Saturday, February 9, 2013

A War Over Gun Control


Economic history, my collegiate academic fascination, focuses upon the adaptation of societal institutions to technical innovations. The American legal history of the right to keep and bear arms can be traced back to the deposition of King James II, who prevented Protestants from owning firearms. The English constitutional right that “Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” then served as the model for the American Bill of Rights.

Here in the States, however, firearms were not stored in a castle “keep” with villiens, as part of their required service, bearing the cost to maintain them. The Militia Acts in most colonies required property owners, slaves excluded, to maintain a firearm. After Yorktown, however, when the Continental Congress could not pay our soldiers, they then had their firearms “for keeps.” In America, we lost the notion that keeping arms meant that one must bear the cost to store them in a castle keep.  Americans replaced that British conception with the idea that "keeping," as that word is used in the Second Amendment, meant ownership of personal property, not a power to tax in the form of service to a lord.

The prosperity that ordered liberty brought to the states during the 60 or so years that followed the adoption of the Constitution yielded technical innovation in the manufacture of firearms such as interchangeable parts and mass production. I have argued here that the mass production of the Sharps Carbine tipped the balance in Bleeding Kansas toward the final rejection of that horrendous English belief that certain people enjoy a right to greater freedom than others. Yet, as one state copied the Militia Act of another, slaves were prohibited from possessing a firearm.

The uniquely American idea, ultimately antithetical to the complete deprivation liberty, of a personal right to keep and bear arms, brought the United States to a violent tipping point.  This came, however, only after the relative cost of firearms made them widely available to more than those landed men who were required to participate in the militias. In the days that Kansas formed as a state, abolitionist Protestants, armed with Beecher’s Bibles, opposed those who sought to keep slaves:
We therefore accept the weapons, also, and like our fathers, we go with the Bible, to indicate the peaceful nature of our mission, and the harmless character of our company, and a weapon to teach those who may be disposed to molest us (if any such there be), that while we determine to do only that which is right, we will not submit tamely to that which is wrong.
Letter of C.B. Lines to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, March 31, 1856
The inhabitants of the Kansas territory thus saw the impact of abolitionists armed with the Sharps Carbine. The people of Kansas thereafter adopted the Wyandotte Constitution, that declared, “The people have a right to bear arms for their defense and security,” and that, “There shall be no slavery in this State, and no involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” As a result, after October 4, 1859, a person of any color, just across the river from slave plantations in Missouri, could possess the mighty Sharps Carbine.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave those territories their own right to decide whether to be pro-slave or not, fractured the Whig Party in two, giving rise to the birth of the Republican Party. United States admitted Kansas as a state on January 29, 1861. The Congressional legislative balance between free and slave states then forever tilted toward liberty.  On Friday, April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire on Ft. Sumpter.

By 1856, Smith & Wesson began to manufacture the Model 1 that used a bored through revolver housing and a metal jacketed cartridge. That machine makes slavery impossible. The fight between the states, as I see it, was between entrenched economic interests that could not resolve who was a “person” who could keep and bear increasingly less expensive and more effective firearms. The Civil War was fought over gun control.

6 comments:

ikaika said...

i'm still on the fence. i don't believe it was fought entirely over gun control. I agree that the ability of individuals from evry race to keep and bear arms was something that the South opposed.
I need a bit more research regarding the proliferation of small arms in the south.

frithguild said...

Yeah - I need more empirical data to better support the thesis. The argument that mass production applied to firearms was the disruptive technology that led to the war and the end of slavery has appeal. Weapons efficiency was also increasing at the time - the Sharps was a breach loader that you could use without dismounting. It stands to reason that the more firearms there are, the more difficult it is to maintain deprivation of liberty - you might get shot trying to reclaim a slave.

Perhaps I should think about a firearm per capita type of analysis. To some degree that would be an ex hoc argument because per capita holding of firearms in slave states would be repressed by legal constraints.

ikaika said...

Tough call because the most common firearm (on every plantation or farm) was probably a smooth bore of some sort with the exception of squirrel rifles.

Back to John Brown, what were the arms that were "kept" at Harper's Ferry?

frithguild said...

Not totally sure - They manufactured 11,000 1843 Hall-North carbines, the M1843, ending in 1844. They also produced 23,500 M1819 Hall rifles, an 1833 carbine and 7,000 M1842 carbines. The armory was upgraded beginning then and by 1855 it employed 450 men. At the time of Brown's raid, they supposedly stored 100,000 muskets and rifles, all of questionable utility if I recall correctly - probably many muskets. I do not know what they were making in the upgraded armory in 1855-59.

frithguild said...

M1819 - First machine of any kind made with TOTALLY INTERCHANGABLE PARTS

Christian Sharps learned his craft at Harpers Ferry under John Hall

Model 1855 Harpers Ferry rifle, .58 caliber, 40'' barrel - in production at the time of the raid.

frithguild said...

M1842 Harpers Ferry, original .69 caliber smoothbore musket, 10,000 of which were rifled & fitted with a long range sight about 1853-54. The .69 caliber bore with 42" barrel proved too powerful, leading to the design of the M1855 rifle.