The Revolutionary Early American “Context” of the 2nd Amendment

The Privateer Navy and The Subscription Warships of 1798

When discussing the right of modern American citizens to bear arms under the Second Amendment, it is the vogue at schools, universities and part of conventional wisdom in “Progressive” thinking to argue that one must put the ‘right to bear arms’ into a “historical context;” a nuanced approach that conveys common sense, informed historical perspective and induces the assumption that times have changed, and thus, the Second Amendment is suggested that it is now an anachronism in today’s society; “The Second Amendment was written in a different time when socially people lived mostly rural lives.”

It’s a quaint and rugged vision of the self-reliant homesteader, protecting his family, bringing in the deer or ducks for provisions, between trimming logs for the cabin on the lonely western frontier of the colonies. But never do the apologists for gun control ever mention the other frontier of the American self-reliance of the late 1700s, a time when “the majority of the American population lived no more than a day’s journey from the ocean, when every major town up and down the coast was an Atlantic seaport, with large communities of professional seamen and all the essential industries needed to build, outfit, provision and repair ships … The shipyards drew from a broad pool of expert laborers and master craftsmen, including carpenters, caulkers, joiners, painters, sparmakers, woodcarvers, coopers, ropemakers, smiths, and sailmakers. … Day after day, all up and down the coast, newly built ships rumbled down the ways and plunged into the sea.” (Six Frigates, Toll, p. 12).

So the majority reality of the early Post Revolutionary society was not the rough, isolated, self-reliant self-sufficiency romanticized by Emerson or Thoreau of later years, or a period “when socially most people lived mostly rural lives,” but an extraordinarily interdependent and highly productive society of expert trades organized to support and expand the American merchants’ international reach, which stimulated economies across the globe as the means to move goods from producers to consumers became more sophisticated and dependable.

“Merchant vessels sailing under the Stars and Stripes were ubiquitous on the high seas, but rarely was an American warship ever seen… American ships were seen taking on pepper in Sumatra, tea, coffee, silks and spices in China, ivory and sandalwood in Malaysia. Weather-beaten whaling ships out of Nantucket and New Bedford were seen north of the Arctic Circle and deep in the heart of the South Pacific” (Toll, p.11).
“Every returning ship brought another payday, and at the height of the season, in summer and fall, 250 ships entered American seaports every day.” (Toll, p. 14) Merchants believed Thomas Paine’s rhetoric in Common Sense, “…the plan is commerce, and that well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe, because it is the interest of all Europe to have America as a free port.” (Toll, p.19) Reality soon deflated that assurance.

Yet, it was a time of excitement, the new nation of America was producing marvels such as Salem’s Nathaniel Bowditch, whose impoverished family apprenticed him out at age 12, a natural born mathematical genius, nearly completely self-taught, who while on “his first sea voyage to the West Indies reviewed the widely-used navigational tables of John Hamilton Moore of England, and found 8,000 errors, and corrected them.” Bowditch’s book, “New American Practical Navigator” printed in 1802, quickly becoming the most desired standard reference and guide for seaman, is today two hundred years later, still in print, a testament to Bowditch’s ability to make the complex easy to understand, and an example of the flourishing of talent and achievement in America which was upending the old European elite order.

Astoundingly, America’s rebellion on the high seas against the naval giant Britain was fought primarily not by the Continental Navy, but by Revolutionary Privateers. In 1775, General George Washington, “initiated the enterprise off-handedly, ‘I fitted out several privateers or rather armed vessels, in behalf of the Continent.” (Patton, p. xvi). “Offering a percentage of spoils as inducement, the call for citizen sailors to raid the British shipping tapped the same vein of self-interest and comradeship that had led the colonies to seek independence in the first place … The emergence … of some of the most intrepid mariners in American history highlights the strategic element of Revolutionary privateering, for they would spearhead a massive seaborne insurgency involving thousands of privately owned warships whose ravages on the enemy dwarfed those of the fledgling United States Navy.” (Patton, p. xvii)  “The industry of privateering supported shipbuilders, service workers and a complex network of agents and legal officials to adjudicate captured prizes.” (Patton, xvii). “Investors traded privateer shares at a premium or discount … Prize courts opened in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the turn-around time between a prize’s arrival in port and its legal settlement narrowed from months to weeks, streamlining the efficiency of an already booming industry. (Patton, p. 80)

And with great risk and audacity came great wealth, “Fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots.” (Patton, p. 234).

“In the last years of Revolutionary privateering, the trend had been for larger vessels that could stay at sea longer, carry extensive armaments and yet still sail fast. … But the war’s many privateer partnerships, formed to share expense and distribute risk found a perfect application in global ventures. Legal firms and insurance consortiums were on hand to facilitate arrangements as they had done with countless privateer ventures just a few years earlier. Most of these were based in Boston, so Boston became the center of America’s Far East Trade.” (Patton, p236)
With the British, through its navigation act of 1783, blocking Americans from trade in the West Indies, American merchants used their privateering expertise to promote commerce with Russia, Scandinavia and China. (Patton, p. 236)

But after Independence, “Greedy eyes studied the ships of this new nation the way wolves study sheep. The wolves were hungry, the sheep were fat, numerous and slow and there was not a shepherd in sight.” (Toll, p. 24)

Between 1785 and 1815, over 700 Americans suffered as hostages and slaves in the North African kingdoms of the Barbary Coast, merchantmen crews and passengers held for ransoms, and the fledgling United States was being blackmailed for ‘protection money,’ considered “tribute” by local tyrants under the umbrella of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. With the new U.S. government broke, towns up and down the American Eastern seaboard began collections like Salem’s “Small Society” to raise money ‘for the relief of the known prisoners in the hands of the Algerines.” (The Crescent Obscured, Allison, p.128)

By 1798, with no navy, US merchant ships were at the mercy of pirates and fickle friendships such as that of presumed ally France, whose treachery was exposed to the American public through the “XYZ Affair,” a shake-down attempt against American envoys who had arrived in France to negotiate a peace to end the “Quasi War,” provoked by France’s plundering of American merchant ships on the high seas. As the U.S. government hesitated, hung between fear of a standing army and navy as a means for the establishment of tyranny, and bowing to the reality of the conniving world beyond American shores, that other countries were not interested in respecting America’s official policy and societal expectations of Neutrality. With America losing ships by the hundreds to pirates, the public cry was, “Millions for defense, not a cent for tribute!” 

Modifying a clever financial mechanism used in the past by the British and the French, to appeal to citizens to directly contribute to the national defenses, the merchants of Newburyport, Massachusetts came together and decided America needed a Navy, and more critically, they couldn’t wait for one. In June 1798, the Newburyport committee announced their decision “build a 355-ton ship, armed with 20 six-pounder cannon, in ninety days.” (Leiner, p.21)

News spread quickly and soon nine more ports contributed a vessel each, “Salem, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston along with one joint vessel from Norfolk and Richmond.” (Leiner, p. 3)

“As the democratic system s of the West now weigh “privatization” – use or return to entrepreneurial activity to do public work – the 1798 “subscription ships” were built by a concerned citizenry weighing the meaning of ‘citizen’ in a republic that had won its freedom only a few years before. These men acted before there was any bureaucracy or government infrastructure to do public works. But the 1798 crash shipbuilding program is a microcosm of the timeless American debate of the balance between private and public tasks, about the nature of government and the nature of the citizen.” (Millions for Defense, p.3)

Frederick Leiner quotes John Ruskin who wrote in the mid 1800s: “Take it all in all a Ship … is the most honorable thing that man, as a gregarious animal, has ever produced. By himself … he can make poems and pictures and other concentrations of what is best in him. But as a being living in flocks, and hammering out with alternate strokes and mutual agreement … the ship of the line is his first work. In it he has put as much of his human patience, common sense, forethought, experimental philosophy, self-control, habits of order and obedience, thoroughly wrought handiwork, defiance of brute elements, careless courage, careful patriotism, and calm expectation of the judgment of God as can be put into a space 300 feet long by 80 broad. And I am grateful to have lived in an age when I could see the thing done.” (Millions for Defense, p.2)

So, if one were to go “back in the day” as academics have encouraged us to do, to understand the historical context of the intent of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the language of the Second Amendment, one rediscovers what has been omitted in the debate of “militias’ and ‘citizens’ and ‘defense’- the prevailing spirit of independence from tyranny, the higher calling for citizens to be self-governed, and to take active responsibility for their homes and local communities – the robust affirmation of personal initiative and wariness of governments with too much power. “With the memory of British troops so fresh in mind … a good part of the nation regarded militarism as the close cousin of despotism” inclined to “ regard navies as the playthings of kings and tyrants.” The administration’s only tangible proposal had been to “organize American seaman into a kind of naval militia.” (Toll, p. 40, 44). The society of the day had more than a dim view of allowing a centralized government too much power, it abhorred it. “There was no bipartisan political support for a Navy … yet the mercantile towns had the audacity to build warships to take on the French navy, which, before Admiral Nelson trounced them at the Nile, seemed as powerful or as ominous as the British navy itself. These American merchants were not faint of heart.” (Leiner, p 26).

“When Noah Webster wrote that the subscription ships would be ‘managed with the energy of hardy FREEMEN, who know the motives of their duty and who possess a spirit unaccustomed to being cowed or conquered’… he was trying to strike a chord with men who had shared the rhetoric and memories of the Revolution. Many had fought in line regiments or in privateers and shared the prevailing mythos of the militia defending the hearth and homestead. The young men of 1776 and 1777 were in 1798, the civic and mercantile leaders of the United States. In the Revolution, they came to their country’s defense with their local officers, without a central government that could feed or support them. Twenty years later, these men would not be slow to loan their money, even without central direction. They were not passive citizens in a large, established world power; they were active participants in a new, small republic that they had helped create.” (Leiner, p. 180)

Therefore, the concepts of self-defense and the role of the citizen and militias which informed the reasoning in the day for the Second Amendment right to bear arms were established in the experience and study of tyranny, out of a complex and vibrant urban, national and internationally active and sophisticated society with the experience of war, and confrontation with a world of tyrants just across the horizon, not just by any apparently obsolete practical needs of a random collection of hypothetical homesteading colonialists.

A Sampling of Privateers: Rattlesnake, Catch me if You Can, True Blooded, Scourge.
The Subscription ships: the Merrimack, the Boston, the Philadelphia, the New York, the Richmond, the Essex, the John Adams, the Maryland, the Patapsco

Resources: Six Frigates, The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, Ian W. Toll, WW Norton & Co, New York, 2006; The Crescent Obscured, The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815, Robert J. Allison, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995; Millions for Defense, The Subscription Warships of 1798, Frederick C. Lerner, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2000; Patriot Pirates, The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution, Robert H. Patton, Pantheon Books, New York, 2008.


  1. Veritas Vincit says

    They didn’t trust government but recognized that some limited government was a necessary evil.

    They wished the citizenry to be armed should government become a burden that wouldn’t go away.

    Bottom line? Armed we are citizens, unarmed we are subjects. Think about it that way.

  2. This has more to do with the Congressional power to issue letters of marque and reprisal than it has to do with the second amendment.

  3. It’s interesting that today politicians scurry and flutter about with the Constitutionality of “assault” weapons, rifles and handguns in the hands of the private citizens when 200 years ago private citizens owned 20 cannon warships, the powder, crews, ball, muskets, cutlasses and tomahawks to go with them.

    The “historical context” of the prevailing attitude of self-defense and citizen militias of that period goes much beyond Letters of Marque and reprisal, and lightyears past the usual offered up example of the needs of the “rural homesteader,” used expressly to argue that the right to bear arms is no longer valid, that the Second Amendment was only influenced by colonial homesteading wilderness needs, not by anything else. .
    None of this is taught, mentioned, alluded to, hinted at in American education – for at least 40 years – a big blank in American history. Omitted.
    An inconvenient truth.

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