The debate over the Glorious Revolution’s legitimacy in England featured a question that provoked anxiety among seventeenth-century political theorists: would vesting a right of revolution in the people lead to continual turmoil and chaos? In other words, would the social costs of the political violence that such a right would inevitably foster prove tolerable? John Locke confronted this question in 1689, answering critics who claimed that recognizing such a right would “occasion civil wars, or intestine broils.” “Such revolutions,” he declared, “happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs.” “Nor let any one say,” he continued, “that mischief can arise from hence, as often as it shall please a busy head, or turbulent spirit, to desire the alteration of the government. It is true, such men may stir, whenever they please, but it will be only to their own just ruin and perdition.”
Regardless of Locke’s assurance, the English state took pains to rein in the political violence that had wreaked havoc upon the realm in the seventeenth century. Though many of Locke’s fellow Whigs extolled the right to bear arms and the institution of a militia composed of “the body of the people” as the basis of a free society, both the militia and the right to bear arms were tightly regulated in early modern England. From the late sixteenth century through the Age of Revolutions, England’s militia statutes provided that only a small portion of the able-bodied male population would be selected to receive military training. These laws required men aged 16 to 60 to appear at a “general muster.” Such musters took place infrequently and played little role in the training of the militia. From those who mustered, county officers then selected a small “trained band” composed of the most reliable men (socially, politically, and religiously) for actual military training. In the Hundred of Edwinstry, Hertfordshire, for example, 182 men were selected for the trained band, 14% of the 1302 men who mustered in 1587. These men were armed from stocks of weapons provided by the wealthiest men in the community and by each local parish. In 1757, Parliament reorganized the militia. Thereafter, a total of 30,000 men nationwide were chosen to serve with the militia for a period of three years. They were armed and uniformed from government stores. Thus in England the militia was kept under tight government control and posed no threat of independent action against the state. The English state also reserved the right to tightly circumscribe gun ownership among the general populace. England’s Bill of Rights guaranteed that, “the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” That formulation allowed Parliament to pass game laws that disarmed the poor and to disarm anyone deemed “dangerous to the peace of the Kingdom.”
In contrast, pressed by the exigencies of frontier warfare and the dangers of coastal raids by other Atlantic powers, the colonies of British North America had established a very different militia system. By 1705, every colony except Pennsylvania had passed militia laws than mandated military training by every able-bodied free white man aged 16 to 60. Only small numbers of government officers and members of certain critical professions were exempt. For example, in 1755, Rhode Island’s trained band, which consisted only of men 16 to 50, still enrolled 64% of the adult white men in the colony. These colonial laws further required that all able-bodied free white men furnish themselves with a musket and a small supply of ammunition. Probate inventories and militia records indicate that approximately two-thirds of free white men in the colonies owned guns. Thus the militia envisioned by English libertarian theorists, composed of the body of the people bearing their own arms, became a reality not in England but in America.
Though this colonial militia was established and regulated by the English government, in 1774 and 1775, the militia turned its arms and organization against that government. The militia was in the forefront of the movement to nullify the Coercive Acts that swept New England in 1774. In communities across the region, militia companies closed courts, elected new men to replace loyalist militia officers, and forced royal officials to resign. Thereafter, provincial assemblies in colony after colony moved to reorganize the militia to support the cause of Independence. Though it began in New England, this process was repeated in the Middle Atlantic and the South in the winter and spring of 1775.
This precedent of an aroused people mustering in the militia and taking up arms against their lawful government influenced the debate over the ratification of the Constitution of 1787. Clauses in that document empowering the federal government to raise a standing army and to potentially reorganize the militia to replicate England’s, prompted Anti-Federalists to charge that the Constitution marked a betrayal of the principles of the Revolution. The Federal Farmer, for example, argued that the Constitution ought to secure “general liberty, and the duration of free and mild government” by guaranteeing “that the militia shall always be kept armed, organized and disciplined, and include, according to past and general usage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms.” Federalists, fearful that this charge might move many to oppose ratification, rushed to assure citizens that the Constitution left their capacity to resist tyranny intact. In 1788, a Connecticut Federalist, writing under the pseudonym “Republican,” assured his readers that under the Constitution “great barriers of liberty will still remain.” The people of America, he declared, “have arms in their hands; they are not destitute of military knowledge; every citizen is required by Law to be a soldier; we are marshaled into companies, regiments, and brigades for the defense of our country. This is a circumstance which…enables them to defend their rights and privileges against every invader.” Such Federalist assurances were common during the ratification debate.
When the Second Amendment to the Constitution was framed and ratified a few years later, many understood it as a Constitutional expression of these assurances. The same Congress that framed the amendment passed legislation preserving the militia as an institution that enrolled the bulk of the free white male population and required militiamen to arm themselves. Furthermore, St. George Tucker, whose early commentary on the Constitution became a foundation of nineteenth century jurisprudence, interpreted the Second Amendment as a bar to the disarmament practiced under England’s game laws. When the mandate of common militia training lapsed in the antebellum era, widespread gun ownership became the last facet of the “palladium of liberty” first envisioned by English libertarians in the late seventeenth century.
Today, in the face of an epidemic of gun violence, I find myself returning to the question first confronted by John Locke in the 1680s: are the social consequences of the political violence that inevitably stems from recognizing the people’s right of revolution still tolerable? The “turbulent spirits” described by Locke still stir, more frequently, it seems, with each passing year. It is worth pondering whether we still believe that preserving widespread gun ownership as a vestige of the people’s capacity to resist their government is worth the cost.
Robert Churchill is a historian of early America. He specializes in the history of the American Revolution, early national political culture, and American political violence. He is the author of To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Title image: Minute Man, Concord statue
 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. MacPherson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), 113 and 115.