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The right to bear arms: An historical perspective

The state militia was formed by the U.S. Congress in 1792, in response to fears that without British protection the new American nation would be captured and/or dominated by another foreign power. In New Hampshire, towns were combined by the state legislature into units that practiced drilling and firing their weapons, and able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 45 (“blacks” excepted) were expected to register and to show up for drills of their town units, or to pay a fine for unexcused absence.

In 1792 New Hampshire, like the rest of New England, was largely clear cut and given to agriculture. An early president of Yale College traveled on horseback throughout New England in the early years of the 19th century; he wrote that in Connecticut it was impossible to find even a wild bird, so heavily cleared was that state. And the same situation prevailed in New Hampshire. An 1841 history of nearby Hillsborough mentions that at some time in the past a wild deer had been seen at the far end of town. The sighting had become a part of the town’s mythology by 1841.

In heavily farmed New England finding a source of heat for homes was a constant problem. From an early date firewood was being “driven” down the Connecticut River from what is today northern Vermont, to help western New England settlers heat their homes. On the eastern side of New England firewood was being imported by ship from Nova Scotia. And all of this traffic began before 1800.

In such a physically barren environment, hunting was not something that New England farmers ordinarily pursued. Domesticated animals were slaughtered when needed, and meats were smoked and/or salted for the long term. The axe and the plough were the normal farm tools, not the rifle. Gunpowder and ammunition were not parts of a regular New Hampshire farming family’s equipment from an early date.

If gunpowder and ammunition were difficult to obtain, how could a state militia pursue its function of a strong defense? It was hard to require the troops and regiments to subsist on a diet of drills, and to learn to fire weapons without powder or shot. Moreover, after a fear of invasion of Portsmouth by the British during the War of 1812 had persuaded New Hampshire Governor Langdon to call out the militia (with very spotty results), the state militia units faced no such call-ups again – not even during the War with Mexico (1846-1848).

Military preparation was a critical issue for every American governor before the 1820s, and after. In New Hampshire the state militia units were championed by General Benjamin Pierce, a hero of the American Revolution who was particularly concerned that foreign conquest would come again if we were unprepared. The General was elected governor in 1827 (and to a second one year term in 1829), and in his inaugural address to the legislature, on Friday, June 8, 1827, Benjamin Pierce spoke of the militia’s needs:

…One of its [the militia’s] imperfections appears to me, to be found in the wide range taken in enrollments. Still the Militia, as a body…go about their duty with cheerfulness; and with some slight alterations, the service would be performed with pleasure and alacrity. The powder, for instance, expended at general trainings, taking into account its actual expense, as well as the trouble incurred by each individual in procuring it, is no inconsiderable tax; a tax to fall upon those, not the most able to bear it. If there is any advantage in learning to fire simultaneously, each town ought to bear the expense of procuring the powder for its own companies, or at least it should be supplied in such a manner, as to relieve the soldier.

The legislature was dominated by farmers – that was why legislators met for the month of June, after planting, and again for the month of September, before harvest – and it did not respond to the governor’s plea. But Governor Pierce’s remarks of 1827 make it clear that neither gunpowder nor ammunition were easy to come by for the state’s militia units some 50 years after the American Revolution. And forty years later the same scarcities prevailed. During our Civil War of 1861-65, New Hampshire Volunteer soldiers scavenged spent ammunition from the battlefields, melting the lead in bullet molds for their re-use; so the scarcity of ammunition, at least, continued.

If “The Right To Keep and Bear Arms” was so difficult an obligation to fulfill in our early history, why is it so easy to procure guns and ammunition today? Questions should be asked of, and considered by, legislators during our current national debate following the tragedy at Newtown, Conn. Is our ease of access to weapons of war in line with the record provided by our own history?

Russell Bastedo, former N.H. State Curator, is a
resident of Dublin.

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