Presidential Firearms: Part III

  • Date:
  • April 19, 2024

This post is the final of three in my series exploring how U.S. presidents carried, interacted with, and viewed firearms before, during, and after the presidency.  You can read the earlier posts in this series here and here.  Part II covered presidents from Herbert Hoover back to Abraham Lincoln, and this final chapter will examine the first half of the nineteenth century and the Founding Era.  

James Buchanan, who served as president during the brewing secession crisis, attracted criticism for his handling of Secretary of War John B. Floyd—a Virginian who organized large gun shipments to states in the future Confederacy until resigning in 1860.  Floyd shipped tens of thousands of old rifles from the federal armory to Southern states in 1859 and 1860.  Floyd, who went on to serve as a general in the Confederate army, was attacked in the northern press for these shipments and possible financial mis-dealings after the election of 1860.  He was ultimately indicted, but the charges were dismissed.   

Many early- and mid-19th century presidents had extensive military careers before being moving into the White House.  Franklin Pierce served in the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor had a long and storied career stretching from the War of 1812 through the Mexican-American War, and William Henry Harrison served in various conflicts with Native American tribes.  A Colt Model 1851 Navy Percussion Revolver presented to Franklin Pierce by Samuel Colt was sold at auction in 2010 for $207,000.  Indiana named the Grouseland rifle its official “state gun” in 2012—the gun belonged to Harrison, governor of Indiana from 1801 to 1812, and is displayed at the William Henry Harrison Mansion and Museum in Vincennes, Indiana (informally known as “Grouseland”).  

Millard Fillmore, the last Whig Party president, was vice president and presided over the Senate from 1849 until he succeeded Zachary Taylor in July 1850.  Fillmore struggled to maintain a veneer of civility in the Senate chamber during acrimonious debates over slavery and was forced to adjourn proceedings in the spring of 1850 after an incident in which Mississippi senator Henry Foote pulled a pistol and threatened to shoot Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. 

James K. Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, purportedly held a private meeting with Samuel Colt during his term in office and ordered 1,000 newly-designed Colt Walker revolvers.  Polk previously served in Tennessee state politics.  He was clerk of the Tennessee state senate in 1821 (when Tennessee enacted an early public carry restriction covering dirks, sword canes, French knives, Spanish stilettos, and belt or pocket pistols) and later served as governor from 1839 to 1841. In 1838, shortly before Polk became governor, Tennessee enacted a similar law targeting Bowie knives and increasing the possible penalties for violators.

John Tyler was aboard the USS Princeton for a social event in February 1844 when a large naval cannon known as the “Peacemaker” exploded during a demonstration, killing six including the new Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer.  The event purportedly inspired Tyler to propose to his future wife, Julia.  Some reports indicate that Martin Van Buren, who served as vice president and presided over the Senate before becoming president himself in 1837, wore a “brace of pistols” for his personal protection while directing Senate business.

Andrew Jackson was the first president subject to an assassination attempt, by an unemployed painter who may have been suffering from mental illness and believed he was the heir to the British throne and that the U.S. government owed him money.  The would-be assassin attempted to kill Jackson with a single-shot Derringer pistol in January 1835, but the gun misfired twice.  According to some reports, Jackson was able to attack the would-be assassin (who was later ruled not guilty by reason of insanity) with his walking cane in between shots.  Some have speculated that unusually warm, humid weather in D.C. that winter caused the gun to misfire.

Perhaps the most frequently debated presidential firearms topic is how the Founding Fathers—those presidents who were also intimately involved in founding the country and drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—viewed guns and gun regulation.  That list includes at least the first five presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe), all of whom were major political figures in the 1780s and were present at either the First or Second Continental Congress.  James Madison in particular is a focus of modern debate surrounding gun rights and regulation because he drafted and advocated passage of the Bill of Rights, including the language that would become the Second Amendment.

An amicus brief filed by the Second Amendment Foundation and other gun-rights advocacy organizations in Bruen argued that “[t]he practices of the Founding generation confirm that early Americans enjoyed and widely practiced the right to carry firearms out of doors.”  For this proposition, the brief cited secondary and autobiographical sources suggesting that future presidents including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams frequently carried firearms for both hunting and self-protection from a young age.  Madison wrote in a June 1775 letter to William Bradford that Virginia was ready to resist the British with “great unanimity & as much of the Military Ardor as you can possibly have in your government.”  Jefferson noted that “[t]he strength of this Colony will lie chiefly in the rifle-men of the Upland Counties” and offered that he himself, while “far from being among the best,” would not often miss a man if shooting at him from 100 yards. 

Perhaps the most famous (and controversial) Founding Father statement about guns is found in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr dated August 19, 1785.  Jefferson wrote:

A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.

In a 2022 law review article, The Right to Train: A Pillar of the Second Amendment, Joseph Greenlee argues that early presidents including Adams and Jefferson valued marksmanship highly and emphasized training in firearms for their male children.  Jefferson “enjoyed shooting competitions [in his childhood], sometimes placing wagers on his skill.”  Both Washington and Madison, Greenlee observes, saw great value in the American colonists’ proficiency with firearms—and he argues that the “Americans’ success in the Revolutionary War was widely attributed to their familiarity and training with arms.”  John Adams also famously and successfully defended the British soldiers charged following the Boston Massacre, endorsing a broad view of the common-law right of self-defense in the process.

While proficiency with arms may indeed have contributed to American military successes in the Revolutionary War,[1] Washington also complained bitterly at times about the military performance of militiamen—those most likely to be drawn directly from the civilian population without substantial military training.  In a 1776 letter, for example, Washington described being “disturbed at the conduct of the militia, whose behavior and want of discipline has done great injury to the other troops, who never had officers, except in a few instances, worth the bread they eat.”[2]  Washington also wrestled throughout the Revolutionary War with how to address the American arms shortage, generally refraining from seizing citizens’ arms without compensation but often not hesitating to seize guns from those suspected of being loyal to Britain (or, later on during his presidency, from those who had taken up arms against the federal government).  And some scholars have suggested that certain Founding Father presidents, including those who drafted and ratified the Second Amendment and state-analogue protections of the right to keep and bear arms, were at least as concerned about slave revolts in the South as they were about self-defense or possible government tyranny.

What of their views on gun regulation?  It’s fair to say that we don’t know all that much on the topic and that the types of federal gun regulation that exist today would be foreign to most if not all early presidents due to changes in the balance between the federal and state governments (the same is likely true in many other areas).  A primary regulatory concern at the time was the public safety hazard posed by gunpowder—specifically, storage of large quantities of gunpowder in a single location.  As Justice Breyer noted in dissent in Heller, Samuel Adams (cousin of future President John Adams) was president of the Massachusetts state senate in 1783 when the state enacted a gunpowder storage regulation banning loaded firearms and gunpowder from most city buildings.  Breyer observed that “[i]t seems unlikely that [Adams] meant to deprive the Federal Government of power (to enact Boston-type weapons regulation) that he knew Boston had and (as far as we know) he would have thought constitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution [and its Second Amendment analogue].”  Indeed, John Quincy Adams would go on to serve in the Massachusetts state senate in 1801, prior to his presidency, during the time the state enacted a new gunpowder law requiring all powder landed at the port to be deposited in a secure storage facility. 

A number of early presidents were also involved in establishing and supervising institutions of higher education.  In 1824, Jefferson and Madison—both trustees of the University of Virginia at the time—approved a set of college rules stating that “[n]o student shall, within the precincts of the University, . . . keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder.”  Rules passed by “Columbian College in the District of Columbia,” which would ultimately become George Washington University, that same year provided that “[n]o student shall . . . keep fire arms, or any deadly weapon whatever” and barred the possession of gunpowder on campus.  Columbian College was established with gifts from James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, among other benefactors, and the college was chartered by an act of Congress in 1821 during the Monroe administration.

[1] One especially notable example is Timothy Murphy, member of an elite unit of riflemen who purportedly killed two British officers with sniper fire at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga.

[2] As C. Edward Skeen notes in his book Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812, “[d]espite the persistence of the militia myth, the concept of the militia as a main defense force was eroded during the war.”  While he attempted to rely heavily on militiamen during the conflict, Madison and his administration ultimately moved in the direction of a large, professionalized standing army after the war due in large part to militia incompetence.