David B. Kopel
This Article reviews the British gun control program that precipitated the American Revolution: the 1774 import ban on firearms and gunpowder; the 1774-75 confiscations of firearms and gunpowder; and the use of violence to effectuate the confiscations. It was these events that changed a situation of political tension into a shooting war. Each of these British abuses provides insights into the scope of the modern Second Amendment.
Furious at the December 1773 Boston Tea Party, Parliament in 1774 passed the Coercive Acts. The particular provisions of the Coercive Acts were offensive to Americans, but it was the possibility that the British might deploy the army to enforce them that primed many colonists for armed resistance. The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.” A South Carolina newspaper essay, reprinted in Virginia, urged that any law that had to be enforced by the military was necessarily illegitimate.
The Royal Governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, had forbidden town meetings from taking place more than once a year. When he dispatched the Redcoats to break up an illegal town meeting in Salem, 3000 armed Americans appeared in response, and the British retreated. Gage’s aide John Andrews explained that everyone in the area aged 16 years or older owned a gun and plenty of gunpowder.
Military rule would be difficult to impose on an armed populace. Gage had only 2,000 troops in Boston. There were thousands of armed men in Boston alone, and more in the surrounding area. One response to the problem was to deprive the Americans of gunpowder.
Modern “smokeless” gunpowder is stable under most conditions. The “black powder” of the 18th Century was far more volatile. Accordingly, large quantities of black powder were often stored in a town’s “powder house,” typically a reinforced brick building. The powder house would hold merchants’ reserves, large quantities stored by individuals, as well as powder for use by the local militia. Although colonial laws generally required militiamen (and sometimes all householders, too) to have their own firearm and a minimum quantity of powder, not everyone could afford it. Consequently, the government sometimes supplied “public arms” and powder to individual militiamen. Policies varied on whether militiamen who had been given public arms would keep them at home. Public arms would often be stored in a special armory, which might also be the powder house.
Before dawn on September 1, 1774, 260 of Gage’s Redcoats sailed up the Mystic River and seized hundreds of barrels of powder from the Charlestown powder house.
The “Powder Alarm,” as it became known, was a serious provocation. By the end of the day, 20,000 militiamen had mobilized and started marching towards Boston. In Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, rumors quickly spread that the Powder Alarm had actually involved fighting in the streets of Boston. More accurate reports reached the militia companies before that militia reached Boston, and so the war did not begin in September. The message, though, was unmistakable: If the British used violence to seize arms or powder, the Americans would treat that violent seizure as an act of war, and would fight. And that is exactly what happened several months later, on April 19, 1775.
Five days after the Powder Alarm, on September 6, the militia of the towns of Worcester County assembled on the Worcester Common. Backed by the formidable array, the Worcester Convention took over the reins of government, and ordered the resignations of all militia officers, who had received their commissions from the Royal Governor. The officers promptly resigned and then received new commissions from the Worcester Convention.
That same day, the people of Suffolk County (which includes Boston) assembled and adopted the Suffolk Resolves. The 19-point Resolves complained about the Powder Alarm, and then took control of the local militia away from the Royal Governor (by replacing the Governor’s appointed officers with officers elected by the militia) and resolved to engage in group practice with arms at least weekly.
The First Continental Congress, which had just assembled in Philadelphia, unanimously endorsed the Suffolk Resolves and urged all the other colonies to send supplies to help the Bostonians.
Governor Gage directed the Redcoats to begin general, warrantless searches for arms and ammunition. According to the Boston Gazette, of all General Gage’s offenses, “what most irritated the People” was “seizing their Arms and Ammunition.”
When the Massachusetts Assembly convened, General Gage declared it illegal, so the representatives reassembled as the “Provincial Congress.” On October 26, 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress adopted a resolution condemning military rule, and criticizing Gage for “unlawfully seizing and retaining large quantities of ammunition in the arsenal at Boston.” The Provincial Congress urged all militia companies to organize and elect their own officers. At least a quarter of the militia (the famous Minute Men) were directed to “equip and hold themselves in readiness to march at the shortest notice.” The Provincial Congress further declared that everyone who did not already have a gun should get one, and start practicing with it diligently.
In flagrant defiance of royal authority, the Provincial Congress appointed a Committee of Safety and vested it with the power to call forth the militia. The militia of Massachusetts was now the instrument of what was becoming an independent government of Massachusetts.
Lord Dartmouth, the Royal Secretary of State for America, sent Gage a letter on October 17, 1774, urging him to disarm New England. Gage replied that he would like to do so, but it was impossible without the use of force. After Gage’s letter was made public by a reading in the British House of Commons, it was publicized in America as proof of Britain’s malign intentions.
Two days after Lord Dartmouth dispatched his disarmament recommendation, King George III and his ministers blocked importation of arms and ammunition to America. Read literally, the order merely required a permit to export arms or ammunition from Great Britain to America. In practice, no permits were granted.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin was masterminding the surreptitious import of arms and ammunition from the Netherlands, France, and Spain.
The patriotic Boston Committee of Correspondence learned of the arms embargo and promptly dispatched Paul Revere to New Hampshire, with the warning that two British ships were headed to Fort William and Mary, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to seize firearms, cannons, and gunpowder. On December 14, 1774, 400 New Hampshire patriots preemptively captured all the material at the fort. A New Hampshire newspaper argued that the capture was prudent and proper, reminding readers that the ancient Carthaginians had consented to “deliver up all their Arms to the Romans” and were decimated by the Romans soon after.
In Parliament, a moderate minority favored conciliation with America. Among the moderates was the Duke of Manchester, who warned that America now had three million people, and most of them were trained to use arms. He was certain they could produce a stronger army than Great Britain.