jeffersonian bullshit on a baseball cap

Just a quick (at least I hope it’s quick) note. You can’t do any research into the gun rights movement without coming across this quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

It’s repeated often — on placards, on right wing political cartoons, on posters, on t-shirts, on baseball caps, on coffee mugs and mouse pads. And like so many of the things claimed by gun rights advocates, it’s inaccurate and misleading.

jefferson quote3

That first line is sometimes given the following scholarly attribution:

Thomas Jefferson Papers, pg 334 (C.J.Boyd, Ed., 1950)

It looks good, doesn’t it. But it just ain’t so. A scholar named Julian P. Boyd (not C.J. Boyd) did, in fact, edit the collected Jefferson papers — but the alleged quotation is a fraud. It doesn’t exist in Boyd’s Thomas Jefferson Papers.

In fact, it doesn’t exist anywhere except in the minds of gun rights advocates. There’s absolutely nothing to indicate Jefferson ever said or wrote that line. It’s not in any of his personal correspondence, not in any of his diaries, not in any of his speeches, not in any of his notes. Nor has that line ever been cited in any law journal by any Constitutional scholar.

Thomas Jefferson just flat out didn’t say it, no matter how many baseball caps claim he did.

Jefferson quote2However, Jefferson did write that second line. In fact, he wrote it three times. It was included in his various drafts of the proposed Constitution of Virginia.

“No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” (From the first draft)
“No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements]” (From the second draft)
“No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements].” (From the third draft)

Let me first point out that while the line was included in each of Jefferson’s three drafts, it wasn’t included in the final draft. The line was dropped in the version adopted by the Virginia Constitutional convention.

But also note the term freeman. It’s usually written as free man when presented by gun rights advocates, but the two terms aren’t synonymous. At the time Jefferson wrote those words, freeman had a specific meaning in law. A freeman was, first and foremost, literally a man. Women couldn’t be freemen. A freeman wasn’t just any man, but a man who was “free of all debt, owing nothing to anyone except God Himself.”

It’s necessary to understand that a lot of people arrived in the American colonies as indentured servants. It’s estimated that in the 18th and 19th centuries, about 80% of immigrants to the colonies were redemptioners. Indenture wasn’t considered a social stigma; it was simply a way for people to pay their way to the new world, also learn a skill or trade, and maybe earn a meager wage while they were at it. After their period of indenture was finished, redemptioners were free to go where they wanted and to use their training to fend for themselves.

But being free didn’t make them freemen. After a sort of probationary period–generally a year or two–a man could be considered a freeman only if he owned real property (such as land or a building) or if he had sufficient wealth for taxation. Only freeman were permitted to vote. In many communities, only freemen could become members of a church (common folk could attend, but not be members).

When Jefferson talked about freemen, he wasn’t talking about common folks. He was talking about the Colonial version of landed gentry. That’s why he considered including the provision that freemen could use arms within his own lands or tenements. (it’s also worth noting that ‘tenement’ also has a specific legal meaning — basically it refers to real property a person holds or controls for somebody else).

jefferson quoteWhat Jefferson was basically saying was that men who owned property shouldn’t be prohibited from using firearms on their own property or on the property they control for another person.

But that doesn’t look quite as catchy on a baseball cap.

2 thoughts on “jeffersonian bullshit on a baseball cap

  1. As I mentioned on Facebook at some point, even if people wanted/needed “to protect themselves against tyranny in government,” the idea that any common person would have a breath of a chance against even a small group of special forces soldiers (drone strikes notwithstanding) is a lame, futile argument.


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