Bearing arms in LION

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In connection with Bill Poser's post "What did it mean to 'bear arms' in 1791?", I searched the Literature Online database for instances of the phrase "bear arms" whose authors were alive between 1650 and 1791, adding the options of variant spellings (e.g. "beare arms") and variant forms (e.g. "bearing arms") . I got 36 entries in Poetry, 38 in Drama, and none in Prose. My opinion, after a quick read of the 74 hits, is that all of them occur in a military context and are used in a military sense.

Usually this is straightforward, as in Robert Anderson's "Fair Sally" (1798): "When Honour bade her sons bear arms, And boldly meet their country's foe …" Sometimes the implication of military or militia service is implicit, e.g. Wordsworth, in a footnote to "Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle": "for the Earl was no child, as some writers would have him, but able to bear arms, being sixteen or seventeen years of age".

This sample is small, and weighted towards poetic language, so that I don't think it really contributes a great deal to the argument, except perhaps in a statistical sense. However, there were a number of examples whose content I thought was interesting, quite apart from any bearing they might have on D.C. v. Heller. I'll give one in this post, and perhaps some others later on.

In 1776, John Leacock published The Fall of British Tyranny, or, American Liberty Triumphant. A Tragi-Comedy of Five Acts, As Lately Planned At the Royal Theatrum Pandemonium, at St. James. The passage that discusses bearing arms is most interesting, to my mind, as an example of political propaganda in a (mock?) paranoid style.

Lord Paramount: Now then for a line of politics——I propose to begin first by taxing America, as a blind——that will create an eternal animosity between us, and by sending over continually ships and troops, this will of course produce a civil war ——weaken Britain by leaving her coasts defenceless, and impoverish America; so that we need not fear any thing from that quarter. Then the united fleets of France and Spain with troops to appear in the channel, and make a descent, while my kinsman with thirty thousand men lands in Scotland, marches to London, and joins the others: What then can prevent the scheme from having the wish'd for effect? This is the main point, which keep to yourself.

Lord Mocklaw: If it has heretofore, failed 'tis impossible it should fail now; nothing within the reach of human wisdom was ever planned so judiciously; had Solomon been alive and a politician, I would have sworn your Lordship had consulted him.—But I would beg leave to hint to your Lordship the opposition to be apprehended from the militia of England, and the German forces that may be sent for according to treaty.

Lord Paramount: As to the militia, they are half of them my friends, witness Lancaster, Manchester, Liverpool, &c. &c. &c. the other half scarce ever fired a gun in their lives, especially those of London; and I shall take care by shaking the keys a little to have such officers appointed over them, who are well known to be in my interest. As to the German forces, I have nothing to apprehend from them; the Parliament can soon pass an act against the introduction of foreign troops, except the French or Spaniards, who can't be called foreign, they are our friends and nearest neighbours. Have you any thing further to object against the probability of this plan?

Lord Mocklaw: Nothing, my Lord, but the people of Ireland, who must be cajol'd or humbugg'd.

Lord Paramount: As to that, let me alone, I shall grant the Roman Catholics, who are by far the most numerous, the free exercise of their religion, with the liberty of bearing arms, so long unjustly deprived of, and disarm in due time all the Protestants in their turn.

Lord Mocklaw: That will be a noble stroke, the more I consider it, the more I'm surprized at your Lordship's profound wisdom and foresight: I think success is certain.

You could argue that when Lord Paramount discusses his plan to "grant the Roman Catholics … the free exercise of their religion, with the liberty of bearing arms", he's referring to an individual right.  But it seems to me that the context pretty clearly has to do with the freedom to participate in a militia, not (say) with hunting.

According to LION's biographical sketch:

[John Leacock] was a Philadelphia metalsmith and anonymous literary supporter of the American Revolution. He was born in Philadelphia to John and Mary Cash Leacock in 1729. He entered his father's business by apprenticeship to a silversmith and, in the early 1750s, opened his own shop. He was well connected in the unique Philadelphia atmosphere of industry coupled with learning. Benjamin Franklin was married to a cousin, and Leacock numbered among his friends leading tradesmen, writers, and politicians. […]

In 1767, Leacock retired from his business to live on a country estate, where he pursued interests in agriculture and politics and continued to write for the cause of colonial liberty. The First Book of the American Chronicle of the Times (1774-1775) was a series of 6 anonymous pamphlets written by Leacock as a biblical allegory. The pamphlets presented a sometimes humorous and satirical depiction of the events leading to the Revolution and were written as the events happened. The pamphlets were popular for their entertainment value, and the anti-British political content had resonance among a populace increasingly ready for confrontation with England.

Encouraged by the success of this work and spurred by the urgency of events, Leacock then wrote a drama, The Fall of British Tyranny; or American Liberty Triumphant (1776). Again published and produced anonymously, this propaganda piece purported to show the personal venality and more pervasive general evils of British rule.


  1. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 11:03 am

    "But it seems to me the context pretty clearly has to do with the freedom to participate in a militia not (say) with hunting."

    Mr. Liberman, I'm guessing, isn't a gun owner, because in America most firearms are purchased to have on hand, not for joining up with a militia or for hunting, but strictly for defense of people and property . My own subjective experience tends me to read it as clearly referring to the right to keep a gun, period. Plain and simple. Ockham's razor, if you will.

  2. James Kabala said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    The English Bill of Rights of 1689 (we didn't have the first one, you know) provided that "the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law." That is undoubtedly underlying the conversation here about expanding the right to Catholics. It strikes me that the individual right and the corporate right are being treated here as basically inseparable.

    Also, in case it wasn't clear to all readers, Paramount and Mocklaw are supposed to be villains and their plan is supposed to appear diabolical (and Jacobite).

  3. Bill Muir said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    Maybe you didn't understand his point, Janice.

  4. Geraint Jennings said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    According to Cookson (The British Armed Nation, 1793-1815

    "Dundas, we know, had wanted to add Catholics to the military resources of the state since 1778, and at the time an Irish militia was being projected he told the Irish government very firmly that he could see 'no reason why in respect of arms [Catholics] are to be distinguished from the rest of his majesty's subjects'…
    At the insistence of Dundas and Pitt, the Irish militia of 1793 gave effect to a new principle, that of the inclusion of Catholics in the Irish home forces of the crown."

    Surely the point is that at the time Catholics could hunt or defend property, but they were forbidden by law from participating in the militia until the passing of the relief act in 1793. Leacock is surely referring to the contemporary controversies in Ireland over exclusion from military service (and, indeed, command) rather than any question of private possession of firearms.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

    @Janice Huth Byer: Where I grew up (in rural eastern Connecticut), most people had guns for shooting pests (woodchucks, rats, etc.) and for hunting. I don't think that anyone was very worried about personal protection in that place and time, since everyone that I knew used to leave their doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition of their cars. The only person I knew who had a weapon for another reason was the town constable, who used to strap on his revolver every Sunday morning to direct traffic out in front of the Congregational Church.

    At the moment, I live in an apartment in a College House at Penn, where I'm resident faculty master, and firearms are prohibited on campus. If I lived out in the country, and had a garden out back with a pest problem, I might be tempted to hang a varmint rifle over the window, the way my next-door neighbor Gertrude Burnham used to do.

    Anyhow,the post was not about the various reasons why people in the U.S. today might want to own guns, but what people in the late 18th century meant by "bear arms".

  6. Helma said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    EEBO (Early English Books Online), which includes translations etc., has 632 occurrences of 'bear arms' separated by 3 words of fewer, for books published between these dates. Penn presumably has a license to this database too?

  7. Helma said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    PS: found this from North Carolina's bill of rights in another collection, which at first seems to point to the individual, but then, reading on, it's about the state militia after all (from the looks of # 19). I have to say that North Carolina is a lot more readable.. Link :

    17th. That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free state. That standing armies in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

    18th. That no soldier in time of peace ought to be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, and in time of war in such manner only as the laws direct.

    19th. That any person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms ought to be exempted, upon payment of an equivalent to employ another to bear arms in his stead.

  8. Scott said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    The militia act of 1792 was written not long after the bill of rights. First section, second part is where the militia is defined. Able-bodied males 18-45.

    This is consistent with the belief among the framers that a standing army is a bad thing, they get into mischief such as overthrowing the government. The idea was that if everyone is armed, in addition to providing a handy infantry when needed by the state or federal government, they'd be able to overthrow the (small) federal government if necessary. And the government, cognizant of this, would behave itself. "Enemies foreign and domestic," as they say.

    Obviously, several elements of this overall model are drastically different in the modern era. But to understand what they meant by "bear arms", it's necessary to see what they meant by "militia", and why it is "necessary to the security of a free state".

    Opponents of an individual right generally base their arguments on slightly-misunderstood or -misrepresented elements of the picture, easy enough to do today. But those were the days when being armed, with weaponry appropriate to an infantryman, was just a normal part of being a responsible adult.

  9. dr pepper said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    In the earlier post, user anti-fascist noted that our founding finaglers distinguished between "arms", addressed by the amendment, and "munitions" which were never considered a matter of private righjt. If our modern guns, with which you can massacre a whole classroom full of people without having to drop in a fresh bullet and powder cartridge between each shot, are counted as "munitions", then we can spare ourselves the rest of the mind reading exercise.

  10. bulbul said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 8:11 pm


    at first seems to point to the individual, but then, reading on, it's about the state militia after all (from the looks of # 19)
    I'm sorry, but it doesn't seem so to me. We might debate the purpose of the semicolon in 17th, but 19th simply covers conscientious objectors – those who give religious reasons, at least.
    The Tennessee constitution, for example, is much more straightforward in that respect. Section 26 of Article one of the the original constitution of 1796 reads: "That the free men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence." It seems quite clear that the public right and the public right only is what is protected here.
    On the other hand, there is the Kentucky constitution, Section 1, Article Seventh: " The right to bear arms in defense of themselves and of the State". This clearly protects both the private right and the public right.

  11. Breffni said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 5:39 am

    Geraint Jennings wrote:

    Surely the point is that at the time Catholics could hunt or defend property, but they were forbidden by law from participating in the militia until the passing of the relief act in 1793.

    Under the Penal Laws (for "the Suppression of Popery"), Catholics in Ireland were forbidden from "having or keeping arms or ammunition" for any purpose – relevant extracts here.

  12. outeast said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 4:59 am

    dr pepper

    user anti-fascist noted that our founding finaglers distinguished between "arms", addressed by the amendment, and "munitions"

    Anti-fascist speculated that the FFs drew such a distinction, but without offering evidence to support the claim. To me, the restriction of larger weaponry seems actually less consistent with the constitutional right that the restriction of small arms: if the right is protected so that people can defend their country in a militia, surely a powerful weapon which might actually be of use in opposing heavily armed and highly trained soldiery makes more sense than a shotgun or handgun.

  13. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 26, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    Mark, your points are very well taken. My being personal in my post, for which implication I apologize, because it does sound, on rereading, like I'm making a case for experience, when what I wanted was to make a case for our interpretation of 18th century writings necessarily being guided by it. That those who don't own guns see them as being military tools, while those who do, don't, seems to be where the difference is defined. Experience limits our openness to larger meaning, which, needless to say, is not necessarily a good thing.

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