George Washington and the Bearing of Arms
TOPICS: George Washington, GW’s Views, Revolutionary War, Washington or Custis Family, Washington’s Presidency
by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
December 20, 2019
George Washington’s understanding of what we now often call “gun rights” would not seem to readily square with the views of today’s contending factions, each of whom commonly invoke Washington for support. He does not appear to have thought that every citizen possessed an unlimited individual right to bear arms, for criminals and traitors were to be forcibly disarmed. Washington, however, believed that all citizens faithfully engaged in state militia or federal army service ought to be granted combat-worthy firearms from the proper governmental authority. He also believed that citizens should be skilled with hunting rifles at least before commencing militia or army service. Colonel Washington expressed this latter conviction in a letter to Virginia lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie during the French and Indian War: “As I am convinced that no other Method can be used to raise 2000 Men, but by draughting; I hope to be excused, when I again repeat, how great Care shoud be observed in choosing active Marksmen; the manifest Inferiority of inactive Persons, unused to Arms, in this Kind of Service (tho. equal in Numbers) to lively Persons, who have practised hunting, is inconceivable; the Chance against them is more than two to one.”1
“Inactive persons,” though, might still render useful militia service when armed. When the Virginia General Assembly thus passed an act for the creation of military forces, General Washington wrote his brother John Augustine Washington on Oct. 13, 1775: “I am very glad to hear. . . that the Convention had come to resolutions of Arming the People, and preparing vigorously for the defence of the Colony.”2 “All reforms,” he subsequently asserted about state militias, “must be the result of Legislative establishments—and the nearer these can be brought to the System which governs regular Armies—the better; the genius however & the prejudices of the people must be regarded. The first & most essential point is to arm them, this done, the bare report will have an influence to prevent invasions.”3
However, the Continental army frequently lacked sufficient arms for its own soldiers, let alone for militia units in temporary Continental service that had not been suitably armed by their state governments. Fortunately, that problem could be alleviated by arms owned by militia and soldiers themselves. “I wish it was in my power to furnish every man with a firelock that is willing to use one,” Washington noted in an August 1777 letter to a militia colonel, “but that is so far from being the Case that I have scarcely sufficient for the Continental Troops. . . . It is to be wished that every Man could bring a good Musket and Bayonet into the field, but in times like the present we must make the best shift we can, and I wou’d therefore advise you to exhort every man to bring the best he has. A good fowling piece will do execution in the hands of a marks man.”4
Early in the Revolutionary War, Washington called for the removal of any firearms from soldiers who were discharged—even those firearms that were privately owned—as troops were often taking public arms with them when leaving the army. He ordered in November 1775: “No Soldier whenever dismissed, is to carry away any Arms with him, that are good, and fit for service; if the Arms are his own private property, they will be appraised, and he will receive the full Value thereof: Proper persons when necessary, will be appointed to inspect, and value, the Arms, so detained.”5 Washington, however, soon changed that policy. In January 1776, he instructed: “All Recruits who shall furnish their own Arms, (provided they are good) shall be paid one Dollar, for the Use of them, shall have the Privilege of carrying them away, when their time is out, and in case they are lost (through no default of their own) shall be paid for them, at the end of the campaign.”6
Washington adopted a policy similar in spirit regarding citizens who were not in Continental service as members of a militia or as soldiers. After all, when listing colonists’ outrages with British governance, Washington had asserted that “[w]hen the Arms are demanded of the Inhabitants. . . ’tis evident, that the most Tyrannical, & cruel system is adopted for the destruction of the rights and liberties of this Continent, that ever disgraced the most despotick Ministry; and ought to be opposed by every means in our power.”7 Refraining from ordering citizens’ arms to be seized with or without compensation, and offering to purchase arms from citizens when necessary, Washington wrote Massachusetts congressman Elbridge Gerry in September 1777:
I was informed, that there were several Arms in Lancaster belonging to the public. These with their Accoutrements, I wished to be collected & put into the Hands of the Militia coming from Virginia; But I did not mean that any—the property of Individuals, should be taken, because I did not conceive myself authorized, nor do I at this time, to order such a measure. I don’t know how the Inhabitants would relish such an exercise of power. I rather think it would give great uneasiness.8
Taking his experiences from the Revolutionary War into account, Washington submitted recommendations to Congress in May 1783 for the organization of a postwar militia:
It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defence of it, and consequently that the Citizens of America (with a few legal and official exceptions) from 18 to 50 Years of Age should be borne on the Militia Rolls, provided with uniform Arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the Total strength of the Country might be called forth at a Short Notice on any very interesting Emergency. . . . They ought to be regularly Mustered and trained, and to have their Arms and Accoutrements inspected at certain appointed times, not less than once or twice in the course of every year.9
“By giving such a tone to our Establishment,” he added, “by making it universally reputable to bear Arms & disgraceful to decline having a share in the performance of Military duties; in fine, by keeping up in Peace ‘a well regulated, and disciplined Militia,’ we shall take the fairest and best method to preserve, for a long time to come, the happiness, dignity and Independence of our Country.”10 At the same time, Washington ordered that Continental soldiers who fulfilled their obligation to serve up “untill the ratification of the definitive treaty of Peace” were to be granted public “fire arms and accoutrements as an extra reward for their long and faithful services.”11 In keeping with the tenor of his order and recommendations, President Washington, in his first annual address to Congress on Jan. 8, 1790, further asserted: “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.”12
President Washington, nonetheless, did not hesitate to forcibly disarm citizens whom he regarded as brigands, doing so by means of leading state militias during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Summarizing instructions from Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton thus wrote Virginia governor Henry Lee, Jr., on Oct. 20, 1794: “Of those persons in arms, if any, whom you may make prisoners; leaders, including all persons in command, are to be delivered up to the civil magistrate: the rest to be disarmed, admonished and sent home.”13 That same day, Washington himself wrote Lee: “Convey to my fellow Citizens in arms, my warm acknowledgments for the readiness with which they have hitherto seconded me ⟨i⟩n the most delicate, and momentous duty the chief Magistrate of a free people can have to perform.”14
Washington had ordered reputed traitors to be stripped of their arms with far less delicacy during the Revolutionary War: “The Tories should be disarmed Immediately, tho It is probable, that they may have secured their Arms on board the Kings Ships, untill called upon to use ’em against us.”15 Washington even considered disarming militia whom he suspected were verging on criminality and treason. In December 1776, he wrote the Pennsylvania Council of Safety from headquarters in Bucks County, Pa.:
Instead of giving any Assistance in repelling the Enemy, the Militia have not only refused to obey your general Summons and that of their commanding Officers, but I am told exult at the Approach of the Enemy and our late Misfortunes. I beg leave to submit to your Consideration whether such people are to be intrusted with Arms in their Hands? If they will not use them for us, there is the greatest Reason to apprehend they will against us, if Oppertunity offers. But even supposing they claimed the Right of remaining Neuter, in my Opinion we ought not to hesitate a Moment in taking their Arms, which will be so much wanted in furnishing the new Levies. If such a Step meets your Approbation, I leave it to you to determine upon the Mode. If you think fit to empower me, I will undertake to have it done as speedily and effectually as possible. You must be sensible that the utmost Secrecy is necessary, both in your Deliberation on, and in the Execution of a Matter of this kind, for if the thing should take Wind, the Arms would presently be conveyed beyond our Reach or rendered useless.16
For Washington, then, no individual citizen—let alone non-citizen—possessed a natural right to own arms that was inherently inviolable. He certainly ordered citizens whom he deemed criminals or traitors to be disarmed with scant scruples. Yet he made sure only to offer to buy firearms from Patriot civilian citizens when in need of their weaponry, abstaining from taking their arms with or without compensation. When such citizens served in the army or militia, moreover, Washington came to prefer that they receive public arms, and those men were never to surrender any of their weapons under any circumstance. He thus directed in his will:
To each of my Nephews. . . I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed. . . . These Swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.17
1. “From George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, April 16, 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-03-02-0001-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 3:1–4.
2. “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, October 13, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0152. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 2:160–62.
3. “From George Washington to James Innes, October 20, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0641. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:767–68.
4. “From George Washington to Colonel John Dockery Thompson, August 28, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0084. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 11:87–89.
5. “General Orders, November 20, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0369. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 2:402.
6. “General Orders, January 21, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0110. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 3:158–59.
7. “Circular Instructions for the Seizure of Certain Royal Officials, November 5–12, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0280. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 2:301–302.
8. “From George Washington to Elbridge Gerry, September 26, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-11-02-0342. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 11:326–27.
9. “Washington’s Sentiments on a Peace Establishment, May 1, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11202. [This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.]
11. “General Orders, May 1, 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11197. [This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.]
12. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, January 8, 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0361. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4:543–49.
13. “From Alexander Hamilton to Henry Lee, October 20, 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0317. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:331–36.
14. “From George Washington to Henry Lee, October 20, 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-17-02-0061. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 17:91–94.
15. “From George Washington to Major General Charles Lee, January 30, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0159. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 3:221–22.
16. “From George Washington to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, December 15, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0276. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:347–48.
 “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4:479–511.