University of London Disarming History of the Second Amendment Chapter summary


F. Book Journals. You are required to write two collections of journal entries for the book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.
It should consist of the following:
1. Summarize the author’s main argument in the chapter. Make sure this is done in your own words. As you write, I encourage you to explain how this chapter supports the author’s larger thesis for the book.
2. Explain two things you learned in this chapter. When grading this section, I should be able to tell that you engaged in a close reading of the text. If I get the sense that you merely skimmed the chapter and simply picked two isolated or scattered facts, then you should not expect to earn anything close to full credit for the assignment.
3. Write two short questions you would ask the author if s/he were leading a class lecture on the book. The questions must directly relate to important concepts and themes addressed in the chapter that has prompted you to think more critically and reflectively. Again, I should be able
to tell from your question that you read the chapter closely.
Thus, your question should not consist of something superficial like: “What does the author mean by ‘X’?

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“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a major spokesperson for what might be called the
“new exceptionalism.” Instead of viewing the United States as a model that other
nations should imitate, a new generation of historians finds the United States to
be a society founded on genocide, slavery and male domination, and permeated
by hatred toward those who are different. In her earlier book, An Indigenous
Peoples’ History of the United States, Ortiz argued that the legacy of its Indian
wars shaped the United States’ military practices in, for example, the
Philippines. Now, in Loaded, she widens her lens to propose that the addiction to
violence characteristic of American domestic institutions also derives from the
frontiersman’s belief in solving problems by killing. Whether expressed in
individual cruelty like the collection of scalps or group barbarism by settler
colonialists calling themselves ‘militias,’ violence has become an ever-widening
theme of life in the United States.”
—Staughton Lynd
“For anyone who believes we need more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ to address
our national gun crisis, Loaded is required reading. Beyond the Second
Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz presents essential arguments missing from
public debate. She forces readers to confront hard truths about the history of gun
ownership—linking it to ongoing structures of settler colonialism, white
supremacy, and racial capitalism. These are the open secrets of North American
history. It is our anxious denial as much as our public policies that perpetrate
violence. Only by coming to peace with our history can we ever be at peace with
ourselves. This, for me, is the great lesson of Loaded.”
—Christina Heatherton, co-editor of Policing the Planet: Why the
Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter
“Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz’s Loaded argues U.S. history is quintessential gun
history, and gun history is a history of racial terror and genocide. In other words,
gun culture has never been about hunting. From crushing slave rebellions to
Indigenous resistance, arming individual white settler men has always been the
strategy for maintaining racial and class rule and for taking Indigenous land from
the founding of the settler nation to the present. With clarity and urgency,
Dunbar-Ortiz asks us not to think of our current moment as an exceptional era of
mass-shootings. Instead, the very essence of the Second Amendment and the
very project of U.S. ‘settler democracy’ has required immense violence that
began with Indigenous genocide and has expanded to endless war-making across
the globe. This is a must read for any student of U.S. history.”
—Nick Estes, author of the forthcoming book Our History Is the Future:
Mni Wiconi and Native Liberation
“Trigger warning! This is a superb and subtle book, not an intellectual safe space
for confirming your preconceptions—whatever those might be—but rather a
deeply necessary provocation. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done it again, giving
us a fluid and sweeping history of the many painful contradictions that are the
deep history of America’s love–hate relationship with firearms. In understanding
that history, Loaded also unpacks the contemporary pathologies of both fanatical
gun culture and quixotic liberal moralizing against guns. As Dunbar-Ortiz shows
us, the key connection between these antagonistic positions is their shared
silence on that most pressing and persistent of American problems: economic
exploitation and inequality.”
—Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in
the Age of Crisis
“A provocative cultural analysis arguing that the Second Amendment and white
supremacy are inextricably bound.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“From an eminent scholar comes this timely and urgent intervention on U.S. gun
culture. Loaded is a high-impact assault on the idea that Second Amendment
rights were ever intended for all Americans. A timely antidote to our national
amnesia about the white supremacist and settler colonialist roots of the Second
—Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s
Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense
“Loaded recognizes the central truth about our ‘gun culture’: that the privileged
place of guns in American law and society is the by-product of the racial and
class violence that has marked our history from its beginnings.”
—Richard Slotkin, author of The Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the
Frontier in Twentieth-Century America
“Loaded is a masterful synthesis of the historical origins of violence and
militarism in the United States. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us of what we’ve
chosen to forget at our own peril: that from mass shootings to the routine
deployment of violence against civilians by the U.S. military, American violence
flows from the normalization of racialized violence in our country’s founding
—Johanna Fernández, Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College
of the City University of New York, author of the forthcoming book
When the World Was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party,
“Just what did the founding fathers intend the Second Amendment to do?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s answer to that question will unsettle liberal gun control
advocates and open-carry aficionados alike. She follows the bloodstains of
today’s mass shootings back to the slave patrols and Indian Wars. There are no
easy answers here, just the tough reckoning with history needed to navigate
ourselves away from a future filled with more tragedies.”
—James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels
and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times
“Gun violence, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz compellingly shows, is as U.S. American
as apple pie. This important book peels back the painful and bloody layers of
gun culture in the United States, and exposes their deep roots in the killing and
dispossession of Native peoples, slavery and its aftermath, and U.S. empiremaking. They are roots with which all who are concerned with matters of justice,
basic decency, and the enduring tragedy of the U.S. love affair with guns must
—Joseph Nevins, author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration
in an Age of Global Apartheid
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done an outstanding job of resituating the so-called
gun debate into the context of race and settler colonialism. The result is that the
discussion about individual gun ownership is no longer viewed as an abstract
moral question and instead understood as standing at the very foundation of U.S.
capitalism. My attention was captured from the very first page.”
—Bill Fletcher Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum and
syndicated writer
“More than a history of the Second Amendment, this is a powerful history of the
forging of white nationalism and empire through racist and naked violence.
Explosively, it also shows how even liberal—and some leftist—pop culture
icons have been complicit in the myth-making that has shrouded this potent
historical truth.”
—Gerarld Horne, author of The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave
Resistance and the Origins of the USA
“Loaded unleashes a sweeping and unsettling history of gun laws in the United
States, beginning with anti-Native militias and anti-Black slave patrols. From the
roots of white men armed to forge the settler state, the Second Amendment
evolved as a tool for protecting white, male property owners. It’s a must read for
anyone who wants to uncover the long fetch of contemporary Second
Amendment battles.”
—Kelly Lytle Hernandez, author of City of Inmates: Conquest,
Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provides a brilliant decolonization of the Second
Amendment of the United States Constitution. She describes how the ‘savage
wars’ against Indigenous Peoples, slave patrols (which policing in the U.S.
originates from), today’s mass shootings, and the rise in white nationalism are
connected to the Second Amendment. This is a critically important work for all
social science disciplines.”
—Michael Yellow Bird, professor and director of Tribal and Indigenous
Peoples Studies at North Dakota State University
“There is no more interesting historian of the United States than Roxanne
Dunbar-Ortiz. And with Loaded she has done it again, taking a topic about
which so much has already been written, distilling it down, turning it inside out,
and allowing us to see American history anew.”
—Walter Johnson, author of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire
in the Mississippi Valley’s Cotton Kingdom
“In her trenchant analysis of the Second Amendment, Dunbar-Ortiz avoids a
legalistic approach and eschews the traditional view that links the amendment to
citizens’ need to protect themselves from a tyrannical government. . . . [Her]
argument will be disturbing and unfamiliar to most readers, but her evidence is
significant and should not be ignored.”
—Publishers Weekly
A Disarming History of the Second Amendment
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
City Lights Books | San Francisco
Copyright © 2018 by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
All Rights Reserved.
The Open Media Series is edited by Greg Ruggiero.
Cover design by Herb Thornby
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, 1939- author.
Title: Loaded : a disarming history of the Second Amendment / Roxanne Dunbar
Description: San Francisco : City Lights Books, [2017] | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017037851 (print) | LCCN 2017045903 (ebook) | ISBN 9780872867239 (paperback) |
ISBN 9780872867246 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Firearms ownership—United States—History. | United States.
Constitution. 2nd Amendment—History. | Firearms—Law and legislation—United States—History. |
Firearms and crime—United States—History. | United States—Militia—History.
Classification: LCC HV7436 (ebook) | LCC HV7436 .D86 2017 (print) | DDC
LC record available at
City Lights Books are published at the City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133
I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the
ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in
the world today—my own government.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church,
New York City
Gun Love
Chapter 1:
Historical Context of the Second Amendment
Chapter 2:
Savage War
Chapter 3:
Slave Patrols
Chapter 4:
Confederate Guerrillas to Outlaw Icons
Chapter 5:
Myth of the Hunter
Chapter 6:
The Second Amendment as a Covenant
Chapter 7:
Mass Shootings
Chapter 8:
White Nationalists, the Militia Movement, and Tea Party
Chapter 9:
Eluding and Resisting the Historical White Supremacy of the
Second Amendment
History Is Not Past
About the Author
In the summer of 1970, while I was living and organizing in New Orleans with a
women’s study-action group, we discovered that our group had been infiltrated.
One of the volunteers who had come to work with our project six months earlier
was secretly making detailed reports of our meetings, but with distortions and
outright lies, using terms like “extreme,” “fanatic,” “potentially violent.” We
were aware that she was a Social Work graduate student at Brandeis University,
but had no idea we were the topic of her dissertation or that she was associated
with the government-funded Lamberg Center for the Study of Violence. She had
also lied to us about her background, claiming that she came from a singleparent family with a working mother in Mobile, Alabama. We had not checked
out her history, but it only took one phone call to learn that she came from a
wealthy, social register Mobile family. When confronted, she appeared earnestly
sorry and tried to convince us that she had been required to report on us in order
to continue receiving her stipend, without which she supposedly could not
continue her studies at the university.
After her departure, we became caught up in a current of repression and
paranoia. One or two or three pale blue New Orleans police cars parked across
the street from our building every day. The cops took pictures, and a suspicious,
unmarked car with Illinois plates followed us. Older local activists told us the
cars’ occupants were “red squad” detectives from the Chicago Police
Department. We installed a heavy lock on the flimsy wooden door to our rundown building, but we did not feel safe.
After a week of heavy police surveillance, we began receiving telephone
calls from a man claiming to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The man
threatened to burn down our building, and, of course, we didn’t trust the police,
so we did not report it. Instead, we decided to arm ourselves. We saw it as a
practical step, not a political act, something we needed for self-defense in order
to continue working, not at all embracing armed struggle, which our group
opposed as a strategy for making change in the United States. We knew that law
enforcement authorities would think twice about attacking us if they knew we
were armed. In reality, we were joining a trend occurring in movement groups
across the country at that time, and once armed, our mindsets changed to match
the new reality.
Two of us drove across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway to a gun show that
was held weekly in a large tin shed on the Slidell fairgrounds. The pickups and
vans of traveling gun dealers, with license plates from a dozen states, were
parked around the site; I had a cousin in Oklahoma who made his living selling
guns that way. Inside the shed, the scene was festive, like any ordinary weekend
craft fair or flea market. There were children running and playing, older women
sitting on folding chairs visiting with each other, younger women clutching
infants and staying close to their men, vendors hawking wares and bargaining,
Confederate battle flags waving. Everyone was white. We had no trouble finding
the used 9mm automatics we sought. We chose three used Brownings for $100
each, clips included, and a case of military surplus ammunition.
“We’re looking for a shotgun, too,” I said to the dealer.
“For protection or duck huntin’?” the vendor asked.
He offered us a Mossberg 500 12-gauge police special riot gun, with a short
“Isn’t it illegal to have this weapon?” I asked.
“Ain’t a sawed-off, legal as taxes.”
We bought it, along with some buckshot shells, all for cash. No paperwork
required. The man who sold us the guns also had for sale a number of swastikas
in various forms—pins, arm patches, photographs.
We went to the Tulane Law Library to research Louisiana gun laws and
found that there were no gun laws in Louisiana. The only restriction was against
building an arsenal—defined as more than twenty automatic or semiautomatic
weapons—for illegal purposes. Carrying concealed and loaded weapons within
the state with no registration was entirely legal. Federal laws prohibited
transporting firearms across state lines for sale or to commit a crime, possession
of stolen weapons, removal of serial numbers, and various foreign weapons,
such as the AK-47.
We kept the loaded shotgun at the door, and we joined an indoor shooting
gallery at Lafayette Square. We practiced with the Brownings every day.
Shotguns weren’t allowed at the shooting club, but a shotgun took no skill to
fire, only nerve and a steady shoulder. Soon after, we acquired rifles and joined a
rifle club in the West Bank area. We loaded the bed of our station wagon with
four M-1s, a Winchester .22, a .30-30 with a scope, and the riot shotgun, all
purchased at the gun shows in Slidell. We paid for membership in the National
Rifle Association and affixed their red and black emblem to the back window of
the car. Cops were known to not stop vehicles with the stickers, although that
probably didn’t work for African Americans.
We acquired more small arms and went daily to the Lafayette Square pistol
shooting gallery to practice. In addition to the Brownings, we now owned a
snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .357, an S&W long-barrel .38, a Walther PPK
9mm, a Colt .45, and a Beretta .32 automatic. We’d purchased all the weapons
legally and anonymously at gun shows. We soon had a closet full of guns, plus
our new shotgun reloading equipment and a 100-pound bag of gunpowder.
We spent hours every day breaking down, cleaning, oiling, and polishing our
weapons. We took turns loading shotgun shells. We had fallen under the spell of
guns. Our relationship to them had become a kind of passion that was
inappropriate to our political objectives, and it ended up distorting and
determining them.
Knowing that the FBI intercepted our mail, and wanting to inform authorities
that we were fully armed, I wrote to my father about my new hobbies—guns and
gunsmithing. Ironically, it seemed the first thing I’d done in my life that he
really understood and supported.
“When you can shoot a squirrel in the eye with a .22 at forty yards on the
first shot, you’ll be a shooter,” he wrote.
He must have been pleasantly surprised, because he knew that as a child I
was terrified of his Remington .22 rifle and shotgun; I got it from my mother,
who hated guns. I never asked her why, but she put the fear and hate in my sister
and me. Notwithstanding her objections, my two older brothers followed our
father. At adolescence, each one started hunting and brought home game, which
was our major meat item. We were poor, and ammunition was expensive, so
they all had to be good shots, practicing on bottles and cans with BB guns for
years before they handled real firearms. It was all for hunting, practical, but there
was that other element I could detect but not explain, until I fell in love with
Gun-love can be akin to non-chemical addictions like gambling or hoarding,
either of which can have devastating effects, mainly economic, but murder,
suicide, accidental death, and mass shootings result only from guns. Guns are
made for killing, and while nearly anything, including human hands, may be
used to kill, only the gun is created for the specific purpose of killing a living
creature. The sheer numbers of guns in circulation, and the loosening of
regulations on handguns especially, facilitate deadly spur-of-the-moment reflex
acts. The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence found
that cases of road rage involving a firearm have more than doubled in two years,
from 247 in 2014 to 620 in 2016. Research from Gunwatch suggests that “more
guns in more cars may simply equate to more road rage incidents in which a gun
was brandished, or fired.”1
At the time of my gun-love, which lasted about two years in the early 1970s,
approximately half of all homes in the United States contained a weapon—112
million in total—but nearly a half century later, only a third of households
contained firearms, which sounds like progress.2 Yet the number of guns
privately owned in the United States had reached more than 300 million, a
number equal to the total population. The reality is that in the early twenty-first
century, each gun owner possessed an average of eight guns.
It seems that our group, and others, during the years that the Vietnam War
was playing out live on our televisions, were in the vanguard of a trend of
owning multiple weapons. Army and Navy surplus clothing accompanied the
trend, which was soon replaced by sweatshop-produced camouflage garb to meet
consumer demand. Something else was also at work, which will be probed in the
following chapters.
In 1970, at the time of my own gun phase, the then-celebrated U.S. historian
Richard Hofstadter coined the term gun culture. “Many otherwise intelligent
Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right
to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm
safeguard of democracy—without being in the slightest perturbed by the fact
that no other democracy in the world observes any such ‘right’ and that in some
democracies in which citizens’ rights are rather better protected than in ours,
such as England and the Scandinavian countries, our arms control policies would
be considered laughable.”3
Hofstadter narrates the historical roots that might explain the violence
wrought by civilian gun use, but argues that other European countries were
surely as violent. In one brief paragraph, he dismisses the Second Amendment as
having any validity in constitutional law: “By its inclusion in the Bill of Rights,
the right to bear arms thus gained permanent sanction in the nation, but it came
to be regarded as an item on the basic list of guarantees of individual liberties.
Plainly it was not meant as such. The right to bear arms was a collective, not an
individual, right, closely linked to the civic need for ‘a well regulated Militia.’ It
was, in effect, a promise that Congress would not be able to bar the states from
doing whatever was necessary to maintain well-regulated militias.”4
Did Hofstadter believe that these astute “founding fathers” mistakenly threw
in the Second Amendment to a Bill of Rights that was about individual rights?
Hofstadter does note, without discussion, that the first draft of the Virginia
Constitution of 1776—Thomas Jefferson’s work, which preceded the writing of
the U.S. Constitution by nine years—included the individual right to bear arms,
stating: “No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Did Jefferson
make a mistake in Virginia, and then contribute to another mistake, making the
right to bear arms an individual right in the U.S. Constitution? Hofstadter
attributes these “flaws” in Jefferson and the other founders to “reverting to one
of the genial fictions . . . the ancient Saxon militia.”
Killing, looting, burning, raping, and terrorizing Indians were traditions in
each of the colonies long before the Constitutional Convention. “Militias,” as in
government-controlled units, were institutionalized by Article I, Section 8,
Clause 15 of the U.S. Constitution, and were used to officially invade and
occupy Native land. But the Second Amendment (like the other ten
amendments) enshrined an individual right. The Second Amendment’s language
specifically gave individuals and families the right to form volunteer militias to
attack Indians and take their land.
Asserting this scattershot guess about the origin of the Second Amendment,
Hofstadter offers no tie-in between this genealogy and the astronomical number
of guns possessed in this country. So he settles on the National Rifle
Association: “American legislators have been inordinately responsive to the
tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with
gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations. A
nation that could not devise a system of gun control after its experiences of the
1960s [referring to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin
Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy], and at a moment of profound popular
revulsion against guns, is not likely to get such a system in the calculable future.
One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in
order to persuade us. How far must things go?”
Hofstadter’s argument is important, not just because he was an influential
liberal historian of the United States who penned the classic 1964 essay “The
Paranoid Style in American Politics,” but because his arguments about guns in
1970 have been used and repeated, like a mantra, ever since. Then, as now, gun-
rights advocates and gun-control advocates have little basis for communicating.
The great divide reflects, rather remarkably, the persistence of pro-gun narratives
that have morphed as times changed over two centuries, from westward
expansion, industrialization, and urbanization, to the advent of movies,
television, and the Internet. Gun ownership appears irrational if not insane to
gun-control advocates, while gun lovers rely on the Second Amendment,
because they have no other argument and don’t wish to admit, perhaps even to
themselves, what the Second Amendment signifies. Neither party seems to have
any idea what the Second Amendment was originally about, although many who
“cling to their guns”5 intuit why.
This blind spot, as well as the racism and erasure of history, can be seen in
the following example. After retiring, the late Warren E. Burger, who served as
the fifteenth chief justice of the United States from 1969 to 1986, wrote a long
and impassioned plea for gun control, arguing that the Second Amendment was
dated and no longer valid. Significantly, he published his commentary in Parade
magazine, not a law journal. “Let’s look at the history,” Burger wrote. “First,
many of the 3.5 million people living in the 13 original Colonies depended on
wild game for food, and a good many of them required firearms for their defense
from marauding Indians.”6
There is no doubt that the United States is exceptional among wealthy
nations—and even many poorer nations—in legal permissiveness about gun
ownership, as well as in gun deaths per capita. By 2016, nearly all the states
allowed open carry for firearms with various limitations regarding licensing,
loaded or unloaded, weapons training or not, gun types, and so on. The holdouts
not allowing open carry were California, Illinois, Florida, and the District of
Columbia. Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey allow open carry for
handguns but prohibit open carry of long guns, while New York and South
Carolina allow open carry for long guns but prohibit open carry for handguns.7
Total gun deaths in the United States average around 37,000 a year, with
two-thirds of those deaths being suicides, leaving approximately 12,000
homicides, a thousand of those at the hands of the police.8 Mass shootings—ones
that leave four or more people wounded or dead—now occur in the United
States, on average, at the pace of one or more per day.9 Disturbing as that fact is,
mass shootings currently account for only 2 percent of gun killings annually.10
The number of gun deaths—37,000—is roughly equal to death-by-vehicle
incidents in the United States per year. To lawfully drive a vehicle, a person
must acquire and maintain a driver’s license and drive a car that is registered and
insured. A car owner may be fined for driving with a visible safety flaw on the
vehicle, such as a taillight out, and a driver may be stopped at any time by
authorities and can easily lose the right to drive, among other restrictions. The
high rate of traffic fatalities begs the question of how effective gun restrictions
would be. Heavy drinking while driving causes nearly three times as many
deaths as guns each year in the United States, despite restrictions on the buying,
selling, and public use of alcohol. It is necessary to look elsewhere for what
causes firearms proliferation and gun deaths; it is necessary to seek out the
historical roots.
With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the Democratic Party platform for
the first time included gun control, while the Republican Party platform opposed
gun control, proclaiming: “We note that those who seek to disarm citizens in
their homes are the same liberals who tried to disarm our Nation during the Cold
War and are today seeking to cut our national defense below safe levels.”11 In the
previous three presidential elections, neither the Republican Party nor
Democratic Party platforms had mentioned guns at all.
With the Democrats in control of the White House and Congress in 1993,
there was no trouble passing a gun-control bill requiring background checks,
commonly called the “Brady Bill” after Jim Brady, who was wounded and
permanently disabled during the shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Brady’s wife, Sarah, had campaigned tirelessly for background checks, which
did result in a bill that was introduced in Congress in 1987, but the measure
lingered without action until it was signed into law in 1993. The following year,
Congress passed a ban on assault weapons but in 2004, when the statute was up
for renewal, it was allowed to lapse, as it had proved largely ineffectual and
unenforceable. Georgetown University law professor David Cole writes: “It is
remarkably difficult to define an ‘assault weapon.’ They are semiautomatic,
which means they fire a new bullet with each trigger pull, while automatically
reloading. But most guns made today are semiautomatic, so the ban on assault
weapons focused on the cosmetic military appearance of certain guns, and was
easily evaded by alterations in design. Moreover, while gun-rights proponents
are hard-pressed to offer a legitimate reason for civilians to own assault
weapons, they are used in a very small proportion of gun crimes. Most crimes
involve ordinary handguns.”12
Professor Cole finds a common thread of arguments condemning the
National Rifle Association and does not question the organization’s powerful
role, which relies on a strong electoral base throughout the country, but issues
this caution:
Gun control advocates will not make progress until they recognize that the
NRA’s power lies in the appeal of its ideas, its political engagement and
acumen, and the intense commitments of its members. Until gun control
advocates can match these features, they are unlikely to make much progress.
That the gun industry may have helped construct modern gun culture does not
negate the very real power that culture holds today.13
Indeed, the N.R.A. has around 5 million dues-paying members, and many
millions more who support N.R.A. calls for legislative action. The N.R.A.
annual budget is $300 million, only 10 percent of which goes to direct lobbying.
The N.R.A. does little lobbying, but rather follows and grades every political
candidate on gun rights and calls for supporting or campaigning against the
candidate accordingly; it focuses on state legislators, who make most gun laws;
gun-rights activists tend to focus on Congress. The N.R.A. has active affiliates in
many communities in every state, with an average membership of 100,000 per
While Cole recommends that we look for the reasons why guns have such
strong appeal in the United States in comparison with other societies, he does not
explore those reasons. That is the purpose of this book. However, instead of
dismissing the Second Amendment as antiquated and irrelevant, or as not
actually meaning what it says, I argue that understanding the purpose of the
Second Amendment is key to understanding the gun culture of the United States,
and possibly the key to a new consciousness about the lingering effects of
settler-colonialism and white nationalism.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is a simple
statement: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State,
the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The
National Rifle Association and its constituency argue that the Second
Amendment guarantees the right for every individual to bear arms, while guncontrol advocates maintain, as did Hofstadter, that the Second Amendment is
about states continuing to have their own militias—emphasizing the language of
“well regulated”—and that this is manifest in the existing National Guard.14
However, the respective state militias were already authorized by the U.S.
Constitution when the amendment was added. The Constitution recognized the
existing colonial, now state, militias that formed before and during the War for
Independence, and mandated to them vital roles to play: “to execute the Laws of
the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasion” (Article I, Section 8,
Clause 15). The President of the United States is the commander-in-chief of the
state militias “when called into the actual Service of the United States” (Article
II, Section 2).15
Given that what are now the states’ National Guards are descended from
state militias, which themselves were repurposed from colonial militias, why
was the Second Amendment added as one of the enumerated rights of man in the
Bill of Rights? Unequivocally, the Second Amendment, along with the other
nine amendments, constituted individual rights, and the militias referenced are
voluntary, not state militias.
One argument that runs through historical accounts of the thinking behind
the Second Amendment is the one Hofstadter settled on, that Thomas Jefferson
romanticized old English-Saxon rural militias, idealizing his “yeoman” farmers
as fiercely independent and rightly fearing Big Brother government, insisting on
settlers’ right to overthrow oppressive regimes. But, what colonists considered
oppressive was any restriction that British authorities put on them in regard to
obtaining land. In the instances of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676,16 the War of
Independence itself, and many cases in between, the settlers’ complaint was the
refusal of the British colonial authorities to allow them to seize Native land
peripheral to the colonies, which could lead to unnecessary and expensive war.
Historian Charles Sellers wrote: “Cheap land, held absolutely under the seaboard
market’s capitalist conception of property, swelled patriarchal honor to heroic
dimensions in rural America. The father’s authority rested on his legal title to the
family land. Where European peasant landholdings were usually encumbered
with obligations to some elite, the American farmer held in fee simple. Supreme
in his domain, he was beyond interference by any earthly power. Except for a
modest tax and an occasional half-day of neighborhood roadwork or carousing
militia drill, he owed no obligations of labor, money, service, or (finally)
religious fealty to any person or entity. Fee-simple land, the augmenting theater
of the patriarchal persona, sustained his honor and untrammeled will. This
extraordinary independence inflated American farmers’ conception of their class
far above peasantry.”17
In the pages ahead I explore various ways in which a dangerous gun culture has
emerged in the United States, one that has entitled white nationalism, racialized
dominance, and social control through violence. This book is a history of the
Second Amendment’s connection to that culture, and a reflection on how the
violence it has spawned has deeply influenced the character of the United States.
Chapter One provides the historical context for understanding the Second
Amendment’s role in allowing settlers to control Black populations—enslaved
and free—and the total war that settlers were waging against Indigenous Peoples
to dispossess them of their land.
Chapter Two examines the fact that the Second Amendment granted rights to
individual settlers to combat Native communities, and how doing so was part of
a “savage war” that aided the territorial expansion of the United States
throughout the continent and into the Caribbean and Pacific.
Chapter Three discusses the provisions of the Second Amendment that
mandated every citizen, slaver or not, to capture and return people caught
escaping from slavery; and how the amendment gave slavers the power to
organize voluntary militias to help enforce slavery.
Chapter Four explores the role of Missouri pro-slavery guerrillas, most
notably William Quantrill’s “raiders,” among whom were Jesse James and his
brother Frank, and the Younger brothers, ruthless mass murderers who became
iconic national celebrities and who were often portrayed as Robin Hood outlaws.
Their use of pistols while riding became the hallmark of subsequent Wild West
narratives that commercialized gun violence through pulp fiction, Hollywood
films, television programming, and toys that led generations of children to play
“cowboys and Indians” with imitation six-shooters.
Chapter Five explores the manner in which mythology surrounding “the
hunter” has served to mask the historical purpose of the Second Amendment,
and how narratives about settlers on unceded Indian land, like those about
Daniel Boone, romanticized notions about gun use at a time when the United
States was committing genocide against Native Americans.
Chapter Six explores the implications of the way that many in the United
States see the Constitution as a sacred text from which flows the equally sacred
and inviolable right to bear arms.
Chapter Seven traces the increase of mass shootings in the United States and
the parallel rise of organized gun-rights advocacy as a reaction to national
movements for civil rights and Black Power.
Chapter Eight tracks the revival and rise of white nationalist groups and
Chapter Nine explores resistance to understanding the historical connections
between the Second Amendment and white nationalism. The linkage is strongly
resisted by anti-gun activists, including public officials, and simply denied by
most pro-gun advocates.
As a whole, this book attempts to confront fundamental aspects of U.S.
history that continue to be too often overlooked or denied, and which can be
traced back to the original meaning and intention of the Second Amendment. It
aims to confront the violence implicit in U.S. society from the moment of its
conception, and the various narratives and forces that have taken shape to deny
the consequences of that violence by popularizing and commercializing it. The
book also aims to acknowledge the families, traditions, memories, and resistance
of Indigenous People and African Americans whose lands and lives the Second
Amendment was forged to take.
The Anglo-American settlers’ violent break from Britain in the late eighteenth
century paralleled their search-and-destroy annihilation of Delaware, Cherokee,
Muskogee, Seneca, Mohawk, Shawnee, and Miami, during which they
slaughtered families without distinction of age or gender, and expanded the
boundaries of the thirteen colonies into unceded Native territories.
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 symbolizes the beginning of the
“Indian Wars” and “westward movement” that continued across the continent for
another century of unrelenting U.S. wars of conquest. That was the goal of
independence, with both the seasoned Indian killers of the Revolutionary Army
and white settler-rangers/militias using extreme violence against Indigenous
noncombatants with the goal of total domination. These forces were met with
resistance movements and confederations identified with leaders such as
Buckongeahelas of the Delaware; Alexander McGillivray of the MuskogeeCreek, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket of the Miami-Shawnee alliance; Joseph
Brant of the Mohawk; and Cornplanter of the Seneca, as well as the great
Tecumseh and the Shawnee-led confederation in the Ohio Valley. Without their
sustained resistance, the intended genocide would have been complete; the
eastern half of the continent was “ethnically cleansed” of Native nations by
1850, through forced relocation to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi.
The program of expansion and the wars against Native American civilization
and the agricultural societies of the vast valley of the Ohio River and the Great
Lakes region began before the Declaration with the French and Indian War of
1754–1763,1 which was the North American extension of the Seven Years’ War
between France and Britain in Europe. Britain’s victory over France in 1763 led
to its domination of world trade, sea power, and colonial holdings for nearly two
centuries. In the Treaty of Paris, France ceded Canada and all claims east of the
Mississippi to Britain. In the course of that war, Anglo-American settlers
intensified their use of counterinsurgent violence, which the Anglo settler elite
dubbed “savage wars,” against Indigenous peoples’ resistance to their incursions
into the territories of the Ottawa, Miami, Kickapoo, and the confederations
identified with Pontiac’s leadership of the Great Lakes region, spreading to the
Illinois and Ohio countries. By the end of the war, significant numbers of Anglo
settlers had taken Indigenous lands beyond the colonies’ boundaries, and land
speculation was a road to riches for a fortunate few.
To the settlers’ dismay, soon after the 1763 Treaty of Paris was signed, King
George III issued a proclamation prohibiting British settlement west of the
Allegheny-Appalachian mountain chain, ordering those who had settled there to
relinquish their claims and return to the kingdom’s thirteen colonies. Soon it
became clear that the British authorities needed far more soldiers to enforce the
edict, as thousands of settlers ignored it and continued to pour over the
mountains, squatting on Indigenous lands, forming armed militias, and
provoking Indigenous resistance. In 1765, in order to enforce the Proclamation
line, the British Parliament imposed the Stamp Act on the colonists, a tax on all
printed materials that had to be paid in British pounds, not local paper money.
The iconic colonial protest slogan “taxation without representation is tyranny”
marked the surge of rebellion against British control but it did not tell the whole
story, considering what the tax was for: to pay the cost of housing, feeding, and
transporting soldiers to contain and suppress the colonies from expanding further
into Indian territory. The complaints iterated in the Declaration largely focus on
the measures used by King George to prevent his rebellious subjects from
grabbing more land: “[King George] has excited domestic Insurrections [slave
revolts] amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our
Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages [Indigenous nations resisting genocidal
wars], whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all
Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”
By the early 1770s, terrorism waged by Anglo-American settlers against
even Christianized Native communities within the colonies, and violent
encroachment on those outside the colonial boundaries, raged, and illegal
speculation in stolen Indian lands was rampant. In the southern colonies
especially, farmers who had lost their land in competition with larger, more
efficient, slave-worked plantations rushed for Native farmlands over the
mountain range. These militant settlers—“rangers”—thus created the framework
for the United States to appropriate Native territories and attempt to eradicate
Indigenous nations across the continent for the following century. Illegal
squatter-settlers, always with practiced Indian killers in the lead, initially
depended on colonial militias for support; after the War of Independence they
relied on the U.S. military to protect their settlements. During the war years of
1774–1783, the secessionists’ parallel wars against Native nations were, in
military historian John Grenier’s words, “waypoints in the development of the
first way of war. In them, we find the same elements—necessity and efficiency,
the uncontrollable momentum of extravagant violence, and the quest for the
subjugation of Indians—that had defined the first way of war throughout the
colonial period.”2
In a book first published in 1876 but written decades earlier, historian Joseph
Doddridge (1769–1826), a minister and early settler in the Ohio Country, wrote:
The early settlers on the frontiers of this country were like Arabs of the desert of
Africa, in at least two respects; every man was a soldier, and from early in the
spring till late in the fall, was almost continually in arms. Their work was often
carried on by parties, each one of whom had his rifle and everything else
belonging to his wardress. These were deposited in some central place in the
field. A sentinel was stationed on the outside of the fence, so that on the least
alarm the whole company repaired to their arms, and were ready for combat in a
The Second Amendment thus reflects this dependence on individual armed
men, not just in terms of a right to bear arms, but also as a requirement to bear
arms, which was crucial to the integrity of the state and the conception of
security achieved through a relationship between state and citizen.
In 1783, the British withdrew from the fight to maintain sovereignty over
their thirteen colonies, not due to military defeat, but rather in order to redirect
their resources to occupy and colonize South Asia. Britain’s transfer of its claim
to Indian Country west of the colonies spelled a nightmarish disaster for all
Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi, and ultimately all of North America
that would be claimed and occupied by the United States. Britain’s withdrawal
in 1783 opened a new chapter of unrestrained racist violence and colonization of
the continent.
The creation of the United States Constitution began in 1785, but the
document was not approved by all the states and in effect until 1791.
Meanwhile, the interim Continental Congress got to work on a plan for
colonization over the mountain range. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a
centralized system for surveying and distributing land, with seized Native lands
being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The “Northwest” (referring to the Ohio
country) Ordinance of 1787 set forth a colonization procedure for annexation via
military occupation, transforming to civilian territorial status under federal
control, and finally, statehood. These were the first laws of the incipient
republic, revealing the motive for those desiring independence. It was the
blueprint for the taking of the North American continent, with lines of future
settlement reaching the Pacific on the maps. The maps contained in the land
ordinances, which laid out land in marketable square-mile plots, were not new;
they were the products of pre-Revolutionary colonial elites, including George
Washington, who as leader of the Virginia militia took armed surveying teams
illegally into Ohio country, making him one of the most successful land
speculators in the colonies. The wealthiest colonists were all speculators;
acquiring land and enslaving people provided the very basis of the economy of
the first nation born as a capitalist state, and by 1850, it was the wealthiest
economy in the world.
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson aptly described the new settler-state’s
intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion as an “empire for
liberty,” stating: “However our present interests may restrain us within our own
limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid
multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole
northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same
language, governed in similar form by similar laws.” This vision of Manifest
Destiny found form a few years later in the Monroe Doctrine, signaling the
intention of annexing or dominating former Spanish colonial territories in the
Americas and the Pacific, which would be put into practice during the rest of the
century, while carrying out brutal wars of extermination and expulsion of Native
peoples to complete the continental shape of the United States today.
Taking land by force was not an accidental or spontaneous project or the
work of a few rogue characters. The violent appropriation of Native land by
white settlers was seen as an individual right in the Second Amendment of the
U.S. Constitution, second only to freedom of speech. Male colonial settlers had
long formed militias for the purpose of raiding and razing Indigenous
communities and seizing their lands and resources, and the Native communities
fought back. Virginia, the first colony, forbade any man to travel unless he was
“well armed.” A few years later, another law required men to take arms with
them to work and to attend church or be fined. In 1658, the colony ordered every
settler home to have a functioning firearm, and later even provided government
loans for those who could not afford to buy a weapon. Similarly, New England
colonial governments made laws such as the 1632 requirement that each person
have a functioning firearm plus two pounds of gunpowder and ten pounds of
bullets. Householders were fined for missing or defective arms and ammunition.
No man was to appear at a public meeting unarmed.4
These laws stayed on the books of the earliest colonies and were created in
new colonies as they were founded. The Second Amendment, ratified in 1791,
enshrined these obligations as constitutional law: “A well regulated Militia,
being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and
bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The continuing significance of that
“freedom” specified in the Bill of Rights reveals the settler-colonialist cultural
roots of the United States that appear even in the present as a sacred right.
Several of the colonies that declared independence in 1776—Massachusetts,
New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia—had
already adopted individual gun-rights measures into their state constitutions
before the Second Amendment was passed at the federal level.
Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the
destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations. With the
expansion of plantation agriculture, by the late 1600s they were also used as
“slave patrols,” forming the basis of the U.S. police culture after enslaving
people was illegalized. That is the inseparable other half of the settler-colonial
reality that is implicit in the Second Amendment. The first enslaved Africans to
be shipped to Britain’s first colony of the eventual thirteen colonies that became
the United States took place in 1619, when twenty bonded Africans arrived in
Virginia. Most of the labor being used in the first decade of the colony was made
up of British and other Europeans who had indentured themselves for varying
lengths of time, but African slavery was different. As Howard Zinn points out,
“Some historians think those first blacks in Virginia were considered as servants,
like the white indentured servants brought from Europe. But the strong
probability is that, even if they were listed as ‘servants’ (a more familiar
category to the English), they were viewed as being different from white
servants, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves.”5
Other scholars have presumed that the British settlers in North America were
reluctant to enslave Africans, but that too seems a spurious notion. When the
Doctrine of Discovery promulgated by the Vatican in the mid-fifteenth century
“legalized” the Portuguese capture and enslavement of the people of West
Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade took off, first within European markets.
Then, in 1492, it reached the Caribbean and had been in effect for over a century
when the Virginia seaboard was wrenched from the Indigenous farmers by
English usurpers. From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century,
most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery,
one of the first principles of international law promulgated by Christian
European monarchies to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands
belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455
that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa for enslaving those
who lived there. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492,
sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull
extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and
Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494),
which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires,
clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine.6
This doctrine, on which all European states relied, thus originated with the
arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights
under Christian canon law to colonize, enslave, and exterminate foreign peoples,
and these were later embraced by other European monarchical colonizing
projects, such as the British in North America.
The only barrier to introducing slavery in Virginia and all the other colonies
would have been economic, not ethical. The Southern colonies emerged in
territory that had been one of seven original birthplaces of agriculture7 in the
world tens of thousands of years before, developed by the Muskogee and other
Indigenous agricultural societies. Appropriated by European settlers, these lands
would become economies based on enslaved African labor and increasingly on
breeding enslaved people for profit, with the Indigenous farmers forced to the
peripheries. At the time of U.S. independence, half the population of South
Carolina was made up of enslaved Africans, with the other agribusiness colonies
having large enslaved populations as well. By the late seventeenth century,
onerous slave codes had been developed, which included mandatory slave
patrols drawn from the already existing militias.
The wealthy slavers of the Southern colonies, particularly those in Virginia,
were most incensed by the British Proclamation following the French and Indian
War prohibiting expansion over the Appalachian ridge, since their wealth relied
on accessing more and more land as they depleted the soils with intensive
monocrop production for the market. They defied the Proclamation, taking
survey teams into the Ohio country to map the territory for future settlement,
which by definition meant the extension and expansion of slavery. By the time
he was in his mid-twenties, George Washington was already a notoriously
successful slaver and land speculator in unceded Indian lands.8
Washington and the other founders of the United States designed a
governmental and economic structure to serve the private property interests of
each and all of the primary actors, nearly all of them slavers and land
speculators, with the brilliant Alexander Hamilton as the genius of finance. Like
the Indian-killing militias that continued and intensified as the United States
appropriated more land for slavers, slave patrols grew accordingly. The ethnic
cleansing of Native Americans complete, slavers—with their reserve of capital
and enslaved labor—transformed the Mississippi Valley into the Cotton
Kingdom that formed the basis for U.S. capitalism and world trade. In the words
of Harvard historian Walter Johnson, “The extension of slavery into the
Mississippi Valley gave an institution that was in decline at the end of the
eighteenth century new life in the nineteenth. In 1800, there were around
100,000 slaves living within the boundaries of the present-day states of
Mississippi and Louisiana; in 1840, there were more than 250,000; in 1860,
more than 750,000”9
The militaristic-capitalist powerhouse that the United States became by 1840
derived from real estate (which included enslaved Africans, as well as
appropriated land). The United States was founded as a capitalist state and an
empire on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves, hence the term
chattel slavery; this was exceptional in the world and has remained exceptional.
The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern
corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.
So, if ever built, what will the United States Native American Genocide
Memorial Museum contain: What will it exhibit?
It will be one room, a fifty-foot square with the same large photo filling the
walls, ceiling, and floor.
There will only be one visitor allowed at any one time.
There will be no furniture.
That one visitor will have to stand or sit on the floor.
Or lie on the floor if they feel the need.
That visitor must remain in that room for one hour.
There will be no music
The only soundtrack will be random gunshots from rifles used throughout
American history.
What will that one photo be?
It will be an Indian baby, shredded by a Gatling gun, lying dead and bloody in
the snow.
Sherman Alexie, from You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me1
The violence of settler colonialism stems from the use of “savage war” and is
related to the militias of the Second Amendment. “Savage war”—also called
petite guerre in military annals, and Anglo-America’s “first way of war” by
military historian John Grenier—dates to the British colonial period and is
described as a combination of “unlimited war and irregular war,” and a military
tradition “that accepted, legitimized, and encouraged attacks upon and the
destruction of noncombatants, villages and agricultural resources . . . in
shockingly violent campaigns to achieve their goals of conquest.”2
When compared to other countries that carried out colonial conquests in
Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America, the United States was not
exceptional in the sheer amount of violence it imposed to achieve sovereignty
over the territories it appropriated. The British colonizations of Canada,
Australia, and New Zealand were equally genocidal. Extreme violence,
particularly against unarmed families and communities, was an inherent aspect
of European colonialism, always with genocidal possibilities, and often with
genocidal results. What distinguishes the U.S. experience is not the amount or
type of violence involved, but rather the historical narratives attached to that
violence and their political uses, even today. From the first settlement,
appropriating land from its stewards became a racialized war, “civilization”
against “savagery,” and thereby was inherently genocidal. In the words of
historian Richard Slotkin, “‘Savage war’ was distinguished from ‘civilized
warfare’ in its lack of limitations on the extent of violence, and of laws for its
application. The doctrine of ‘savage war’ depended on the belief that certain
races are inherently disposed to cruel and atrocious violence. Similar
assumptions had often operated in the wars of Christian or crusading states
against the Muslims in Europe and the Holy Land, and massacre had often
enough accompanied such wars.”3
Military historian John Grenier offers an indispensable analysis of the white
colonists’ warfare against the Indigenous peoples of North America. The way of
war largely devised and enacted by settlers formed the basis for the founding
ideology and colonialist military strategy of the independent United States, and
this approach to war is still being practiced almost as a reflex in the twenty-first
Grenier explains that he began his study after September 11, 2001, in the
wake of the U.S. reversion to irregular warfare—savage warfare—in
Afghanistan, then in Iraq, his goal to trace the historical roots of U.S. use of
unlimited war as an attempt to destroy the collective will of enemy people, or
their capacity to resist, employing any means necessary but mainly by attacking
civilians and their support systems, such as their food supply. Today called
“special operations” or “low-intensity conflict,” that kind of warfare was first
used against Indigenous communities by colonial militias in the first British
colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts. Those irregular forces, made up of
landed settlers, sought to disrupt every aspect of resistance as well as to obtain
intelligence through scouting and taking prisoners. They did so by destroying
Indigenous villages and fields and intimidating and slaughtering unarmed
women, children, and elders.5 These voluntary fighting crews made up of
individual civilians—“rangers”—are the groups referenced as militias, as they
came to be called, in the Second Amendment.
Grenier analyzes the development of the U.S. way of war from 1607 to 1814,
during which all the architecture of the U.S. military was forged, leading to its
extension and development into the present. Esteemed U.S. historian Bernard
Bailyn labeled the period “barbarous,” but Bailyn, like most of his fellow U.S.
historians, portrays the Indigenous defenders of their homelands as “marauders”
that the European settlers needed to get rid of.6 From this formative period,
Grenier argues, emerged problematic characteristics of the U.S. way of war and
thereby the characteristics of its civilization, which few historians have come to
terms with and many, such as Bailyn, justify as necessary.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began
the routine practice of scalp hunting and “ranging.” By that time, the nonIndigenous population of the British colony in North America had increased
sixfold, to more than 150,000 people, which meant that settlers were intruding
on more of the Indigenous farmlands and fishing resources. Indigenous
resistance followed in what the settlers called “King Philip’s War.” Wampanoag
people and their Indigenous allies attacked the settlers’ isolated farms, using a
method that relied on speed and caution in striking and retreating, and
possessing of course a perfect knowledge of the terrain and climate.
The settlers scorned this kind of resistance as “skulking,” and responded by
destroying Indigenous villages and everyone in them who could not escape,
burning their fields and food storage. But as effective Indigenous resistance
continued, the commander of the Plymouth militia, Benjamin Church, studied
Wampanoag tactics in order to develop a more effective kind of preemption or
counterinsurgency. He petitioned the colony’s governor for permission to choose
sixty to seventy settlers to serve as scouts, as he called them, for what he termed
“wilderness warfare,” although they were attacking developed Indigenous
villages and fields. In July 1676, the first settler-organized militia was the result.
The rangers’ force was made up of sixty male settlers and 140 already conquered
Indigenous men. They were ordered to “discover, pursue, fight, surprise, destroy,
or subdue” the enemy, in Church’s words. The inclusion of Indigenous fighters
on the colonists’ side was not unique to British colonists in North America;
rather, the practice has marked the character of European colonization and
occupations of non-European peoples from the beginning. The settler-rangers
could learn from their Native aides, then discard them. In the following two
decades, Church perfected his evolving methods of annihilation, and those
methods spread as more colonies were established.7
The Native people of New England continued to fight back by burning
British settlements and killing settlers or capturing them for ransom. As an
incentive to recruit fighters, colonial authorities introduced a program of scalp
hunting that became a permanent and long-lasting element of settler warfare
against Indigenous nations.8 During the Pequot War, Connecticut and
Massachusetts colonial officials had offered bounties initially for the heads of
murdered Indigenous people and later for only their scalps, which were more
portable in large numbers. But scalp hunting became routine and more profitable
following an incident on the northern frontier of the Massachusetts colony. The
practice began in earnest in 1697 when settler Hannah Duston, having murdered
ten of her Abenaki captors in a nighttime escape, presented their ten scalps to the
Massachusetts General Assembly and was rewarded with bounties for two men,
two women, and six children.9 However, it would be only in the 1820s that the
Duston story was revived, and she was made famous as the first Euro American
woman in North America to be celebrated with a statue. Duston was very
famous for a few years after 1697, at the time of her escape from captivity, and
her bloody scalp trophies were highly publicized at the time, but she had been
pretty much forgotten until stories about her began to appear in print and
increased in numbers through the 1880s. Not just one, but three major
monuments were erected in her honor. Lionized as a folk hero, Duston and her
story were employed during the continuing bloody and genocidal wars against
Native peoples to characterize settler and Army violence as defensive and
virtuous, necessary, even feminine.10
Scalp hunting became a lucrative commercial practice from the early
eighteenth century onward. The settler authorities had hit upon a way to
encourage settlers to take off on their own or with a few others to gather scalps,
at random, for the reward money. “In the process,” John Grenier points out,
“they established the large-scale privatization of war within American frontier
In the beginning, Anglo settlers organized irregular units to brutally attack
and destroy unarmed Indigenous women, children, and old people using
unlimited violence in unrelenting attacks. During nearly two centuries of British
colonization on the Atlantic shore of North America, generations of settlers
gained experience as “Indian fighters” outside any organized military institution.
The Anglo-French conflict may appear to have been the dominant factor of
European colonization in North America during the eighteenth century, but
while large regular armies fought over geopolitical goals in Europe, Anglo
settlers in North America waged deadly irregular warfare against the Indigenous
Much of the fighting during the eight-year settlers’ war for independence,
especially in the Ohio Valley region and western New York, was directed
against Indigenous resisters who realized it was not in their interest to have a
close enemy of Indian-hating settlers with their own independent government, as
opposed to a remote one in Great Britain with wider global interests. Nor did the
fledgling U.S. military in the 1790s carry out operations typical of the statecentered wars occurring in Europe at the time. Even following the founding of
the professional U.S. Army in the 1810s, irregular warfare was the method used
by the U.S. to conquer the Ohio Valley and Mississippi Valley regions. Since
that time, Grenier notes, irregular methods have been used in tandem with
operations of regular armed forces. The chief characteristic of irregular warfare
is that of extreme violence against civilians, in this case the tendency to pursue
the utter annihilation of the Indigenous population. “In cases where a rough
balance of power existed,” Grenier observes, “and the Indians even appeared
dominant—as was the situation in virtually every frontier war until the first
decade of the 19th century—[settler] Americans were quick to turn to
extravagant violence.”12
Many historians who acknowledge the exceptional one-sided colonial
violence attribute it to racism. Grenier argues that rather than racism leading to
violence, the reverse occurred: the out-of-control momentum of extreme
violence of unlimited warfare fueled race hatred.
Successive generations of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, made the
killing of Indian men, women, and children a defining element of their first
military tradition and thereby part of a shared American identity. Indeed, only
after seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Americans made the first way of
war a key to being a white American could later generations of “Indian haters,”
men like Andrew Jackson, turn the Indian wars into race wars.13
By then, the Indigenous peoples’ villages, farmlands, towns, and entire
nations formed the only barrier to the settlers’ total freedom to acquire land and
U.S. people are taught that their military culture does not approve of or
encourage targeting and killing civilians and know little or nothing about the
nearly three centuries of warfare—before and after the founding of the U.S.—
that reduced the Indigenous peoples of the continent to a few reservations by
burning their towns and fields and killing civilians, driving the refugees out—
step by step—across the continent. . . . [V]iolence directed systematically against
noncombatants through irregular means, from the start, has been a central part of
Americans’ way of war.14
Most military historians ignore the influence that the “Indian Wars,” waged
from 1607 to 1890, had on subsequent U.S. military operations. In his history of
American “savage wars,” The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise
of American Power, counterinsurgent war enthusiast Max Boot does not even
mention the Indian Wars as being related to his thesis.15 As Grenier notes,
“Historians normally dismiss backcountry settlers’ burning of Indian villages
and fields as a sideshow to the Army’s attempt to mold itself into a force like
those found in Europe. Yet, the wars of the Upper Ohio Valley and on the
Tennessee and western Georgia frontiers are vitally important to understanding
the evolution of Americans’ military heritage.”16
Those wars are also vitally important to understanding one of the two
rationales for the Second Amendment: The white settlers were clear in declaring
that their intentions were to drive the Indians from lands on the western side of
the mountain ranges and to claim those lands as their own. Andrew Jackson’s
career arc personifies this dance of settler militias and the professional army.
Jackson was born in 1767 in a Scots-Irish community on the North Carolina
border with South Carolina. His father died in an accident a short time before he
was born. Raised poor by a single mother, at age thirteen Jackson became a
courier for the local regiment of the frontier secessionists in their war of
independence from Britain. Jackson’s mother and brothers died during the war,
leaving him an orphan with no family. He studied law and was admitted to the
bar in the Western District of North Carolina, which would later become the
state of Tennessee. Through his legal work, most of which related to disputed
settler claims to Indian lands, he acquired a plantation near Nashville and
enslaved 150 people for use as labor. He helped usher in Tennessee as a state in
1796. As the most notorious land speculator in western Tennessee, Jackson
enriched himself by annexing a portion of the Chickasaw Nation’s farmlands. It
was in 1801 that Jackson first took command of the Tennessee militia as a
colonel and began his ruthless Indian-killing military career, driving the
Muskogee Nation out of Georgia. In the aftermath of “the Battle of Horseshoe
Bend,” as it is known in U.S. military annals, Jackson’s troops fashioned reins
for their horses’ bridles from skin stripped from the Muskogee people they had
killed, and they saw to it that souvenirs from the corpses were given “to the
ladies of Tennessee.” Following the slaughter, Jackson justified his troops’
actions: “The fiends of the Tallapoosa will no longer murder our women and
children, or disturb the quiet of our borders. . . . They have disappeared from the
face of the Earth.”17
In 1818, President James Monroe ordered Andrew Jackson, by then a major
general in the U.S. Army, to lead three thousand soldiers into Florida, at the time
part of the Spanish Empire, to crush the Muskogee-led Indigenous Seminole
guerrilla resistance. The Seminoles did not agree to hand over any Africans who
had escaped from their white enslavers. The United States annexed Florida as a
territory in 1819, opening it to settlement. In 1821 Jackson was appointed
military commander of Florida Territory.
Jackson carried out the original plan envisioned by the founders—
particularly Jefferson—initially as a militia leader, then as an army general who
led four wars of aggression against the Muskogee Creek and Seminoles in
Georgia and Florida, and finally as a president who engineered the forced
expulsion of all Native peoples east of the Mississippi to the designated “Indian
Territory.” As historian Alan Brinkley has observed, Jackson’s political fortunes
depended on the fate of the Indians—that is, their eradication.
Richard Slotkin describes a mystique that developed around the persona of
the ranger, involving a certain identification with the Native enemy, marking the
settler as original American rather than European. “By dressing and fighting as
Indians, the ranger appropriated the savage’s power and American nativity for
himself and turned it against both savage and redcoat.”18 Following
independence, this mystique became a part of popular culture, as well as military
The formation of the Texas Rangers to extinguish Native presence in Texas
after Southern slavers took it from Mexico magnified their mystique. Following
the independence of Mexico from Spain in 1821, the territory of Mexico
comprised the provinces of California, New Mexico (including Arizona and
Colorado), and Texas, even though much of that territory was never actually
settled by the Spanish, particularly the huge province of Texas. Mexico
established “colonization” laws that allowed non-Mexican citizens to acquire
large swaths of land under land grants that required development, and implied
eradication of the resident Native people. By 1836, nearly forty thousand U.S.
Americans, almost all of them Cotton Kingdom slavers, had moved to south
Texas. Their ranger militias were a part of the settlement, and in 1835 were
formally institutionalized as the Texas Rangers. Once they were state funded and
sponsored, they were tasked with eradicating the Comanche nation and all other
Native peoples from Texas, what historian Gary Clayton Anderson calls the
“ethnic cleansing of Texas.”19 Mounted and armed with the newest killing
machine, the five-shot Colt Paterson revolver, they used it with dedicated
While continuing violent counterinsurgency operations against Comanches
and other Indigenous communities, the Texas Rangers played a significant role
in the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846–48. As seasoned counterinsurgents, they
guided U.S. Army forces deep into Mexico, engaging in the battle of Monterrey.
Rangers accompanied General Winfield Scott’s army by sea; took part in the
siege of Veracruz, Mexico’s main commercial port city; then marched on,
leaving a path of corpses and destruction to occupy Mexico City, where the
citizens called them Texas Devils, as the Rangers roamed the city terrorizing
civilian residents. Brutalized by yet another foreign power, Mexico ceded the
northern half of its territory (including the illegally Anglo-occupied Texas) to
the United States. Texas became a state of the United States in 1845, seceding to
join the Confederacy in 1860. The Texas Rangers returned to warring on Native
communities and harassing resistant Mexicans.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Army of the West
continued to combat the peoples of the Southwest and of the Northern Plains to
the Pacific, formerly a part of Mexico. Military analyst Robert Kaplan
challenges the concept of Manifest Destiny, arguing “it was not inevitable that
the United States should have an empire in the western part of the continent.”
Rather, he argues, Western empire was brought about by “small groups of
frontiersmen, separated from each other by great distances.” These groups were
the continuation of settler “rangers” that destroyed Indigenous towns, fields, and
food supplies. Kaplan downplays the role of the U.S. Army compared to the
settler vigilantes, which he equates to modern Special Forces, but he
acknowledges that the regular army provided lethal backup for settler
counterinsurgency in slaughtering the buffalo, thus disrupting the food supply of
Plains peoples, as well as making continuous raids on settlements to kill or
confine the families of the Indigenous fighters. Kaplan summarizes the
genealogy of U.S. militarism today: “Whereas the average American at the dawn
of the new millennium found patriotic inspiration in the legacies of the Civil
War and World War II, when the evils of slavery and fascism were confronted
and vanquished, for many commissioned and noncommissioned officers the U.S.
Army’s defining moment was fighting the ‘Indians.’”20
Although the U.S. Constitution formally instituted “militias” as statecontrolled bodies that were subsequently deployed to wage wars against Native
Americans, the voluntary militias described in the Second Amendment entitled
settlers, as individuals and families, to the right to combat Native Americans on
their own. However, savage war was also embedded in the U.S. Marines,
established at independence, as well as the Special Forces of the Army and
Navy, established in the mid-twentieth century. The Marine Corps was founded
in 1775, a year after the thirteen colonies formed the Continental Congress and
Army, a year before the Declaration of Independence, thirteen years before the
U.S. Constitution was ratified forming the state, and twenty-three years before
the U.S. Navy was founded. The following year, the Marines made their first
landing, capturing an island in the Bahamas from the British, what in Marine
Corps history is called “Fort Nassau.” In action throughout the Revolutionary
War, the Marines were disbanded in 1783 and reorganized in 1794 as a branch
of the United States Navy.
The character of a Marine is that of the colonial ranger, created for
counterinsurgency outside U.S.-secured territory. The opening lyric of the
eternal official hymn of the U.S. Marine Corps, composed and adopted in 1847,
soon after the invasion of Mexico and during the occupation, is “From the Halls
of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Tripoli hearkens back nearly a half
century to the “Barbary Wars” of 1801–15, when the Marines were dispatched to
North Africa by President Thomas Jefferson to invade the Berber Nation,
continuing this aggression, shelling the city, taking captives, and marauding for
nearly four years, ending with the 1805 “Battle of Derna.” It was there they
earned the nickname “leathernecks” for the high collars they wore as defense
against the Berbers’ saber cuts. This was the “First Barbary War,” the ostensible
goal of which was to persuade Tripoli to release U.S. sailors it held hostage and
to end what the U.S. called “pirate” attacks on U.S. merchant ships. Actually, the
Berbers were demanding that their sovereignty over their territorial waters be
respected. The Berbers did not give up their demands, and the Marines were
withdrawn, returning a decade later, in 1815–16, for the “Second Barbary War,”
which ended when Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, ruler of Tripoli, agreed not to exact
fees from U.S. ships entering their territorial waters. This was the first military
victory of U.S. “gunboat diplomacy,” as it came to be called nearly a century
later, when historians mark the beginning of U.S overseas imperialism. The
Marines and military historians know better.
The Marine Corps’s second large engagement was the Second Seminole
War, which raged from 1835 to 1842 in Florida, the longest war in U.S. history
until Vietnam. The Second Seminole War during the Jackson administration has
been identified with the extraordinary leader of the Seminole resistance,
Osceola. It was all-out war with the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps involved.
Although, they succeeded in killing Osceola, they lost the war as the Seminoles
would not hand over the Africans who had escaped their slavers, which is what
the United States demanded of them. The military did succeed in deporting
captives, mostly women, children, and old men, to Indian Territory. Armed
forces returned to try again in 1855, waging the Third Seminole War, but after
four years of siege, lost again. Soon after, the Civil War and the abolition of
slavery made further war against the Seminoles unnecessary.
Of course, the Marine Corps is associated with “the halls of Montezuma,”
lyrics from their trademark hymn composed while they occupied Mexico City in
1847. While the U.S. Army invaded and occupied what is now California,
Arizona, and New Mexico, the Marines invaded by sea and occupied Veracruz,
using counterinsurgency tactics in their march to Mexico City, burning fields
and villages, murdering and torturing civilian resisters. They occupied Mexico
City, along with Army divisions, until the Mexican government, under brutal
occupation, signed a dubious treaty transferring the northern half of Mexico to
the United States. In Marine Corps annals, the 1847 “Battle of Chapultepec” is
legion, a battle in which a handful of teenage Mexican cadets—the Chapultepec
Castle was used as a military training school—with few weapons and little
ammunition held off the Marines, killing most of them over two days of endless
fighting in the castle, until the cadets themselves were dead and the remaining
Marines raised the U.S. flag and wrote their hymn, tracing their genealogy to the
invasion and occupation of Tripoli.
In a 2017 portrait of President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, retired
Marine Corps general James “Mad Dog” Mattis, journalist Dexter Filkins writes
that Marines see themselves as a kind of warrior caste with “toughness under
fire, and savagery in battle. Being much smaller than the Army, its budgets are
skimpier and the equipment sometimes antiquated, while its fighters are often
pitched into terrible conditions. But, the Marines take their scant resources as a
source of pride. Where the Army scatters recruits across a vast institution that
includes accountants and mechanics who have little contact with the harsher
realities of military work, every Marine is trained as a rifleman, a combatant.”21
Later in the century, Marine actions, particularly the infamous war in the
Philippines, and others up to the present, are well known, but they themselves
take pride in their origins, which most U.S. Americans, including leftists, know
little or nothing about. If they did, they would have to reconsider the overlooked
violence in the nation’s founding narratives.
The United States is a militarized culture. We see it all around us and in the
media. But, as military historian John Grenier notes, the cultural aspects of
militarization are not new; they have deep historical roots, reaching into the
nation’s racist settler past and continuing through unrelenting wars of conquest
and ethnic cleansing over three centuries. Grenier writes, “Beyond its sheer
military utility, Americans also found a use for the first way of war in the
construction of an ‘American identity.’ . . . [T]he enduring appeal of the
romanticized myth of the ‘settlement’ (not calling it conquest) of the frontier,
either by ‘actual’ men such as Robert Rogers or Daniel Boone or fictitious ones
like Nathaniel Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s creation, points to what
D.H. Lawrence called the ‘myth of the essential white American.’”22
The astronomical number of firearms owned by U.S. civilians, with the
Second Amendment considered a sacred mandate, is also intricately related to
militaristic culture and white nationalism. The militias referred to in the Second
Amendment were intended as a means for white people to eliminate Indigenous
communities in order to take their land, and for slave patrols to control Black
Following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles and the development of Cop
Watch groups in cities around the United States, along with the widespread
incarceration of Black men in the 1990s,1 what had long been known by
scholars, but rarely acknowledged in media or history texts, became increasingly
clear on a national level: The origins of policing in the United States were rooted
in slave patrols.2
In a study of slave patrols in Virginia and the Carolinas in 1700–1865,
historian and law professor Sally E. Hadden writes: “People other than masters
or overseers had legitimate rights, indeed, legal duties, to regulate slave
behavior.”3 Black people escaping to freedom were hunted down to prevent
labor loss to their white slavers, and also to send a message to those enslaved
who might be strategizing to lose their chains through rebellion or insurrection.
Because chattel slavery was uncommon in the 1500s in England itself, the
existing legal system that colonists brought to the early British colonies in North
America did not suffice, so nearly all law related to slavery was forged in the
colonies, borrowing from existing practices in Spanish, Portuguese, and English
Caribbean plantation colonies, and specifically borrowing the use of slave
patrols from the Caribbean and adapting them to local conditions on the
The 1661 and 1688 slave codes in the British Caribbean colony of Barbados
extended the task of controlling enslaved Africans from overseers and slavers to
all white settlers, in effect shifting private responsibility to the public. Any
enslaved person outside the direct control of the slaver or overseer required
passes and was subject to questioning by a slave patrol, as well as by any
member of the European population; free Black men were denied such power.
This collective racial policing was in addition to the traditional English
constabulary that investigated and detained European residents for infractions of
British slavers from Barbados moved in large numbers to the South Carolina
colony after 1670, and brought the slave patrol practice with them.4 By 1704, the
South Carolina colonial government had codified slave patrols and embedded
them within the already existing volunteer militias, whose principal role was to
repel Native Americans whose land they had appropriated. Members of slave
patrols were drawn from militia rolls in every locale. The South Carolina
structure of slave patrols was adopted in other colonies by the mid-eighteenth
century and would remain relatively unchanged until the Civil War. Following
U.S. independence, this structure and practice was applied to what became the
Cotton Kingdom, following the U.S. wars against the Muskogee peoples that
ended in their forced relocation to Indian Territory.5
Virginia was the first of the thirteen English settler colonies in North
America, but there were fewer enslaved Africans there, and they were more
widely dispersed than in South Carolina, as Virginia settlements were long
surrounded by resistant Native communities. The Virginia militia was founded
for one purpose: to kill Indians, take their land, drive them out, wipe them out.
European settlers were required by law to own and carry firearms, and all adult
male settlers were required to serve in the militia. Militias were also used to
prevent indentured European servants from fleeing before their contracts
expired, in which case they were designated “debtors.” Despite militia vigilance,
many escaped on ships in ports.
During the 1660s and 1670s, Virginia settlers turned from indenturing
Europeans to importing enslaved Africans, and by 1680, the enslaved were
required to carry passes. Of course, slave uprisings increased, and in 1705, the
Virginia colony enacted its first slave code and established slave patrols. Militia
members, focused on attacking Indigenous towns and fields to expand the
Virginia colony refused to participate in slave patrols, so the colonial authorities
imposed harsh punishments to control the enslaved Africans, such as death for
even mentioning rebellion. Colonists prohibited the enslaved Africans from
holding meetings or learning how to read. In 1727, the Virginia colony enacted a
law requiring militias to create slave patrols, imposing stiff fines on white people
who refused to serve.6
After 1650, slavers in Virginia began expanding deeper into the territory of
the Tuscarora Nation, and were the first English settlers in what became the
North Carolina colony in 1729. During the first three decades of Virginia settler
incursion, the colony’s militia was used solely to attack and burn down
Tuscarora towns, incinerate their crops, and slaughter the families who resided
there. By 1722, the embattled Tuscaroras joined the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois
Confederacy) and migrated north for protection from settler terrorism, while
some communities remained in severely deteriorating conditions.
In 1715, North Carolina’s slaver government began requiring passes for
enslaved individuals who were in public spaces doing errands or rented out as
craftsmen, as many were escaping from bondage to Spanish Florida or
marooning in the swamps of Cape Fear. Militias were used for pursuing Africans
escaping to freedom, but did not form specific slave patrols as a separate
category. In 1753, fearing increasing slave rebellions, the North Carolina colony
established what they called “searchers,” not drawn from the militias but
authorized by courts; later they would be called “patrollers.” They were exempt
from militia duty as well as from jury duty and taxation, and two decades later,
actually were paid salaries.7
Public patrols of varying types were established in all the slave colonies, but,
significantly, any individual, including free Blacks or Natives, could claim a
reward for capturing a person escaping from slavery, a practice that continued
until the end of the Civil War. If weapons were found with the captive, the
catcher could collect compensation for the weapons or keep them.8
After Independence, rapid expansion of slavery into newly conquered Native
territories brought a concurrent increase in slave patrols, but the basic structure
remained. An 1860 judicial hornbook, The Practice at Law in North Carolina is
an example:
The patrol shall visit the negro houses in their respective districts as often as may
be necessary, and may inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all
slaves they may find off their owner’s plantations, without a proper permit or
pass, designating the place or places, to which the slaves have leave to go. The
patrol shall also visit all suspected places, and suppress all unlawful collections
of slaves; shall be diligent in apprehending all runaway negroes in their
respective districts; shall be vigilant and endeavor to detect all thefts, and bring
the perpetrators to justice, and also all persons guilty of trading with slaves; and
if, upon taking up a slave and chastising him, as herein directed, he shall behave
insolently, they may inflict further punishment for his misconduct, not exceeding
thirty-nine lashes.9
In Slave Patrols, historian Hadden argues that the notion that slave patrols
were made up of impoverished white men,10 as portrayed in Gone with the Wind
and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is false. She cautions against conflating entrepreneurial
individual “slave catchers” and slave patrollers. Whether rich or poor, all Euro
American males were required to serve in militias and slave patrols, but the
commanders of the patrols were property owners and slavers. Impoverished
whites were not trusted and would be unable to compensate a slaver for the
property loss entailed in a death or injury incurred during an attempted capture.11
Writing about slavery in the Cotton Kingdom during the decades before the
Civil War, historian Walter Johnson points to the central role horses played in
subjugating runaways. Horses were a symbol of power for slavers, not only for
show and racing, but as a physical symbol of racial power. “The words ‘slave
patrol’ summon to mind a vision of white men on horseback, an association so
definitive that it elides the remarkable fact that the geographic pattern of county
governance in the South emerged out of circuits ridden by eighteenth-century
slave patrols.”12 It was not only the advantage of height and speed that a horse
provided in pursuing a person on the run, but also the nature of the animal itself,
its own power, the fear the huge, galloping animal could evoke, and the severe
bodily harm it inflicted when it trampled a person or when the patroller tethered
a bound captive to the horse.
Another tool was the widely distributed “wanted” flier that alerted the public
to be on the lookout, which attracted Euro Americans from hundreds of miles
away to hunt freedom-seekers for bounty. And of course, slavers used dogs.
Resistant Africans marooned in the swamps, or if fleeing rested there, where
horses could not travel and most settlers were afraid to enter. Bloodhounds were
trained from pups to identify and hunt Black people. “‘Loyal’ to their masters (or
those to whom their masters hired them) and able to travel more rapidly than any
human being across even the most difficult ground, these weaponized dogs were
implacable enemies, driven by a purpose beyond that of even their owners.”13
And above all, there were the guns. Historians Ned Sublette and Constance
Sublette write:
Unlike England, Virginia was a gun culture. “Whereas in England, only men
with estates valued at above one hundred pounds sterling were allowed to own
guns,” writes Kathleen M. Brown, “English men in Virginia at all levels of
property ownership were expected to own them. . . .” Guns and slavery were
intimately associated with each other; all slave-raiding relied on guns, and all
slaveholding relied on armed repression.14
By the early 1820s, slave-worked plantation agribusiness in Tidewater
Virginia waned as the soils were degraded from mono-production and over-
production, and investments moved to the Mississippi Valley. Nevertheless,
slave patrols actually increased in Virginia, where the main commercial “crop”
of the plantations was the enslaved person’s body, as farms turned into breeding
factories to produce slaves to be sold in the Cotton Kingdom.15 Thomas Jefferson
bragged to George Washington that the birth of Black children was increasing
Virginia’s capital stock by 4 percent annually. It is estimated that in 1860 the
total value of enslaved African bodies in the United States was $4 billion, far
more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most
of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the
value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion).16
Like slave patrols in the Deep South, the Texas Rangers—formed primarily
to kill Comanches, eliminate Native communities, and control colonized
Mexicans to take their land—also hunted down enslaved Africans escaping to
freedom. They began to operate in the 1820s, even before the population of
slavers in the independent province of Texas had seceded from Mexico in 1836,
when Mexico formally outlawed slavery. With the new border in place, enslaved
Africans in Texas could escape into Mexico, often with the help of armed
Seminoles and Kickapoos, who had fled to take refuge in Mexico rather than
remain in Indian Territory, where they had been forced to migrate when the
United States annexed their lands east of the Mississippi. They created a
community west of Piedras Negras far inside Mexico, and a place for them to
live freely. When the United States Army and Marines invaded and occupied
Mexico, departing only when Mexico had ceded half its territory to the United
States, these maroon communities were vulnerable. Slave hunting escalated, by
the Rangers as well as by individual bounty hunters.17
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished legal chattel slavery, but the
surveillance of Black people by patrols continued, as the occupying Union army
took no concerted action against the patrols in most places (depending on the
army commander), forcing formerly enslaved Africans to remain and work on
plantations. Even with military vigilance, “patrolling” Black people continued as
a form of organized terrorism, perpetrated especially by the Ku Klux Klan,
which was founded for that very purpose nineteen months after the Civil War
ended. The intensive military training and experience over four years of fighting
in the Confederate Army produced a militaristic character to the formation of
police forces and patrol techniques under Reconstruction; in addition, the
Freedmen no longer even had the protection of being valued as property and
collateral by former slavers, allowing for extreme forms of revenge violence
against them.18
When Republicans were elected to state offices, they attempted to reform
local militias requiring all males to serve, regardless of race, but few AngloAmericans would serve with Freedmen. Freedmen did serve in the state militias,
but they also developed their own local volunteer militia groups. Former slavers
spread rumors that Freedmen were forming insurrectionary armies to kill white
people. White elites formed agricultural cooperatives to maintain economic
dominance over Freedmen, a goal one group made clear: “a united and
systematic plan with respect to the regulation of our colored population.”19 They
also created their own forces to intimidate other Anglo-American farmers and
merchants who attempted to trade with Black farmers, often putting white
merchants out of business.
Most ominously, elite white Southerners formed volunteer militias under the
guise of private rifle clubs. By 1876, South Carolina had more than 240 such
clubs. This allowed thousands of Confederate combat veterans, along with
former Confederate guerrillas, to mobilize quickly. Of course, the KKK was the
most ominous terrorist organization to emerge from these efforts, its purpose
being to subdue the Freedmen and control black labor when slavery ended. But
the KKK was not alone. Either by their absence in many places or their actions
in others, some of the U.S. Army officers in charge made these developments
possible. One that stands out is U.S. General E.R.S. Canby, a Kentuckian who
was occupation commander of the Carolinas. Canby refused to make use of his
own soldiers, and instead relied on white Southern law enforcement to maintain
order. He had to have known what would happen. Like many U.S. Civil War
commanders assigned to the occupation army of the former Confederacy, in
1872 he soon reassigned to the Army of the West, where he commanded troops
to round up several dozen Modoc families in Northern California who refused to
be forced into an Oregon reservation. The Modocs waged a year-long resistance
to the Army’s counterinsurgency, finally killing General Canby.20 One of the
reasons troops were pulled out of the South prematurely was to fight in the
dozens of wars the United States was initiating against Indigenous Nations in the
Northern Plains, the Southwest, and the West.21
As Hadden points out, Southern settlers had long relied on “self-help”
measures to enforce slavery leading up to the formalized slave patrols, which
had continued where possible during the Civil War. What was different after the
abolition of slavery was the tons of technologically advanced guns and
ammunition, and the tens of thousands of militarily seasoned and violent men
who made ideal candidates for the Klan. Particularly, when the Confederate war
hero Nathan Bedford Forrest joined the Klan, it gained a chivalric image that
attracted other war heroes. Congress enacted laws forbidding secret groups, but
the laws were rarely enforced.22
In fact, the United States never broke with the slaveocracy, as exemplified in
the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He lost his parents and economic security
at seventeen, but became a slave trader, land spec…

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