A friend of mine recently circulated on Facebook a picture of George Washington with the following quotation:
“A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”
Like many recent discussions concerning the second amendment, this quotation immediately brings up the specter of a tyrannical government as a rational for unfettered gun ownership, leaps immediately to the idea that we need high powered assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns in order to overthrow an evil government.
My first response, however, was not to wonder about what I might need in order to fight off the invading army of a tyrannical king, but to wonder if our revered and ennobled Founding Father might have allowed any of the three hundred slaves he owned to say such things. Would he have encouraged the men and women he owned as property to arm themselves with guns and ammunition to protect (or to demand) their freedom and to protect themselves from their abuser?
Though George Washington was one of only seven Founding Fathers to liberate his slaves (something he did not do during his lifetime but only after his death and after the death of his wife, Martha) and though he may have during his lifetime written and spoken privately to friends in support of a gradual abolition of slavery, his public words and actions were consistently in defense of slavery and in support of slave owners. Whether he was internally conflicted about the morality of slave ownership, concerned about the fiscal consequences of freeing his slaves, or worried about the effect abolition would have on the fledgling country, Washington kept his personal misgivings separate from his public presidency.
In 1793, President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act which gave slave owners the right to capture fugitive slaves in any U.S. State, even in any those "safe harbors" or slave sanctuaries.
In the years 1793-1794 President Washington authorized $400,000 and 1,000 weapons to be given to the slave owners of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) as emergency relief in order to put down a slave rebellion. (see Alfred Hunt, Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America, p. 31). Were these weapons to be used to protect and defend personal freedom? Hardly.
Would President George Washington have wanted free black men armed and supplied so they could protect and defend their freedom? Would he have encouraged them to have weapons and ammunition in order to protect themselves from those who would abuse them? Even from their masters and owners?
But, it turns out, my ponderings on this issue were unnecessary; the quote is bogus. It's like Jesus of Nazareth said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internets.”
What President Washington actually said in his first annual message to Congress on Friday January 8, 1790 was this: “"A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies."
So, he didn't say what some are saying he said. But would he have said it? Would he have meant it? I can imagine that he might have something like this bogus quote, but he wouldn't have meant it, not for everyone.