After a decade of debunking pseudo-historian David Barton’s claims about American history, it’s pretty hard for anything that comes out of his pie hole to surprise me, but even I was taken aback by the utter preposterousness of one of his latest claims — that gun accidents just didn’t happen in the founding era!
Explaining on the January 14 episode of his WallBuilders LIVE! radio show why some people just don’t understand that you need good guys with guns to stop bad guys with guns, Barton said:
“That’s what these guys do not see and do not look at. They’re just flat scared of guns. And the solution to that is exactly what the founding fathers said and that is you start teaching kids to use guns when they’re very young because gun accidents are caused by non-familiarity with guns. Once you’re familiar with them, you don’t have accidents with them.”
He then made the incredible claim that gun accidents just didn’t happen in the founding era, saying:
“I have searched and in the founding era I think I’ve only ever found two gun accidents, and everybody was hauling guns back then. You took your guns to church — you were required by state law in some states to take your guns to church. We didn’t have accidents because everyone was familiar with how to use them. It’s not being familiar that makes it dangerous.”
The next day on Glenn Beck’s web-based TV show, Barton made the same claim, after first explaining that the reason people were so familiar with guns back then was that everyone was taught how to use them as part of their education.
BECK: “So, everybody grew up with a gun. And they taught you how to use a gun. It was part of school.”
BARTON: “That’s right”
Barton then proceeded to pull out a few letters from the founders to prove that using guns was a usual part of education back in the founding era. He first quoted a few lines from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his fifteen-year-old nephew in which Jefferson told his nephew to take a two hour break from his studies every day to exercise. The exercise that Jefferson recommended was long walks, and he told his nephew to take his gun with him on his walks. This letter is neither here nor there. It says nothing about teaching the use of guns being part of school. All it says is that Jefferson thought that walking and shooting were good ways to exercise and “relax the mind,” and recommended them to his nephew over “games played with the ball, and others of that nature,” which he warned were “too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind.”(1)
Barton, who is certainly familiar with the rules set down by Jefferson when founding the University of Virginia, (since he cherry picked quotes from these rules when concocting his lie about Jefferson establishing theological schools at the university), seems to have forgotten that Jefferson didn’t even allow students to keep guns at the university, let alone making them a part of their education. The university rules, written in 1824, stated:
“No student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder, keep a servant, horse or dog, appear in school with a stick, or any weapon …”(2)
But it’s the second letter that Barton read (or paraphrased) on Beck’s show that he and Beck flat out lie about. This letter was from John Quincy Adams to his brother Thomas. Adams had left his two oldest sons, George and John, in Massachusetts with an elderly aunt and uncle while serving as foreign minister to Russia, and was becoming concerned about George, whom he was hearing from family members was becoming effeminate, lazy, and a discipline problem. George was getting his academic education in school, but Adams wanted his brother, who also had a son, to step in and take charge of George’s extra-curricular activities.
As we’ll see in a minute, Barton not only lies about the John Quincy Adams letter that he uses, but even the part of the letter that he selectively quotes actually contradicts his claim that there were no gun accidents in the founding era. But first, watch, or read, what Barton said about this letter:
BARTON: “Now, here’s John Quincy Adams. He’s overseas, sent there by President James Madison, and he’s got three kids being raised by his brother Thomas. They’re nine, and they’re six, and they’re three.
“‘This is what he writes back. He says, ‘One of the things which I wish to have them taught as soon as possible which no man can teach them better than you is the management of firearms. The accidents which happen among children arise more frequently from their ignorance rather than their misuse of weapons which they know to be dangerous.’ He says, ‘I want you to take George — the nine-year-old — out with you in your shooting excursions, teach him to use the musket. I want you to teach him the construction of the musket, the necessity of prudence of handling the musket, and I want him also to learn the use of pistols, and exercise him at firing at marks.’
“Now, that’s a typical education for a nine-year-old at that time.”
BECK: “And that’s not for hunting.”
BARTON: “That’s not for hunting.”
BECK: “That’s for protection.”
BARTON: “That’s for protection.”
Now, here’s the un-Bartonized excerpt from the letter, with the parts carefully omitted by Barton in bold:
“One of the things which I wish to have them taught, and which no man can teach them better than you, is the use and management of firearms. This must undoubtedly be done with great caution, but it is customary among us, particularly when children are under the direction of ladies, to withhold it too much and too long from boys. The accidents which happen among children arose more frequently from their ignorance, than from their misuse of weapons which they know to be dangerous. As you are a sportsman, I beg you occasionally from this time to take George out with you in your shooting excursions, teach him gradually the use of the musket, its construction, and the necessity of prudence in handling it; let him also learn the use of pistols, and exercise him at firing at a mark.
“In general let him have as much relaxation and sport as becomes his age, but let him be encouraged In nothing delicate or effeminate.”(3)
See how Barton chopped out the line where Adams said that his brother was a “sportsman” so that he and Beck could do their little “That’s not for hunting. That’s for protection” shtick? And firing at marks was also a popular pastime among gentlemen of the era, who typically referred to it as an “amusement” or a “diversion.” Note also that Barton omitted the sentence where Adams said that his reason for wanting his brother to teach his son to use guns was that it was “customary” to “withhold it too much and too long.” Kind of contradicts his and Beck’s claim that “everybody grew up with a gun. And they taught you how to use a gun. It was part of school,” doesn’t it?
But, the biggest contradiction is this: Barton quoted Adams as saying, “The accidents which happen among children arise more frequently from their ignorance rather than their misuse of weapons.” But Barton is claiming that there were no gun accidents at the time. Why on earth would Adams be talking about what frequently caused gun accidents if, as Barton claims, there were no gun accidents?
Not to digress too much, but I can’t help but mention something else here about the way Barton portrays John Quincy Adams and his son George. In addition to the letter about learning to use guns, Barton loves to bring up the letters that Adams wrote to George instructing him on how to read and study the Bible. But what Barton never mentions is how George turned out. What was the result of the strict regimen of Bible study and manly-man activities that Adams imposed upon his son? Well, George took to drinking and gambling, knocked up a servant girl at the home of a family friend, and eventually committed suicide at the age of twenty-eight. Barton never gets to that part of the story.
Now, back to what Barton said on Beck’s show.
After reading from the letters of Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Barton told his tale about a classroom full of gun-toting elementary school children in the 1850s saving their teacher’s life by whipping out their guns to stop a gunman who came to their school — a story that appears to have come not from an actual historical event, but from the Louis L’Amour novel Bendigo Shafter, as I wrote last week in my post “Is David Barton Now Getting His ‘History’ From Louis L’Amour Novels?” (An update on that post: Barton never answered my email requesting a source for his story.)
At the end of “Bendigo” Barton’s gun-toting students story, he makes his ‘no gun accidents’ claim again:
BECK: “Kids did not shoot each other.”
BARTON: “Oh no. No, no, no. Again, two accidents I have seen in two hundred years of everybody having guns. It just didn’t happen.”
Barton claimed on his radio show to have “searched” and only found two gun accidents in the founding era, but his claim became even more incredible on Beck’s show. Now it’s two gun accidents in two hundred years!
I really have to wonder just where the eminent historian Barton actually “searched” to only find two gun accidents in two hundred years when I was easily able to find countless reports of gun accidents in just a few minutes with nothing more than a quick search of Newsbank’s historical newspapers archive. All it took was simply searching on a few combinations of words that you’d expect to find together in articles about gun accidents.
I found a plethora of articles about hunting accidents and other accidental shootings among adults, but what I primarily want to focus here on the accidents involving children, since Barton’s claim is that all children were taught to use guns and that is why there were no gun accidents.
This is a just small sampling of the articles I found, many of which, as you’ll see, sound just like the articles you see today — most of them ending with warnings to parents about leaving guns around children or letting children play with guns, and many of them noting that gun accidents were a very frequent occurrence:
From the Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, December 16, 1783:
“We hear from Weymouth, that last week the following melancholy accident happened there: As a number of young men were out a hunting, a musket accidentally went off, by the discharge of which, one person was considerably wounded, and another by the name of Lovell, instantly killed: In which event, a promising youth of about 17, was torn from the enjoyment of his parents and friends, who pungently feel the loss.”
From the Vermont Gazette, Bennington, Vermont, September 3, 1787:
“Monday last a daughter of Mr. Ichabod Allen of this town, aged eleven years, was instantly killed with a pistol, by her brother, who is about six years old. The particulars of the unhappy catastrophe, as related by the distressed family, (the parents being absent when the accident happened) are, That the pistol had been loaded, extremely heavy a few evenings before, by a young man of the family, with intent to shoot an owl; that he laid the pistol upon a shelf near the chamber floor, but the little boy finding where the pistol was laid, and having been frequently indulged in snapping and playing with it, found means by setting a chair against the wall and climbing upon the back of it, to get the pistol down, unknown to the family, and went out to play with it as usual. At the time the girl was killed she was sitting in a sleigh box before the door, holding an infant in her arms; the whole charge of the pistol lodged in her body just above the left breast, which put an immediate period to her existence. It is supposed the boy must have been very near her, when the pistol went off, as there was nearly forty shot holes in a space but little bigger than the circumference of a dollar.
“A solemn warning this to all parents and guardians of children not to teach them to use, or even so much as to suffer them to play with such weapons before they arrive to years of discretion.”
From the Massachusetts Spy, Worcester, Massachusetts, October 1, 1789:
“At Capeelizabeth, on Saturday the 5th inst., James Mayo, a child of two years old, was shot through the head by his brother, a boy about 12, who was playing with a loaded musket — The jury were of the opinion that the child’s death was accidental.”
From the Herald of Freedom, Boston, February 2, 1790:
“We learn from Shaftsbury, in Vermont, that a number of small boys were lately hunting there when one of them, named Ebenezer Bottom, was pushing a wad into his gun with his finger at the same time that another boy was priming it, the gun discharged, by which accident Bottom was badly wounded in the hand, and John Welsh, son of Mr. Ebenezer Welsh, of Norwich, was shot in the body and died in a few days after. — This affords a melancholly caution to parents not to trust their children with guns till they have discretion to know how to use them.”
From the Litchfield Monitor, Litchfield, Connecticut, August 17, 1791:
“PORTSMOUTH, July 27.
“Saturday last, the following melancholy accident happened in the parish of North-Hampton. — A son of Mr. John Page, about 12 years of age, went into the house of a negro family, in his father’s neighbourhood, (the negro man and his wife were absent, and had left three or four children at home, the eldest about 7 years old) and observing a loaded gun in the corner of the room, he immediately took it into his hands, cocked it, and drew it by the muzzle to the door, when by some accident it went off, and discharged its contents of powder, shot, and wadding into his breast and out at his back, which put an immediate period to his existence.
“We hope the above will serve as a caution to parents how they leave implements of destruction in the way of their children.”
From the Weekly Register, Norwich, Connecticut, March 13, 1792:
“The following accident happened in this city last Saturday — A loaded musket being left standing in the corner of a room in the house of Mr. Charles Jeffry, jun. a neighouring boy came in and took the musket to the door, where he discharged it; a girl of Mr. Jeffry’s about seven years old, at the same instant coming in the door, the charge went through her arm, which took it off.”
From the Litchfield Monitor, Litchfield, Connecticut, May 1, 1793:
“Winchester, April 10, 1793:
“On Tuesday the 9th inst. William Case, aged 18, son of Mr. William R. Case, of this town, died of a wound received in his right arm by the accidental discharge of a musket. The Wednesday preceding his death, the deceased, in company with a young man of the neighbourhood, went in pursuit of ducks: On their way to the pond, the unfortunate, being forward of his companion, whose gun unhappily went off, the contents was lodged as above; and notwithstanding every means and effort of the faculty and his friends, he died a few days after the accident. He was a promising youth, much endeared and lamented by his parents, and all his acquaintance. — It is hoped that this accident, among others, will be a lesson of caution to those who either for sport or exercise make use of fire arms.”
From the Rising Sun, Keene, New Hampshire, October 6, 1795:
“Last week, at Chesterfield, a young man by the name of Johnson, about 16 years of age, was handling a loaded musket, it accidentally went off and discharged the contents into his throat, which killed him instantly.”
From the Philadelphia Gazette, September 12, 1795:
“A FATAL ACCIDENT.
“On Tuesday last, a daughter of Mr. Thomas Davis, formerly of this place, was at a Mr. Strutton of Amherst, near Buffaloe river, and no person being present but children, a little son of Mr. Strutton, took up a loaded rifle, and while handling the piece, unfortunately discharged the ball through the head of Mr. Davis’ daughter, at which instant she fell, and lay a considerable time before any grown person arrived. — A lesson to the incautious heads of families.”
From the Rural Repository, Leominster, Massachusetts, June 2, 1796:
“ACCIDENT. — In Hopkinton, last week a boy, about 14 years old, was shot by accident, as follows: another boy who was with him, not knowing the gun to be loaded, pointed at his side, and snapping it, the gun being charged, its contents entered one side — medical assistance was called; but, alas! too late — Death had seized him.”
From the New-Hampshire Gazette, Portsmouth New Hampshire, May 15, 1798:
“A very unfortunate accident happened in Orford on the 13th of April last. A son of Mr. Platt’s and a son of Mr. Hogan’s, were accustomed to play with an unloaded musket; it being loaded, unknown to the boys, when the parents were gone out, they took the gun as usual, it went off, and the contents went through the head of the latter, which put an instant period to his existence. — This is a warning to all who own muskets, to keep them secure from children when loaded.”
From Greenleaf’s New York Journal, New York City, June 10, 1796:
“Last Sunday se’nnight as two lads were playing with a gun, which was very imprudently laft in their way, loaded, at a house in Chatham street, the contents discharged into the bowels of the youngest (about 6 years old) and he expired in a few hours. How many fatal accidents proceed from carelessness.”
From the Independent Chronicle, Boston, May 17, 1798:
“On Saturday last at Malden, the following unfortunate event took place: — As Mr. John Hancock, was sitting in a chair after dinner, sportively instructing a young man, who had taken up a gun, which had been charged the day before, in the manual exercise; when Mr. H. directed him to take aim and fir, he received the contents into his head, which instantaneously put an end to his existence, Æt. 37. Let this be a warning to all young people, how they sport with arms, and heedlessly trifle with instruments of death.”
From the Farmer’s Cabinet, Amherst, New Hampshire, January 3, 1804:
“On Sunday, the 18th inst. Abigail Underwood, a deserving woman, æt. 24, was killed by a discharge of a musket loaded with shot, at the house of Messrs. Wiswall and Moore, paper makers, in Waltham. — A youth came into the room where she was cutting the hair of an acquaintance, took up a gun, and snapped it twice, when it went off, and carried one half of her head with it. — The verdict of the jury — Accidental death. It is much to be lamented that the frequent repetition of similar disasters to the above, does not prevent persons suffering loaded guns to be in dwelling houses.”
From the Albany Gazette, Albany, NY, September 17, 1804:
“Melancholy Accident. — On Friday last, Henry Selden, aged 13 years, son of Mr. Joseph D. Selden, of this village, left home for the purpose of hunting pigeons. Not returning in the evening, his parents were much alarmed; but flattered themselves that he had fallen in company with a young man who was also absent, and that they had tarried the night, that they might be on the ground for hunting in the morning. The latter, however, returned at about noon on Saturday, without having seen the former. The people then collected and commenced a search for him. — The had not proceeded far, before he was discovered on the side of a ledge of rocks about half a mile east of the village, and lifeless. From the situation in which he was found, it is presumed that he had discovered some game at the top of the ledge, which is so steep as to be almost inaccessible, and was endeavoring to approach near enough to make a shot. To facilitate his ascent, he had left his shoes a little distance below. His gun was standing several feet above where he was lying, and in an erect position against the side of the ledge; which renders it possible that he first climbed up the rock, and while in the act of drawing his gun after him it went off. The contents entered the side of his head, and must have put an immediate period to his existence.
“Thus has been cut off, in the morning of his days, by one of those accidents to which we are every day liable, a promising youth, the eldest hope of his fond parents! And thus are their expectations blasted in a moment! — Scarce a week passes without bringing us accounts of lives being lost through the careless use of fire-arms. We wish the publication of them might produce the proper effect. But although we have little expectation, still we indulge a hope, that this melancholy event will operate as a warning to parents and others; that it will be productive of caution, and in some measure prevent the occurrence of similar accidents.”
From the Weekly Visiter, Kennebunk, Maine, January 6, 1810:
“On Monday the 23rd of October last. Mr. Ira Sweet, being in the house of George Tuttle, of Winchester, who was he neighbor and intimate friend, took a musket in to his hand, which was in the room, and having sat down in a chair, laid the musket across his knees, he then opened the pan, as he says, and seeing no powder therein, imprudently cocked and snapped the piece, which discharged its contents (being loaded with common shot) through the neck and lower part of the head of a sprightly little boy, three years and five months old, the son of Mr. Tuttle, and who sat within a few feet of the muzzle — An instant period was put to his life.
“On the recital of such shocking occurrences, it is the duty of all people to consider the consequences of the common heedless use of fire arms. View the scene which took place in the above case, and similar the too frequent cases of like nature — There were several persons in the house; the mother in an adjoining room, hearing the tremendous roar of a gun in the midst of her family, succeeded by shrieks of those present, exclaimed, “somebody is killed, who is it?” She was answered in a frantic tone, “It is your son.” She was met in a cloud of smoke by the agent, with the lifeless boy in his arms; his head hanging down with large streams of blood pouring therefrom. The parental agonies in such cases, will admit of no description or consolation.
“The actor of this tragic scene, tho as free as any man from any evil design, cannot acquit himself from gross imprudence, and must feel agonies, perhaps equally keen with parental, tho’ of another kind, and which may not forsake him until his dying day. The relations, neighbors, and intimate connexions of the bereaved, must feel the most poignant grief, and the community at large must sympathize therein, and regret the loss on such occasions. And as fire arms, those instruments of death, are promiscuously in the hands of children, and men, of the imprudent, as well as the prudent, the intemperate as well as others; whoever, after such repeated warnings, presumes to use them in a heedless manner, so as to endanger or take the life of man, would do well to remember that they must be accountable to God the judge of all, and who will suitably punish such outrageous conduct.”
Gun accidents among adults were, of course, also frequent. Many were hunting accidents, but a surprising number were the result of grown men doing incredibly stupid things like this:
From the Weekly Oracle, New London, Connecticut, April 29, 1797:
“Philadelphia, April 15.
“On Friday, the 7th inst. a sea-faring man, who had bought an old pistol at Gonaives, arrived at his lodgings near Almond-street, and seeing a man snapping a musket at different persons in a jocular way, bethought himself of his pistol, which, taking from his chest, he primed, and affixed to it a new flint — when, melancholy to relate, after he had snapped at several persons, it went off, and took from society a worthy young man, about 19 years of age, of the name of David Harrington.
“It is to be hoped, this, with the many other instances of a like nature, may prevent the foolish custom of wantonly playing with those dangerous machines.”
There were also numerous accidents on militia training days. A good number of these accidents happened during actual training, but many more happened before and after the actual training, and were caused by militiamen playing with their guns and showing off. A frequent cause of these training day accidents was the practice of a group of militiamen going to an officer’s house to “give him a gun” or “give him a morning gun,” which meant showing up early in the morning to “salute” the officer by waking him up with loud gunfire.
From the Herald of Freedom, Boston, October 23, 1788:
“Portsmouth, (N.H.) October 18.
“We hear from Concord, that on Tuesday last, (it being parade day with one of the company’s there) several young men went to the house of one of their officers, to give him a gun, as it is termed. For this purpose, they loaded their pieces very heavy; one of them, a Mr. Scales, put in a very extravagant charge, and upon being cautioned that the gun would burst, he replied, I will venture it. Being arrived at the door, Scales discharged his piece, which immediately burst, the force of which whirled him round opposite to the muzzle of one of his companion’s piece, which being discharged in the confusion, the contents were lodged in his body, and wounded him in such a manner as to occasion his dissolution before the close of the day. May his fate serve as a warning to others, how they persevere in a practice which has often proved fatal to the lives of many.”
Yeah, Mr. Barton, I know you have your own personal library of over 100,000 old books and documents that you’re always bragging about, but maybe you might want to invest in a subscription to Newsbank’s old newspaper archive the next time you’re gonna “search” for something.
1. Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 5, (Washington D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 85.
2. Ibid., vol. 19, 447.
3. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, vol. 3, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914), 497.