Would George Washington have been an ally to modern-day gun-rights groups? A social-media meme suggests that he would have.
Around the time of Washington’s 282nd birthday, a reader sent us the meme, which includes a painting of Washington and a quote purportedly written or uttered by the nation’s first president: “When government takes away citizens’ right to bear arms it becomes citizens’ duty to take away government’s right to govern.”
But are those really Washington’s words?
We contacted Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. He said “there is no evidence that Washington ever wrote or said these words, or any like them.” Lengel cautioned that it’s impossible to prove a negative, but he added that he’s “as certain as he can be” that the quote did not originate from George Washington.
This is not the first time a similar claim has popped onto our radar screen.
In December 2012, PolitiFact Texas rated False a claim made two days after the Newtown elementary school shooting. When U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, appeared on Fox News Sunday, he was asked why he believed ordinary Americans should be able to buy semi-automatic weapons designed for military use. Gohmert answered in part, “For the reason George Washington said a free people should be an armed people. It ensures against the tyranny of the government.”
PolitiFact Texas contacted Gohmert’s office to seek details on the Washington quotation but didn’t hear back.
The closest statement they could find was one Washington made in his first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1790: “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined.”
The academic consensus is that Washington was referring to a trained militia to defend the new nation, rather than anticipating citizens seeking to head off perceived governmental tyranny.
Ron Chernow, whose Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography, told PolitiFact Texas that Washington was “talking about national defense policy, not individuals arming themselves, and the need for national self-sufficiency in creating military supplies.”
Some post-Revolutionary lawmakers did expect citizens to own firearms, but Washington does not appear to have been among them, experts said.
“The idea of resistance to tyranny being dependent on a nation of gun-wielding individuals acting at their own behest or even on local initiative would have been anathema to Washington,” Lengel told PolitiFact Texas.
Yes, that’s right. Per “academic consensus,” the very man to whom the continental congress turned to lead the effort to wage war on their own government was opposed to the very idea of waging war on your own government. You simply cannot make this kind of thing up.
Let’s forget about a singular quote that may or may not have been properly attributed to Washington. That clouds the issue, and it allows Politifact to launch into a much deeper presentation for which they cited absolutely no evidence.
The private ownership of weapons was so ubiquitous in colonial America that there is no need to explain that the “militia” purchased, maintained and trained on their guns individually. As we’ve discussed before:
In the colonies, availability of hunting and need for defense led to armament statues comparable to those of the early Saxon times. In 1623, Virginia forbade its colonists to travel unless they were “well armed”; in 1631 it required colonists to engage in target practice on Sunday and to “bring their peeces to church.” In 1658 it required every householder to have a functioning firearm within his house and in 1673 its laws provided that a citizen who claimed he was too poor to purchase a firearm would have one purchased for him by the government, which would then require him to pay a reasonable price when able to do so. In Massachusetts, the first session of the legislature ordered that not only freemen, but also indentured servants own firearms and in 1644 it imposed a stern 6 shilling fine upon any citizen who was not armed.
When the British government began to increase its military presence in the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, Massachusetts responded by calling upon its citizens to arm themselves in defense. One colonial newspaper argued that it was impossible to complain that this act was illegal since they were “British subjects, to whom the privilege of possessing arms is expressly recognized by the Bill of Rights” while another argued that this “is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defense”. The newspaper cited Blackstone’s commentaries on the laws of England, which had listed the “having and using arms for self preservation and defense” among the “absolute rights of individuals.” The colonists felt they had an absolute right at common law to own firearms.
In fact, it may properly be said that the beginnings of the American war of independence was fought over gun control imposed by the British. As to the private ownership of weapons, it doesn’t stop with the individual colonies declaring that men should be well armed in order to travel, or that they should practice their marksmanship every Sunday.
The Mount Vernon slaves hunted and trapped animals for income, both physical and documentary evidence suggests. Within the past decade, archaeologists working in the cellar of a slave dwelling on the Mansion House Farm came across both gun flints and lead shot in a variety of sizes; remains of small mammals (rabbits, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons); and a variety of wild birds (several types of ducks, coot, grouse, partridge, and passenger pigeon). Contrary to popular belief, slaves could legally own guns under certain circumstances. A Virginia statute of 1785 forbid slaves to keep firearms unless they were either traveling with their master or had written permission from him or their employer to have a gun. Washington clearly knew about and sanctioned the keeping of guns by at least some of his slaves (although no such documents of permission appear at Mount Vernon). He even provided shot on occasion, most likely for hunting game for the Washingtons’ table or for hunting vermin, as on 19 January 1787, when slave Tom Davis received one pound of shot.
In the fall of 1792, Davis and another slave, Sambo Anderson, sold their master eleven dozen birds. Both men were well-known hunters. Davis, who regularly supplied the Mount Vernon household with fresh game, had a “great Newfoundland dog” named Gunner as his hunting companion. Ducks were extremely plentiful along the Potomac in the eighteenth century, and one shot from Davis’s “old British musket” generally brought down “as many of those delicious birds as would supply the larder for a week,” said George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s grandson. Anderson had been born in Africa and in the 1750s had been enslaved and brought to Virginia, where he became a carpenter. A vivid character, he wore gold rings in his ears and adorned his face with tribal scars and tattoos. After his manumission in 1800 under the terms of Washington’s will, Anderson supported himself by hunting wild game, which he sold to hotels and to “the most respectable families” in Alexandria, according to an 1876 correspondent to the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser. He made enough money from this endeavor to purchase and emancipate two members of his family, William and Eliza. Sambo Anderson probably earned money from those same sources while Washington was alive.
Even Washington’s slaves owned weapons. Do not ever trust Politifact. And as for that matter, do not ever trust Snopes or Truth or Fiction. Be better students that they are, and refuse to honor people who perform middle school level research with your visits or your time. When I do, I visit these sites so you don’t have to.
Washington, like all other founders, viewed gun ownership as a right, and relied upon such ownership to prosecute the American war of independence.
Prior: Politifact Lies About The NRA