Few American presidents loved guns more than Andrew Jackson. By the time he entered the White House, Jackson had been in over 100 duels and believed fervently that an armed citizenry was freedom’s best defense. “A million of armed freemen,” declared Jackson during his first inaugural address, “can never be conquered by a foreign foe.”
But Jackson also believed in gun control.
On January 27, 1818, Jackson wrote to Secretary of War John Calhoun, apprising him of a force that he had assembled to deal with Seminole attacks on white settlements in South Georgia. “Volunteers were flocking” to join him, he proclaimed, boasting that “two full regiments” would be mustered by February 1. However, Jackson confronted a surprising problem. “The only difficulty,” complained Jackson to Calhoun, “has been the want of arms.” Though many of the volunteers had fought with Jackson before – both during The War of 1812 and The Creek War – they had lost their guns. “The arms which had been distributed to the militia for their services the last war,” complained Jackson, “have already disappeared.”
Where did they go?
Though guns were useful tools, not all Americans needed them. This was true even on the southern frontier, where Jackson had led a citizens’ militia against the British and their Creek allies from 1812 to 1815. That militia was made up largely of small farmers, many of whom had no particular use for weapons. “Many of them have been injured by neglect,” lamented Jackson, referring to the guns that the federal government had given his men. Others had been sold. “[T]he greater portion” of firearms, continued Jackson, “have been sacrificed for a mere pittance, and carried from the state; possibly now in the hands of those very savages, who have been excited to war against us.”
This was terrifying.
Rather than keep their arms in good condition, Jackson’s men had either let their guns rust or sold them for cash. Said guns had then fallen into the wrong hands, namely Native Americans hostile to the United States. Among these, of course, were the Seminoles, who Jackson now planned to meet on the field of battle.
Worried, Jackson called into question the idea that weapons should simply be distributed to private citizens. “This fact,” he complained to Calhoun, “will prove the impolicy of relying in time of necessity upon such a distribution of arms.” Better, argued Jackson, to store weapons in arsenals. “The only certain dependance,” he proclaimed, “is upon well stored arsenals, judiciously located, from whence arms may be withdrawn in time of War, & on the return of peace be restored & repaired for future occasions.” Jackson went on to call for the placement of armories, foundries, and gunsmiths along the southern frontier, underscoring the point that he did not trust average Americans to keep and bear their own arms.
This is remarkable, and perhaps worth recalling today as we debate the origins of the right to bear arms. Historians like Saul Cornell and Jack Rakove have long argued that the Framers wrote the Second Amendment to preserve state militias from encroachment by the federal government, and not to consecrate an individual right to bear arms by which anyone could walk into a big box store and purchase a rifle.
Jackson’s letter to Calhoun suggests that the historians are right.
One of the most violent men to occupy the White House, Andrew Jackson came to conclude that guns were not needed to fight the state, but rather that the state was needed to maintain and store arms. Further, the distribution of arms to the public posed a threat to public safety, as those guns could easily fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, the best policy was to store military grade weapons in arsenals, much like we do today with the National Guard.
Andrew Jackson liked guns, but he also believed in gun control.