony, and a great deal of noncompliance. In December a club-wielding crowd in Exeter chased off the sheriff attempting to collect the fees. In Hampton another crowd actually beat a sheriff. The militia was called out in Hampton, but no one showed up since the militia was the crowd. The deputy governor lost a tooth in a fight with an assemblyman, the chancellor of the colony was pushed into a fireplace, and a sheriff who entered a religious meeting in Dover to collect a fee was knocked flat by a woman wielding her Bible. There were no further casualties, and no guns in evidence during any of these battles. The governor resigned his position, and another rebellion reached a peaceful conclusion. 40

These colonial insurrections were conservative in nature. The sovereignty of Great Britain was never questioned, the goal of uprisings generally a return to some real or imagined traditional relation, or, more often, a dispute among factions over who would enjoy the perquisites of power, each side claiming to act in the interests of the monarch. As long as white Americans had difficulty acquiring firearms and ammunition, there would be little chance of a real threat to England's colonial rule. As Gary Nash has written, the American lower class was "far more moderate in their proposals and far less violent" than the contemporary London crowd. 41

And yet one historian of colonial uprisings concluded, "The heavily armed adults of the provinces were far different from the domesticated residents of England. In Britain, guns and shot were reserved only for gentlemen, but in the colonies arms were the everyday tools of all citizens. Provincial men and women were well versed in fighting techniques and not to be trifled with." 42 Where were the guns? Where the evidence that they were used in any circumstances other than war? At some level the image of the armed settler appears a grand mythology intended to formulate a portrait of Americans as many would like to see them: people not to be trifled with, not willing to put up with ill treatment, and very violent. 43 The history of the first 150 years of settlement in America is of a people fairly hesitant to act, and then usually in a nonviolent manner, except, tragically, when race was involved.

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