Arts and Culture

White Supremacy and the 2nd Amendment

By Michael Drohan

Review of book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, City Lights Books, 2018.

This wonderful peoples’ history by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz follows her earlier book entitled An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. As with all peoples’ history books it provides an alternative to the conventional narrative of the origins of the US; one of a culture of violence and fetishization of guns.

Her narrative of the history of the 2nd Amendment begins with a brief account of the French and Indian War from 1754-63, which was the extension of the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France in Europe. The war had been preceded by settler invasions across the Allegheny Mountains, with the violent seizure of the lands of the Miami, Kickapoo, and Ottawa Nations, and the confederations associated with Chief Pontiac. At the end of the French and Indian War with the Treaty of Paris, 1763, George III issued a proclamation prohibiting British settlement west of the Allegheny Mountain chain and ordered those who had settled there to relinquish their claims and return to the 13 colonies. In order to pay for the enforcement of the Proclamation with military force, the British Parliament imposed a tax in 1765 on the colonists named the Stamp Act. The settlers [saw this as] the tyranny of taxation without representation and there ensued the war for independence from Britain. So much for the narrative of a noble struggle for freedom from tyranny.

In a very real sense, then, the road to independence of the 13 colonies was in great part a war to have the right to invade and take possession of the land of the indigenous Indian peoples. Guns, as Dunbar-Ortiz points out, were the indispensable means for this process of dispossession and genocide of the native peoples. The early settlers went armed into the fields, forming a kind of militia, and with the warning of a sentinel they fought off attacks of native people who opposed the robbery of their lands. All male settlers not only had the right to bear arms but were required to do so and so begins the long history of the 2nd Amendment. The gun was and remains the symbol of the conquest over the native Indian peoples.

With the introduction of slavery into the colonies, the settlers and planners faced another problem, which was the attempts by slaves to escape bondage and flee from slavery. Originally, the task of controlling enslaved Africans belonged to the overseers and slavers but eventually it was extended to all settlers and made a public responsibility. Any enslaved person outside the control of the slaver or overseer was required to carry a pass and the system was enforced by slave patrols. The gun was central to the slave patrol system, especially when the search for escaped slaves became rampant. Many laws were introduced in the colonies requiring militias to create slave patrols and imposing stiff fines on white people who refused to serve. These slave patrols later morphed into police forces as the militia system was universalized.

On the face of it, the 2nd Amendment would appear to be speaking of a “well regulated militia” and not about an individual right to bear arms. In fact, it was not an issue for much of US history. With the growth of right wing movements, however, beginning in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, the 2nd Amendment became an individual right question. The birth of the John Birch Society in 1958 by a scion of the Welsh candy family is a historical marker in this development. The threats to white supremacy that the civil rights and peace movements posed would seem to be the underlying foundation of the movement. The apogee of the movement was reached only in 2008 with the high court decision District of Columbia v Heller. The majority decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, found the 2nd Amendment to be an individual constitutional right.

Gun regulation activists for the most part identify the National Rifle Association (NRA) as the monster to conquer. Dunbar-Ortiz, however, disagrees. She points out that for most of its history, the NRA was not averse to gun regulations. It is only with the rise of white supremacist movements that the NRA became an avid opponent of any and every form of gun regulation. The problem is deeper than the NRA and has to be understood as the contemporary expression of conquest and white supremacy.

Dunbar-Ortiz’ book explores every nook and cranny of the fetish of guns in US society today and helps one to understand it in the historical context of genocide of native peoples, the enslavement of millions of African people and the ravaging of many countries around the globe in the quest for resources and markets. It is a must read.

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and the Board of the Merton Center.

1 reply »

  1. There are probable errors of fact and questionable interpretations here which may be the fault of the author more than the reviewer. These have the effect of both taking away from the agency of indigenous people and minimizing European imperialism.

    The French and Indian War was not an “extension” of the Seven Years’ War as much as a prelude and additional dimension. The North American hostilities began in 1754 and became one of the factors that made a wider war almost inevitable in 1756. The Seven Years’ War was the result of intense competition between Britain and France, not only in North America but also in South Asia and in Africa. The commercial/colonial rivalries also joined alliances in a European power struggle.

    The war was not “preceded by settler invasions across the Allegheny Mountains.” There was very little European settlement west of the mountains before the war, for the obvious reason that the Ohio Valley was dominated by France in alliance with indigenous peoples. In Pennsylvania, at least, war threatened destruction of settlers and settlements between the Alleghenies and the Susquehanna River. Some families fled east of the Susquehanna in hopes of safety.

    The French and Indian War effectively ended in 1760 (prior to the formal end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763), and that’s when settlers who were British citizens became moving west. For indigenous peoples the outcome of the war was a disaster. Some native nations had quite effectively played one European power off against another. Now Britain was the only European power left operating in much of North American, and this created the possibility for an influx of settlers. In this context, a new alliance of nations associated with Pontiac struck, hard and effectively against British frontier outposts.

    It is at best naïve, and at worst, dishonest, to suggest that the Stamp Act and the host of other new taxes and duties were imposed “to pay for the enforcement of the Proclamation [of 1765 limiting westward settlement].” Britain had fought a long, costly, imperial war and had incurred serious indebtedness—by 1763 the national debt had almost doubled (£75 million→£133 million, 1754-1763). At the same time, Britain faced new, additional costs associated with maintaining the British empire’s military might around the world. Discouraging settlers from crossing the line drawn arbitrarily down the spine of the Appalachians may have been the least of the British government’s worries.

    “So much for the narrative of a noble struggle for freedom from tyranny.” I take the reviewer’s point. But this disparagement of the nation’s revolutionary antecedents is less than accurate and not helpful. It’s almost like concluding that organizing a union isn’t worth it, because working women and men turn out not to be always inspiring and noble. Or that other national liberation struggles might be belittled because self-seeking gombeen men, or bigots or misogynists number among the nationalists.

    More significantly, the juxtaposed images, of native people fighting to recover stolen lands and armed settlers who fought off attacks of native peoples, are caricatures that obscure more complex issues arising from imperialism and the expanding reach of European (and developing American) capitalism. Missing is the fundamental reality of very different conceptions of land and land ownership. Missing, too, is the way in which powerful nations like the Iroquois sold out smaller indigenous peoples in their negotiations with European powers. So in southwestern Pennsylvania, for example, there were not significant numbers of long-settled indigenous people as settlers arrived in the 1750s—in some locales, arriving into lands which the Iroquois had blithely turned over to the British, over the heads of peoples with an actual interest. Rightly or wrongly, settlers created farms—which they then had to defend from raiders, often armed and encouraged from afar, who had never lived on the lands which we are told had been stolen from them. “Robbery of their lands” in a generic sense, yes of course. Looking more closely on the local and personal level, greater tragedy becomes apparent which is not neatly summarized in the stick figures populating this account.

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