September 28, 2023
Right to Arms in American Colonies Predated Bill of Rights iStock-860178958
Right to Arms in American Colonies Predated Bill of Rights, iStock-860178958

U.S.A. — New evidence has surfaced which indicates Englishmen in the American colonies had the right to keep and bear arms before the right was codified in England. In 1606, King James I granted perpetual rights to arms for the Virginia colonies, which covered what would become the southern colonies during the 1600s. From The History of Bans on Types of Arms Before 1900, by David Kopel and Joseph Greenlee, Law review article, 165 pages, 2021.

 In the early history section of the article, one startling fact revealed was the Royal Charter of King James  I, in 1606, granted to members of the Virginia Charter, perpetual rights to:

bring “sufficient Shipping, and Furniture of Armour, Weapons, Ordinance, Powder, Victual, and other things necessary for the said Plantations and for their Use and Defence there.”

The rights were granted to all settlers of the Virginia colony.

The Charter of New England colonies were granted the same rights. The two charters covered all of what would become the original 13 colonies except for the middle region which contained New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Jersey. Those colonies were originally part of New Netherland, and were conquered by England in 1664.

The English Bill of Rights was enacted by Parliament in 1689, just over a hundred years before the American Bill of Rights was ratified as part of the American Constitution. Scholars have focused on the American Bill of Rights as deriving from the English Bill of Rights, which was codified by the act of parliament in 1689. The King had granted perpetual rights to Englishmen in what would become the Southern and, later, New England colonies. The right to arms was stronger in the American colonies than in England, partly because arms were such a necessity of life while facing hostile tribes. Hunting for food was embraced in the colonies but severely restricted in England, where game animals were considered the property of the landed class and the King. The roots of the right to arms in America should properly be traced back to the Virginia Charter, establishing a 185-year history instead of a mere 100-year history from the Bill of Rights enacted by the English Parliament.

The necessity of arms was strongly punctuated by the massacre of colonists by Indians in 1622. Despite the “perpetual” nature of the charter, the 1606 charter was revoked in 1624. The Virginia colony was placed under the direct control of the Crown. This was a strong reminder that monarchical power was not to be trusted.

The English and Dutch colonists were quick to adapt firearms technology which improved the utility of arms on the American scene. From Arms and Armor of the Pilgrims, 1620-1692, by Harold L. Peterson, page 18:

For the first ten years the supremacy of the matchlock was probably not seriously threatened. From 1630 until the outbreak of King Philip’s War in 1675, however, the change is plainly visible. There are more references to matches than to flints in inventories and court records until the beginning of the Pequot War, but the tales of snap-shooting [Pg 18] increase, and during the war the stories of ambushes and surprise attacks throughout New England indicate that flint arms were becoming more plentiful. In 1643 the Plymouth General Court ordered that every soldier should be supplied with either a matchlock or a “snaphance.” By 1645 Governor William Bradford could report that the Plymouth troops had been sent to a muster at Seacunk “well armed all with snaphance peeces.” In 1645, also, while matchlocks were allowed for private arms, the Plymouth General Court allowed only “snaphances” or “firelocks” for Town arms.

With the coming of King Philip’s War, the era of the matchlock at Plymouth was definitely past. The campaigns of that war, forays into the wilderness, night attacks, ambushes, battles in the rain, and encounters between individuals which required snap-shooting indicate clearly that the “snaphance” was the principal weapon. In 1677, towards the end of the war, the Plymouth General Court outlawed the matchlock completely as an acceptable weapon. In abandoning matchlocks at this time, Plymouth was years ahead of Europe where the clumsy firearm persisted until after 1700.

By the time of ratification of the American Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment in 1791, the American colonists had 185 years of experience in the necessity and utility of the right to arms. The experience of the Revolutionary War, where the British repeatedly attempted to disarm the American colonists, was probably the strongest example. It was fresh in the memory of the successful American revolutionaries (the founding fathers). The 170 years of previous experience had served to cement the right as long established before the war.

In addition, the doctrine of the natural rights of man had come to dominate the thought of the founding fathers, which re-enforced the moral certitude of the right to arms.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

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