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Critics Comment on Bellesiles's Defense

Bellesiles’s Weighed in an Even Balance suffers from the same problem that Arming America did: he seems to have a problem reading simple English and understanding it.  Unfortunately, it is Bellesiles’s own writing now that he misreads, not historical documents.  Oddly, Bellesiles repeatedly quotes his critics—but fails to cite where these criticisms appeared.  Is Bellesiles accurately quoting these criticisms?  Did anyone even make some of these criticisms, at least in the form that Bellesiles presents them?  I do not know.  At least Arming America was filled with citations—citations that Bellesiles clearly did not expect anyone to check.

Rather than engage in a lengthy analysis of Bellesiles’s misrepresentation of his own book, let me settle for just one very gross example.  It is an adequate proxy for the accuracy and honesty of the rest of the book.

17 Early Gun Laws


“Completely ignored are laws requiring gun ownership.”


These laws are discussed in Arming America, as is the dissatisfaction of various governments with the result. See for instance, pages 75–80 and 229–39. It is worth noting that those who make this charge seem to work on the assumption that a law must become reality; if the state orders the purchase of a gun, the people respond by buying one. That may have been the case, but evidence is required in support of this position.[1]


I don’t know that anyone has claimed that Bellesiles “[c]ompletely ignored” laws requiring gun ownership.  Bellesiles’s discussion of colonial militia laws with respect to gun ownership is simply wrong.  Let me emphasize: Bellesiles’s error is not derived from assuming, “if the state orders the purchase of a gun, the people respond by buying one.”  Bellesiles’s error is that he makes a very clear statement about what the colonial militia laws said, and his own sources—at the page numbers he lists—either say nothing that supports his claim, or more commonly, directly contradict him.

Bellesiles contends that because the royal government did not provide “anywhere near sufficient numbers of guns,” the Colonial governments were handed the responsibility by England.  The Colonial governments in turn ordered freemen to own guns, but didn't trust them to actually possess them:

Few freemen welcomed this duty, and fewer still could afford firearms, so it became necessary for governments to supply them, with laws passed to effect that purpose.  At the same time, legislators feared that gun-toting freemen might, under special circumstances, pose a threat to the very polity that they were supposed to defend.  Colonial legislatures therefore strictly regulated the storage of firearms, with weapons kept in some central place, to be produced only in emergencies or on muster day, or loaned to individuals living in outlying areas.  They were to remain the property of the government.  The Duke of York's first laws for New York required that each town have a storehouse for arms and ammunition.  Such legislation was on the books of colonies from New Hampshire to South Carolina.[2]


The list of citations to back up that claim is impressive—until you start to read the sources that Bellesiles cites as evidence.  A detailed examination of all the errors would run to many pages, so let us examine a single claim in Bellesiles paragraph quoted above: that every colony required guns to be kept centrally stored, because the colonial governments mistrusted armed freemen.

Bellesiles cites Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina1:10-12, but those pages say nothing that supports his claim about central storehouses or mistrusted freemen.  Those pages direct storage of gunpowder “sent by the Lord Proprietors for the use and defense of this Province” and require “all, and every person and persons now in this Colony” to “appeare in armes ready fitted in their severall Companies….”  All gunsmiths in the colony were obligated “to worke up and fitt all and every Gun or Guns which he shall find in his Company not well and sufficiently fitted for service.”[3]

Bellesiles cites Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:397, 417-19 in his claim about mistrusted and disarmed colonists, but those pages directly contradict his claim.  Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:397 says nothing about guns, ammunition, or militia at all; it is a 1735 statute about the status of slaves.  Later in that statute there are pages that Bellesiles does not cite that authorize searches of slave quarters for guns, and requiring any “negro or slave” to have a license to possess a gun, but these are explicitly to disarm slaves, not freemen.[4]

At Statutes at Large of South Carolina 7:417-19 is a 1743 statute similar to those of Virginia and New England, requiring “every white male inhabitant of this Province, (except travelers and such persons as shall be above sixty years of age,) who [are] liable to bear arms in the militia of this Province… shall, on any Sunday or Christmas day in the year, go and resort to any church or any other public place of divine worship within this Province, and shall not carry with him a gun or a pair of horse-pistols… with at least six charges of gun-powder and ball, and shall not carry the same into the church or other place of divine worship as aforesaid” would be fined twenty shillings.  Other provisions required church-wardens, deacons, or elders to check each man coming in, to make sure that he was armed.

The stated purpose of this severe gun control measure—requiring everyone to be armed—was “for the better security of this Province against the insurrections and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other Slaves….”  There is nothing in these pages that shows a distrust of freemen, and nothing that required guns to be kept in central storehouses.[5]

Bellesiles cites Strachey’s For the Colony in Virginea Britannia, 9-25—but the only discussion of arms on those pages is an order that anyone that robs the “store of any commodities therein… whether provisions of victuals, or of Arms… shall bee punished with death.”[6]  There are no rules or regulations concerning storage of guns of any sort.

Bellesiles cites Tyler’s Narratives of Early Virginia, 273, but that page fails to demonstrate any worry about an armed population, or any requirement to store guns in central storehouses.  Instead, it shows a 1619 statute that required everyone to attend church on the Sabbath, “and all suche as beare armes shall bring their pieces, swords, pouder and shotte.”  Those failing to bring their guns were subject to a three shilling fine.[7]  If the colonial government required guns to be centrally stored, only issuing them during emergencies and at muster, why fine people for failing to show up with guns at church?

Bellesiles cites Peterson’s Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 321-22, but these pages say nothing to support this claim of disarmed and distrusted colonists.  There are requirements that soldiers on duty be adequately armed, a list of military goods that prospective colonists were to bring (including a gun “5 or 5 ½’ long near musket bore”), and a list of weapons sent over from the Tower of London in 1622, “short pistols with fire locks—300,” “arquebusses—300….”[8]  Nothing on these two pages supports Bellesiles’s claim that the population was not trusted with guns.

Bellesiles cites Hening’s Statutes at Large 2:304, 405, but these do not support his claim.  At 2:304 is a 1673 order for militia captains to “take a strict and perticuler account of what armes and ammunition are wanting in their severall companies and troops….”  The county courts were empowered to tax the population “for the providing of armes and ammunition for supplying the wants aforesaid, that is to say, muskitts and swords for the ffoote, and pistols, swords and carbines for horse….”  In short, guns were to be purchased for those who did not have them.  The militia officers were to keep these arms “for them to dispose of the same as there shalbe occasion; and that those to whome distribution shalbe made doe pay for the same at a reasonable rate….”[9]  Why would you distribute guns to militiamen, and demand payment, if the guns were kept in a government storehouse?  None of the sources that Bellesiles cites for V irginia match his claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists.

In Maryland, Bellesiles cites Archives of Maryland 3:103—but this is a 1642 law that required, “That all housekeepers provide fixed gunn and Sufficient powder and Shott for each person able to bear arms.”[10]  This is evidence of disarmed and distrusted colonists? 

For New York, Bellesiles cites the Duke of York’s “Military Affaires” statute.  That law did provide that “Every Town shall be provided of a Sufficient ware house and a Safe convenient place thereunto Adjoyning for keeping Powder and Ammunition.…”  The warehouse was to contain powder, bullets, and match, but the statute Bellesiles cites says nothing about any guns to be so stored, and certainly nothing about requiring militia arms to be stored there.

Bellesiles’s claim of disarmed and distrusted freemen is directly contradicted on those same pages he cites: “Besides the Generall stock of each Town Every Male within this government from Sixteen to Sixty years of age, or not freed by public Allowance, shall[,] if freeholders at their own, if sons or Servants[,] at their Parents and Masters Charge and Cost, be furnished from time to time and so Continue well furnished with Arms and other Suitable Provition hereafter mentioned: under the penalty of five Shillings for the least default therein[:] Namely a good Serviceable Gun, allowed Sufficient by his Military Officer to be kept in Constant fitness for present Service” along with all the other equipment required in the field.[11]  You were required to have a gun for yourself, if you were a freeholder, and supply one to your sons and servants.  That does not sound like guns kept in central storehouses at all—quite the opposite.

Bellesiles also cites Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York 6:54, but the only reference to guns on that page is an order that “Arms from on Board Captain Garrison &c be a Committee to make a Closet Opposite to the one Lately made in the Common Councill Chamber for the use of the City Arms.”[12]  While unclear, it appears that public arms, recently arrived by ship, were to be stored in the council chambers.  There is nothing that indicates that private arms were similarly stored, or required to be stored.

Bellesiles cites Bartlett’s Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1:79-80, 94, 223-34, as evidence for this mistrust of the population with guns, and once again, Bellesiles’s own sources contradict him.  Pages 1:79-80 directed that an earlier order “for every man to have so much powder, and so many bullets, and so the forwarning is to stand still in force; and also that every man do come armed unto the meeting upon every sixth day” with orders for militia officers to go to “to every inhabitant [in Portsmouth and] see whether every one of them has powder” and bullets.[13]  Guns were not centrally stored—you were required to bring them to public meetings.

Bellesiles's citation to Barlett, 1:94, is a city ordinance: “It is ordered, that noe man shall go two miles from the Towne unarmed, eyther with Gunn or Sword; and that none shall come to any public Meeting without his weapon.”  There was a fine of five shillings for failing to be armed in either circumstance.[14]

Bellesiles cites pages 1:223-34 as evidence for his claim, but only pages 1:224 and 1:226 have anything to say about guns and ammunition.  Page 224 specifies the number of barrels of powder, pikes, and muskets that each town was to keep in its magazine.  There is nothing that indicates that these were privately owned arms, or that there were any restrictions on private gun ownership.  On page 226 there are provisions for determining whether privately owned guns, “his owne proper goods” had been sold to the Indians, but no limitation on private ownership.[15]  Bellesiles cites fourteen pages about Rhode Island for his claim.  Three of those pages directly contradict his claim, and the other eleven say nothing relevant at all.

Bellesiles cites Brigham’s The Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth, 84.  This is a 1646 order that “every Township within this Government before the next October Court… shall provide two sufficient snaphaunces or firelock peeces two swords and two pouches for every thirty men they have in their Towneship… which shalbe ready at all tymes for service….”[16]  Why did they only require towns to store two guns for every thirty men if this was a requirement that all guns be kept in “central storehouses”?  Bellesiles cites one source specific to Plymouth Colony for his claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists—and that source does not support his claim.  There is nothing at this location that requires storage of firearms.

Bellesiles’s footnote concerning central storehouses and a mistrust of an armed population lists Trumbull’s Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1:134, but the only relevant material on that page directs the constables of several towns “to gather up the knapsacks, pouches, powder & bullets, used in the last designe” for safekeeping.  It would appear that “designe” referred to some recent military operation—and significantly, guns were not among the items to be gathered, nor is there any requirement for government storage of guns.[17]

Bellesiles also cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 6:363, but this 1722 order only directs militia majors “to inspect the towns with their several regiments respecting the town stock of ammunition, and take care that the towns be supplied with ammunition according to law.”[18]  There is nothing about central storehouses, and no regulation of gun ownership.  Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 6:406, but on that page is an order that gunpowder should be purchased and stored “for the publick service of the Colony….”[19]  There is nothing at 6:406 limiting gun ownership or storage.

Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 8:386 (in the middle of the 1741 militia statute), but that page only directs the towns to have an adequate supply of ammunition—nothing about guns, either privately or publicly owned.[20]  Other parts of that statute directly contradict Bellesiles, reiterating the earlier Connecticut statutes that required every militiaman “and other house-holder” to have a firelock and ammunition, and to show those at militia musters.[21] 

Bellesiles cites Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 9:473, 580, but again, there is nothing at those locations to support his claim—only orders that “gunpowder belonging to this Colony” in private storehouses was to be sold, and the money delivered to the Treasurer.[22]  Similarly, Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 14:343, 392, cited by Bellesiles as support for this distrusted and disarmed view of the colonists, says nothing about guns at all.  Instead, these pages have orders for towns to have sufficient supplies of ammunition,[23] and a complaint about Loyalist interference with gunpowder importation just before the Revolution starts.[24] 

Bellesiles cites eight pages specific to Connecticut as evidence for this claim of distrusted and disarmed free colonists.  None of the eight pages support his claim, and other parts of those same statutes, require individuals to own and keep guns—and not in central storehouses.

I could go on for many pages, because every colony by the time of the American Revolution had a mandatory gun ownership statute (although many were indifferently obeyed)—but why bother?  I have gathered up images of all the colonial militia statutes on this question at http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary.html#MilitiaLaws.  I was able to locate seventeen of the nineteen sources (and all of the primary sources) Bellesiles cited to defend his claim that the colonial governments did not trust their freemen with guns, and required guns to be kept locked up in central storehouses, except during militia muster or actual emergency.  Not a one of them supports his claim, and many directly contradict it.

Here’s the sad part: this one footnote is a demonstration that Bellesiles either cannot read, or will not tell the truth.  I found that I could flip Arming America open at random, and find similar examples on almost any page.  If you want to read hundreds of pages of similar examples, read http://www.claytoncramer.com/ArmingAmericaLong.pdf.  If you want a short list of examples using images of the original documents that Bellesiles has misrepresented, read http://www.claytoncramer.com/columbia.18apr01.htm.  This is a presentation that I gave at ColumbiaUniversity the day that Bellesiles received his now-revoked Bancroft Prize for Arming America.  Historians could have avoided a lot of embarrassment on this matter—if the truth mattered.

I am not surprised that Soft Skull Press is prepared to publish the second edition of Arming America.  What disappoints me greatly is that a reputable operation such as Oxford University Press trusts Michael Bellesiles enough that they are going to publish another book by him in 2004.  (If you want to know more about early American gun ownership, you can read the first two chapters of the book that no publisher will touch at http://www.claytoncramer.com/ArmedAmericaTeaser.pdf.

[1] Michael Bellesiles, Weighed in an Even Balance (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2003), 34.

[2] Bellesiles, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2000), 73.

[3] Alexander S. Salley, Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina(Columbia, S.C.: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1907), 1:9-12.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-9.jpg, http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-1011.jpg, and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCMilitiaStat1-1213.jpg .

[4] David J. McCord, Statutes at Large of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnson, 1840), 7:397, 399-400, 404-5.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/SCStatAtLarge7-397.jpg .

[6] William Strachey, comp., For the Colony in Virginea Britannia: Laws Divine, Morall and Martiall, etc., ed. David H. Flaherty, (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1969), 13.

[7] August 2, 1619, “Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619,” in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907; reprinted New York: Barnes & Noble, 1959), 273.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/NarrEarlyVirginia273.jpg.

[8] Harold L. Peterson, Arms and Armor in Colonial America: 1526-1783 (Harrisburg, Penn.: Stackpole Co., 1956), 321-22.

[9] William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1823), 2:304.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/Hening2-304305.jpg and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/Hening2-404405.jpg.

[10]Archives of Maryland, 3:103.

[11]The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution… (Albany, New York: James B. Lyon, 1894), 1:49-50.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/ColLawNY1-49.jpg and http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/ColLawNY1-50.jpg. .

[12] Herbert L. Osgood, ed., Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1905), 6:54.

[13] John Russell Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England (Providence, R.I.: A. Crawford Greene and Brother, 1856), 1:79-80.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/RecRI1-7980.jpg.

[16] William Brigham, ed., The Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth… (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1836), 84.See http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/militia/PlyLaw84.jpg.

[19]Public Records of Connecticut, 6:406.

[21]Public Records of Connecticut, 8:379-83.

[22]Public Records of Connecticut, 9:473, 580.

[23]Public Records of Connecticut, 14:343.

[24]Public Records of Connecticut, 14:392.