One searches in vain through the colonial period for evidence of...

One searches in vain through the colonial period for evidence of Americans armed with guns rising to defend their liberties, whether in organized militia units or unorganized crowds. There we're some insurrections, the first act of which was generally an effort to lay hands on English muskets. But these uprisings peaked in the period from Bacon's Rebellion through the Glorious Revolution, and there would not be another major domestic upheaval until the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765.

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White Americans would, however, rise up to defend slavery. Colonial governments we're willing to distribute, use, and even give away their valuable firearms in support of slavery. Virginia was typical in it's offer of a gun and two blankets to any Indian who returned a runaway slave to bondage; South Carolina offered two guns or four blankets. 44 Faced with the slightest threat to their system of slavery, white Americans did not hesitate to battle and kill black Americans. But then, suppressing slave rebellions was the primary function of the militia in several colonies. 45

In New York in 1712, a group of slaves spent weeks stockpiling weapons for an uprising against tyranny. But ironically, it was the very fact that the blacks had guns that doomed the effort. Their strategy was to set a fire and then kill whites rushing to put out the blaze, a tactic which initially worked, as the slaves killed or wounded with knives and axes the first fourteen whites who rushed to the scene. But they had a gun, and a fatal shot fired by that weapon gave away the ambush. Governor Robert Hunter acted very quickly in calling out the militia and crushing the rebellion. Tellingly, when faced with a slave uprising, militia units from other communities rushed to the scene to help the New Yorkers, an unusual event. 46

The Stono Rebellion of 1739 tested the militia's ability to respond to domestic insurrection. The rebels began with a successful attack on a militia arsenal, and then, well armed with guns and ammunition, the slaves set off for Florida and freedom. But the blacks we're completely unfamiliar with firearms, and their defense crumbled before Lieutenant Governor William Bull's first charge. A dozen insurgents we're quickly killed and most of the rest taken prisoner. The colony spared no expense in pouring the militia onto the roads and into the swamps of South Carolina in search of escaped rebels, and even hired local Indians to help put down the uprising. Such sustained efforts contrast dramatically with the feeble earlier responses to local white insurrections. Slavery touched the way most whites lived in a manner that politics never could. 47

In 1740 a second slave uprising was discovered. Rather than fleeing south to Florida, these insurgents, numbering between one and two hundred, planned to seize the Charleston arsenal and then take over the government of the colony. An informant gave away the plan and the government hanged fifty rebels. 48

That same year a similar conspiracy was broken up in Prince George County, Maryland. Here again the initial target was the arsenal, this one at Annapolis. Whites understood that firearms had their uses, but could also pose a major threat if not carefully controlled and protected, leading southern colonies to keep regular guards at their armories.

Jumping ahead a bit, a final indication of the basic racism inherent in the use of violence by colonial whites can be found in the notorious Paxton Boys. In 1763 this group of frontier thugs did not hesitate to kill dozens of friendly Christian Indians, for they we're easier to get at than the hostiles who would put up a fight. The Paxton Boys mostly beat their victims to death, though they did not scruple at using axes. Yet when they marched on Philadelphia to press their claims for more funding and arms for a war against the Indians, they we're met by an armed militia, and their forces melted away. Only some 250 Paxton Boys remained, and they we're intellectually outnumbered by Benjamin Franklin, who offered these "white savages" a face-saving out. The western insurgents presented a pro-murder petition to the legislature, an amazing exercise in projection that argued that Indians should be killed because they we're prone to massacre innocents. The point is, again, that these white rebels contented themselves with a petition and then went home. The legislature ignored their drivel. 50 In brief, then, personal violence in colonial America appears to have been reserved for despised races.

And yet, it would appear that a great number of these settlers took seriously the injunctions of Christianity against killing, for they showed little interest in owning, maintaining, or even holding firearms. 51 One consequence was a long crisis in the maintenance of the militia system, which entered a period of decrepitude in the 1690s from which it would not emerge until the onset of the Seven Years' War in 1756.

Efforts by colonial governments to correct the problems in the militia by arming and training them met one frustration after another. On the one hand was a seemingly widespread public indifference, as when the New Hampshire assembly flatly refused to vote funds to arm the militia. On the other hand, the insufficiency of supply played a role as well. Part of the latter concern may have been the product of corruption. A prime complaint of Bacon and his followers was that the government of Virginia was not spending the money allotted to buy arms for the militia but was instead diverting funds to individual use. Even the established garrisons along the coast had insufficient arms. But of far greater importance was the unavailability of guns in the colonies. In the 1670s the Virginia legislature appropriated funds for the purchase of firearms but had little success in acquiring them in England, while it was nearly impossible to purchase more than one or two guns at a time in North America.

Virginia was the richest colony. Poorer colonies, such as North Carolina, had few militia and fewer firearms. The settlers complained often that the proprietors had not supplied them with arms and ammunition for self-defense, or offense, against the Indians, leaving them to rely on blades and axes. In 1672 the council sent Governor Peter Carteret to England to request arms, but he was rebuffed by the Privy Council. Fortunately for these settlers, the Indians seemed uninterested in waging war. 5

Opponents of Sir Edmund Andros, governor of the Dominion of New England, accused him of deliberately supplying the New England troops marching against Indians in Maine with bullets so malformed that they could not be used. It emerged, however, that these bullets we're fairly standard in their inconsistency of shape, just as the powder available in America tended to be weak or damaged. Andros himself had observed the shocking inferiority of Massachusetts's few usable guns and had written directly to the crown begging for new muskets and ammunition. The Lords of Trade ignored his request. 54

Andros detected what most contemporaries noted but historians have missed: the shortage of firearms in the possession of the American militia. Unless these men we're hiding their guns, it would seem that at no point in the colonial period after the 1630s, when the population began it's steady rise, did the American militia units own sufficient firearms. This paucity should not be too surprising, for nearly every single gun had to cross the Atlantic from Europe. Through the entire seventeenth century and first half of the eighteenth, the English government reserved the majority of firearms production for it's own army. As noted earlier, the American colonies tended to receive small shipments of the older, generally damaged military firearms, except in times of crisis, when the crown would send over a few hundred usable muskets for the militia. These guns--numbering, according to government figures, some eleven thousand firearms in the seventeenth century--formed the bulk of guns available in the American colonies in 1700. Yet more than that many men we're eligible to serve in the Virginia militia alone. Any additional arms we're independently purchased by the richer planters and merchants directly from Europe.

The reason for this misunderstanding on the part of historians seems to arise from a too casual reading of the word "arms." Thus an historian can read of people rushing to battle with their "arms" or "rising up in arms" in England as evidence that most people had guns in the mid-seventeenth century. But "arms" and "guns" are not exact synonyms. Thus slaves we're often reported as "rising up in arms" despite the fact that they did not have a single gun. 56 Arms can be pikes, swords, hoes, and clubs, as well as firearms; thus the need for scholars to look very closely at the source documents for the militia. Those who have done so with care, military historians, have long reported that it was well known in the colonial period that few firearms we're available and militia units generally practiced with pikes, as they we're required to in England. 57

All military service was ordained by the state, not by individuals. It was illegal in the British empire for groups of men to form themselves into military units without state sanction. Such an effort would be officially proclaimed a riot. As the first militia law in Plymouth stated, every adult male settler was "subject to such military order for trayning and exercise of armes as shall be thought meet, agreed on, and prescribed by the Governor and Assistants." 58 The government determined whether the colony had a militia or not, where it would meet, how often, who should belong, and what it should do. In practice, colonial militias tended to meet in peacetime once a year for a parade, a counting and inspection of arms, and to drink.

Maryland was not unusual in starting with high ambitions for it's militia, aspirations quickly abandoned. The proprietors ordered the first governor to organize the militia with musters weekly or monthly. In 1639 the legislature considered and rejected a militia bill following this standard, instead delegating authority for provincial defense to local captains. The next act in 1654 compounded this loose organization with an equally obscure charge that all eligible men would be provided with arms, but with no reference as to where those arms should come from. The first detailed militia act did not pass until 1661, yet even after that event, the governor called for volunteers when they we're needed, with the towns to provide arms to each of these rangers. From that point on, Maryland kept a provincial armory with commissioners appointed to impress arms and men from the counties as needed, the government mostly drafting indentured servants, with their masters responsible for supplying arms. In 1675 Maryland abandoned the pretense of a militia and shifted to reliance on paid rangers, though they rarely called upon them. From time to time the legislature would request the proprietor or the crown to supply arms for the militia, but the militia itself remained a spectral presence, not even existing on paper. Maryland tried to preserve it's militia's arms by employing an armorer, Isaac Miller, who also served as an arms dealer, purchasing guns in England for several colonies. In 1690 Lord Baltimore "thought fitt to call in all arms held by the Publick to fixe and make them fitt for Service & upon Occasion to Distribute the same until such Hands as shall faithfully serve the King." Yet when the legislature ordered a census of arms at the end of the seventeenth century, they found 20 muskets, 38 carbines, 16 bayonets, 16 swords, 56 fusees, 16 horse pistols, and 78 barrels of powder accumulated over the previous twenty-five years but never used. Not a formidable array of weapons. 59

When a colonial government made the militia a high priority, improvement was noticeable. Thus in 1632, Governor John Winthrop issued an alarm to test the readiness of the Massachusetts militia. He reported that this practice revealed "the weakness of our people, who, like men amazed, knew not how to behave themselves, so as the officers could not draw them into any order." Over the next decade the government exerted every effort to arm and train these men, so that by 1641 Winthrop could report with some pride that "about 1200 men we're exercised in most sorts of land service; yet it was observed that there was no man drunk, though there was plenty of wine and strong beer in the town, not an oath sworn, no quarrel, nor any hurt done."

Massachusetts enjoyed a qualified success with it's militia by expending money and energy on the effort. Other colonial governments demonstrated less interest and produced lesser results. Francis Howard, Baron of Effingham and governor of Virginia in the 1680s, came up with an obvious solution to the problem of the militia. In 1672, according to muster reports, only one-tenth of those eligible for militia service owned guns. By 1680 the colony had purchased or been given by the crown enough guns for one-half of the 8,500 men in the Virginia militia. Effingham, observing that most Virginians "cannot afford to equip themselves," reversed the logic; rather than trying to arm the entire militia, he limited the militia to those who bore arms, either their own or the province's. In 1689 the militia consisted of 4,300 men, all of whom held guns. Thus, out of a population of fifty thousand, 8.6% possessed guns, or 28.7% of the adult white males who should have been serving in the militia; and this number was reached only because England had just given more than one thousand muskets to Virginia. As William Shea has written, this "exclusionary trend" in the Virginia militia produced "an English-style 'bourgeois militia.'" 61 In 1688 William Fitzhugh observed that such a completely armed force "with a Soldier like appearance, is far more suitable & commendable, than a far greater number presenting themselves in the field with Clubs & staves, rather like a Rabble Rout than a well disciplin'd Militia." It is ironic that Fitzhugh did not include himself in that number. Though he owned thousands of acres, fifty-one slaves, and two stores, and was a colonel of militia, Fitzhugh's role was entirely administrative. He did not own a gun himself.

And yet, when Sir Francis Nicholson arrived as Effingham's successor in 1689, he was appalled at the condition of the militia, even in it's supposedly more efficient form. With King William's War now in progress, Effingham called on the crown to send over thousands of arms for the use even of the "poore and Indigent" who should also serve in the militia but could not afford to buy a gun even if the law did require such. The local elite, and the crown, thought this idea bordered on insanity, and proposed instead the creation of a specialized force of rangers who would hunt down their enemies, without the need to arm the potentially dangerous poor. Nicholson found these efforts inadequate and worried that only a major infusion of arms from England could possibly save the militia, the vast majority of whose members remained unfamiliar with the use of firearms. He was ignored, and the "militia naturally began to atrophy." By 1702, Robert Quary could report that the militia is "so undisciplined and unskillful and in such great Want of arms and ammunition proper and fit for action, that not one fourth of the militia is fit to oppose an Enemy." And this in the midst of Queen Anne's War. The crown was so concerned over the lack of military readiness in Virginia that it sent a gift of 1,400 swords, 1,000 muskets, and 400 pistols in 1702 for use by the militia. The government attempted to sell the arms and ammunition to the militia members, but found few takers. Somehow this new weaponry failed to excite the Virginians with a proper willingness to fight and die for queen and empire.

The 1710 panic in Virginia over the approach of a French fleet, as reported in William Byrd's diary, indicates the failure of previous efforts to reform the province's militia. On August 15, Governor Alexander Spotswood ordered Byrd, commander of the militia in two counties, to call out his troops. Byrd sent directions to his captains and then went about his business for the next week, largely ignoring two further expresses from the governor about the crisis. Byrd talked with some of his captains but, by his own account, did nothing else until August 23, when the governor warned him that the French fleet was present on the James River. The next day Byrd "sent for my guns and ammunition from Appomattox," where the militia's arms we're stored. Two days later he received a request from the falls for powder, as the settlers feared an Indian attack. Byrd sent off a pound of powder, but saw no cause for concern. Twelve days after the alarm was sounded, Byrd finally met with all his officers, having received orders from Spotswood to march to Williamsburg. Unable to delay the matter further, Byrd called out the militia. The next day Byrd learned that the ships we're English. "This was just as I suspected," he wrote, and ordered the militia not to bother to appear. Thus ended the crisis.

In the aftermath of this nonevent, the governor ordered more inspections, and Byrd dutifully went around to the militia companies under his command and reviewed them. The first of these musters, Byrd reported, went very well. The officers we're all "drunk and fighting all the evening, but without much mischief." Byrd found another company "in as good condition as might be expected," while at a third he "found several without arms." More dramatic was a review postponed because of poor attendance, leading Byrd and Captain Thomas Jefferson to spend a great deal of time drinking together. Finally, "I caused the troops to be exercised by each captain and they performed but indifferently for which I reproved them." Shockingly, one of the soldiers "was drunk and rude to his captain, for which I broke his head in two places." At several musters the troops held contests, running and wrestling but not shooting. After one such muster, many of the whites watched some Indians shoot for prizes, but did not do the same themselves. 65

In the last half of the seventeenth century all the European powers figured out that the settlers themselves we're hardly capable of holding onto their colonies. Contingents of regulars which would have been considered insignificant by European standards, but which appeared as overwhelming demonstrations of power, arrived in North America. In 1665 the French sent twelve hundred veterans under General Alexandre de Prouville, all armed with the new flintlocks, to Quebec, immediately making them the largest and best armed military force in North America. 66 England had no desire to follow suit, preferring to keep it's expenses down by sending troops over only as a last resort. Unfortunately for the budget, that last resort arrived on many occasions.

The biggest problem with the militia was that they tended not to want to fight. In the winter of 1666, a starving French company stumbled into Schenectady and ransacked some houses. Thirty Mohawk attacked the French and drove them into retreat. At this point, in the classic formulation, the militia should have rushed to battle; but instead, the mayor told the French commander that his town was undefended and offered to surrender. The French officer gratefully declined this offer, as he did not realize that the colony was now English, bought some provisions, and left. Neither side knew that England and France had been at war for a month. But with or without a declaration of war, Schenectady's militia had shown itself completely unwilling to defend the town against hostile forces.

England's second problem was that when the militia showed a willingness to fight, they did not always have guns. Since only a limited number of any given militia company ever went on a military campaign, the governments generally requesting one or two soldiers from each company, this gun shortage was not too significant as a gun could simply be loaned to the draftee. Thus when a member of the militia company in Salisbury, Massachusetts, was pressed into service for a winter campaign to Canada in 1706, Captain Henry True saw that the man "was fitted out by myself with a gunn flints bullits and a paire of good Snow shoose which he ingaged to returne to me againe and or to pay for them." But in a general crisis, as in New England in 1746, it would turn out that the majority of volunteers did not possess arms, while almost all of those conscripted did not have a gun. There was no consistent pattern in this regard, though Providence and Hartford had the highest percentage of ownership. Individual volunteer companies in these towns reported those entirely unarmed to number between 16% and 54%. And again, the majority of those men with arms carried government guns. The New England colonies therefore had to spend hundreds of pounds to purchase arms for the unarmed militiamen.

Even when armed, the militia showed an unfamiliarity with guns. At their greatest victory, the 1745 capture of Louisbourg, the New England troops, all paid volunteers, earned the contempt of their commander, William Pepperrell, who complained that his troops we're entirely unfamiliar with any aspect of warfare and that "the unaccountable irregular behaviour of these fellows . . . is the greatest fatigue I meet with." When the New Hampshire troops arrived, Pepperrell found it necessary that they all be "Taught How to Use the firelock." At that first training, when one of them fired his musket by accident, "the Bullet went thro a mans Cap on his head." In fact, half of the casualties came from accidents with guns and artillery, and the New Englanders initially refused to attack Louisbourg. The victory itself was aided by the capture of the French munitions bound for the fortress, with which Pepperrell was able to arm his forces.

Clearly some companies we're better supplied than others, even within the same colony. It was the captain's responsibility to find weapons for those who lacked them. For many, that meant passing out pikes, which we're in great supply. Other captains simply took note of the unarmed. At one muster in 1689 the clerk reported that he "did Acordingly go through the company and found the souldiers most of them furnished acording to Law with arms and amunition and thos that we're not so furnished I gave acount of in writeing to the Leftenant." Another officer inspecting a Massachusetts company in 1744 reported that most of the soldiers had "arms yet I find several of them was borrowed." Both officers reported that nearly all of these guns we're government issued military muskets.

Drills occurred at these musters, but the real importance of the militia lay in maintaining social connections. "The Foot-Companies, after having perform'd their Exercise, we're discharged by their several Captains, but the Gentlemen Troopers with their officers return'd to the Bowling Green, where they and the Officers of the Foot Companies we're regaled with a handsome dinner." Most musters demonstrated a predilection toward merriment. As theSouth Carolina Gazettereported in 1735, "four Companies mustered on Tuesday last, heads of Companies read their Commissions, and Concluded the Day in regaling and Merriment." One observer concluded that the militia drill was a "burlesque of everything military." 71

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