Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

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Author: Paul Finkelman
Date: May 2001
From: Michigan Law Review(Vol. 99, Issue 6)
Publisher: Michigan Law Review Association
Document Type: Book review
Length: 9,290 words

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ARMING AMERICA: THE ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL GUN CULTURE. By Michael A. Bellesiles. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2000. Pp. 16, 603. Cloth, $30; paper, $16.

Every American had a musket hanging over his fireplace at night, and by his side during the day. Like Cincinnatus, time and again Americans dropped their plows to shoulder their arms, to fight the Indians, the French, the Indians, the British, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Indians yet again, and then, from 1861 to 1865, each other. American men were comfortable with guns; they needed them and wanted them. They felt at home in woods, in search of food, or in defense of their homesteads.

It is a story as old as our first pulp novels and earliest movies. It is larger than John Wayne and as real to us as Ronald Reagan narrating Death Valley Days. And, as Michael Bellesiles (1) persuasively demonstrates, it is largely untrue.

In Arming America, Michael Bellesiles challenges -- indeed, demolishes -- the pervasive notion that America was always a nation of gun owners, gun users, and most importantly, gun lovers. While vulnerable to some criticism, (2) this is one of the most important books in American history of the last decade. It has gathered great praise and at least one major award, the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American history. Bellesiles offers a full scale, and for the most part successful, attack on one of the most persistent myths of American culture: that throughout our early history Americans were a gun-toting people, skilled at shooting and hunting, often violent, using their guns to defend their honor or just to settle an argument, and ready at a moment's notice to grab musket and powder horn to defend their homes and homeland.

The story Bellesiles tells is different, persuasive, and, most of all, logical. Bellesiles makes many contributions to our understanding of guns in early America, many of which run counter to our myths but logically dovetail with what else we know about society. For example, Bellesiles demonstrates that:

1) Guns, at least until the mid-nineteenth century, were expensive, costing the equivalent of two months' wages (p. 106). Before the 1750s, few outside of the upper class could afford them. From the first settlement until the eve of the Civil War, guns were scarce and largely unavailable. Indeed, there was a persistent shortage of guns, even for military purposes, from the earliest English settlements until the middle of the Civil War.

2) Hunting was a time consuming, inefficient way of finding food or making a living. While some men on the frontier hunted for a living, they were rare and relatively unsuccessful. Most Americans on the frontier were farmers, raising corn, hogs, and cattle. As scholars of the European invasion of the Americas have long known, domesticated animals and the ability to grow crops, especially wheat, were keys to the success of Europeans on the frontier. (3) Thus, as Bellesiles notes:

If a settler wanted meat, he did not...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A80311971