The Gun and the Rise of Democracy – Part 1


When one reads gun blogs voraciously, one runs across two main types of arguments for our right to keep and bear arms (RKBA). The constitutional argument (the English comprehension model) and the self-defense argument. I have a broader theory, though. The idea hit me when I was watching General Van Uhm at TEDX. I began to think of a more salient correlation between weapons, personal freedom and democracy. The working theory: firearms are related to the rise of democracy, representing a basic subversion of the dominant political theory of government . . .

To examine the relationship between firearms and the subversion of tyranny, one must go back to the beginning. For democracy that means Athens. At the time when the political system arose, Athens was a gun-free zone. Socrates wasn’t leaning on his long rifle on the Promenade as he taught. But when nascent Democracy granted its citizens (a rather select group) voting rights, it required military service. Conscripts had to provide their own arms.

The average Athenian citizen owned his own sword, spear and armor. He was trained in their use during weekly drills in Phalanx fighting (as well as participation in the “manly” sports of wrestling and boxing). Given the geopolitical conditions on the Greek peninsula of the day, it’s highly likely citizens had plenty of actual combat experience as well.

Athens had a democratic political system. They also had democracy of violence—in that all citizens (once more, not the same thing as a modern citizen) had ready access to weapons and training. It becomes a chicken and egg question – which came first? I’d hazard the guess that the blades came before the ballot.

The fall of democracy, the rise of empires and the greatest inequality in political power ever seen followed with the Roman Empire, and on into the Dark and Middle Ages. Technology outpaced income. The average citizen of Rome, Germany and France could no more afford state-of-the-art weaponry than an average American can now afford a tank. Even for nobles, the cost of weapons and armor was years of income. They were totally beyond the reach of the common man.

Notice what emerges at roughly the same time as the rumblings of the Renaissance: two weapons, both cheap, which allowed a commoner equal footing with a knight. The crossbow and the longbow. The papacy and many kings tried to ban the crossbow, horrified that a peasant with a cheap weapon could kill a highly trained soldier. Richard the Lionheart, that famous conqueror, met his end at the point of a crossbow bolt from some low level grunt.

The only nations to embrace the new technology fully were the city-states of Italy. The Florentines, for example, made crossbow practice a national sport and fielded mercenary armies of crossbowmen who fought in wars across Europe. England was the other early adopter. The Brits mainstreamed the longbow, and met with great success against the French in the Hundred Years War.

The political process in both countries, the latter of which created the Magna Carta, reflects this democratization of violence. In short, an armed and trained populace demands more political freedoms.

The advent of the firearm hastened this process. The over-extension of colonial empires encouraged rebellion. The distances provided the space to learn self government, but the harshness of the new world and the necessity of personal defense weapons brought a new sort of populace.

The average American of the eighteenth century may not have been much more educated, healthy or wealthy than his British counterpart, but he knew his way around a musket. He’d drilled on the village green with his neighbors (sound familiar?). They were nothing like a trained military force, but they did have basic infantry skills and at least on a personal basis, their weapons were a match for any in the world.

Correlation is not causation. I don’t want to overstate the case here. Dozens of important factors led to the rise of modern democracy, including the advent of the printing press. But I do think that the availability of relatively cheap weapons—which are at least comparable to proper military arms—are part of the primordial stew that breeds a free political system. And, I like to think, maintains it.


  1. avatar Eric says:

    The rise of democracy???
    Modern democracy???
    What nation has that form of government???

    1. avatar Tarrou says:

      The colloquial “democracy” my friend, more technically known as representative republics.

      1. avatar Eric says:

        Colloquial my _ _ _!
        We have a constitutional republic not representative. A constitutional republic and a democracy are completely different.
        Look it up.

        1. avatar DaveL says:

          Different, yes, but not exclusive. The two are orthogonal concepts. Both Canada and the USA are democratic, but only one is a republic. Both the USA and China are constitutional republics, but only one is democratic.

  2. avatar ST says:

    It must be mentioned that we in America do not have a Democracy but a Republic,which is a different system to some level.

    This article reinforces something I have long wondered about.’Gun Control’ is one of the most persistent efforts I have witnessed.Societies and states draft anti gun legislation constantly despite having much more pressing public issues to adress.Its as if people in government simply cannot help but to do all they can to eliminate weapons among the population.I see now that disarmament is a policy goal that was in place during the dark ages ,and the Pope could hardly argue that ‘crime prevention’ was the point of banning the crossbow.

    1. avatar Tom says:

      The more the power elites have all the weapons, the more totalitarian they become.

  3. avatar karl hungus says:

    i enjoy your writing, i myself have believed for a long time that the bill of rights was written by men with a very very very very good understanding of classical aristotlinian(sp?) logic and history, that the bill of rights(as a complete set, not individual parts)is central to democracy and promote free thought and dissent among the people.
    i believe that those who cant understand how these 10 fit together, (and more importantly, that they are almost air-tight logically) really have no understanding of the model our forefathers envisioned…. which is scaaaaaarrry because we’ve elected a large amount of them into office.

    1. avatar Uknown Bastard says:

      You are allowed to use capitals such as I. The No All Capps does not apply. (:

  4. avatar pair-o-dee says:

    “When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.”

    – Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

    1. avatar Tom says:

      Something our current politicians should take to heart.

  5. avatar Ropingdown says:

    I agree with point, but in a limited form. This is a perennial argument. There have been key rebellions to throw off or moderate tyranny or oligarchy (Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, 1381, etc.), but not many. The American Revolution was ultimately decided for and instigated by the agricultural and mercantile elites of the colonies, the Hancocks, Adams, Masons, Jeffersons, et al. Widespread ownership of effective weapons does certainly discourage acts of blatant oppression. The difficulty in developed countries is that grabs of power by elites are often not understood, even perceived, by the mass of people. These grabs are often unseen by most and take place in controlling educational access, banking, ‘lobbying’ and control of representation, and tax code drafting. Very few understand the class imbalances of the tax code, as was stated in the introduction to my second-year tax course. Our Democratic Republic is governed mainly by Representative Democracy with a fine structure of checks and balances preventing the total ascendance of one elite or another. This in turn is widely described (by political science and sociology scholars left and right) as a system of Democratic Elitism. The left, middle, and right only disagree as to which elites you should vote for, what means and ends those elites should pursue, and whether the mass of inattentive citizens represent a threat or an opportunity. Martin Luther complained of “the thieving murderous hoards of peasants.” Obama’s crowd complains of the rural folk with their guns and bibles. Conservatives are wont to say that the laborers would prosper more if they accepted lower pay. Take your choice. My final view is that through our combination of skilled labor, gun ownership, frugality, and local political involvement we hold off, somewhat, the complete ascendance of a police state ruled by financial elites. But it is a close call today, because too many people with a job and a gun do not participate in local politics. Too many people make personal ethical trivia their single issue, rather than focusing on key rights and liberties…and transparent open government at every level, to include the Fed. (‘Thanks, Ropingdown. We all really wanted a lecture. Not.” laugh.)

  6. avatar "Dr." Dave says:

    “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state…”

    That seems pretty simple to me. Our second amendment rights are not guaranteed for self defense. They are not guaranteed for sporting. They are not guaranteed for hunting.

    We are guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms in order to engage and in violent armed conflict with anyone who would threaten our freedoms. Be it our government or someone else’s.

    1. avatar O.N. says:

      “Americans are defensive individualists, who are barking like dogs but are happy as long as they could protect their own property. They are armed to the teeth, but so socially domesticated by their inherent libertarianism that they pose less a threat to their government than the unarmed Italian populace represent to theirs. ”

      –Michel Rienzi

      Only twice have Americans rebelled against the powers that be: once in 1776 and once in 1860. Past that we’ve just been bending over when treason and tyranny walk our land. Firearms are great but we need the will and ability to organize on our own behalf. I’m afraid we’re too atomized and alienated to do that on a meaningful level now. It could change and I hope it does. For now, things seem bleak.

      1. avatar Phil H says:

        Must we equate these two rebellions? The American Revolution deserves better company than the Civil War.

        The union began to split (several southern states seceded) before Lincoln was even inaugurated, and thus the first stage of the Civil War cannot be said to have been caused by any overt action on the part of the north. To rebel against “the powers that be,” because those powers won a free election, and had done nothing else, is a poor rebellion, indeed.

        We do the cause of appropriate rebellion a grave injustice when we attempt to shove into its category the rebellion of the southern states in 1860, who felt (wrongly) that the right to own other human beings trumped the most basic rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by all men, since (as the Declaration avers), all were created equal.

        1. avatar O.N. says:

          Except that all men aren’t created equal, despite what the declaration says.

          If it offends you that both wars were listed together in the same post, tough break. Nobody is discussing the “morality” of either conflict. The point is that we Americans are too atomized for our own good.

    2. avatar Jay Dunn says:

      It is important to know that the term “well regulated” had a somewhat different meaning in the eighteenth century. It carried more the sense of being in proper working order, not the modern sense of controlled or governed.

      Militia simply meant all able-bodied males over the age of seventeen.

      The second part of the 2nd Amendment does not depend at all on the first part. The current Supreme Court has ruled 9-0 that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right like all others protected by the Bill of Rights. So yes, it certainly does protect my right to sporting and hunting weapons.

  7. avatar IdahoPete says:

    Practical, reliable individual firearms shifted the balance of power from the armed aristocrat or his trained, equipped, strong YOUNG male soldiers to the armed peasant. Firearms need far less training or physical strength than edged weapons for effectiveness. I think it was George Orwell who said “firearms give teeth to the weak.” This is one of the reasons the rulers in Japan “gave up the gun” in the 1700s – it kept the balance of power in the hands of the aristocracy and their samurai.

    And this is the reason why the self-anointed “aristocracy” in America hate the 2nd Amendment and an armed citizenry – armed peasants are SO revolting, don’tcha know?

    “A fair and just government has nothing to fear from an armed citizenry” – Thomas Jefferson.
    “It is better to die on my feet than to continue living on my knees.” Emiliano Zapata.

    What part of “shall not be infringed” is so hard to understand?

    1. avatar O.N. says:

      Every nation has its aristocrats (whether or not they call themselves such). Some like the Founders were great men who loved the cause of lliberty. Others like your Bloombergs, Feinsteins, Metzenbaums, and Kohls do hate the populace and wish to disarm them.

      1. avatar Ropingdown says:

        When John Thompson, Secretary of the Constitutional Convention, returned to his farming and translating of Greek at Harriton, someone asked him to write a history of the Revolution, since he had such a complete knowledge of it. He declined, stating that he did not want to reveal what rascals the Founding Fathers were. Yes, our Constitution was an improvement in terms of liberty. It does not inform you of the facts at the time. You’d perhaps be shocked by the existing and growing class inequalities of the era. The history of Shays’ Rebellion or Washington’s mother’s white slaving gives a broader picture.

  8. avatar Derry M says:

    It has long been my contention that in our American Constitutional Republic (ACR) the Bill of Rights is about protecting the freedom to make choices. I fully acknowledge (as has been stated here in other posts) that as the ACR has evolved, it has become necessary to regulate some of those possible choices.
    So, you cannot libelously slander another person, you cannot form a religion based on human sacrifice, you cannot call for a public, peaceful assembly to advocate treason, and so forth. Some of these regulations make sense, and others not so much…as we see here on TTAG.
    The goal of the ACR was conceived, and has remained, to create and maintain a Nation where each person’s freedom is maximized and protected. [You can debate how well this has been achieved, but overall we Americans have greater freedom than most any other Nation.]

    History demonstrates conclusively, I think, that those Governments acting to deny personal freedom do so in the interest of protecting the Government, as opposed to the Governed. Such Governments hold the intelligence and character of their People in utter contempt and as unfit to rule themselves. This contempt becomes the rationale and justification for repressing personal freedom, which is accomplished via laws that ever more severely limit what each person can choose to do (or not do). Once the choices each person can make are sufficiently limited by legislation, whatever “personal freedom” that Nation may have originally embraced is rendered practicably meaningless.

    Hence, with specific regard to the Second Amendment, I do not care if a person chooses to own a gun or not. I only care that each person has that choice to make. (And, frankly, that excludes those who have “chosen poorly” by engaging in proven criminal activity – sorry convicted felons – no breaks for you.)

    Most of what we are debating here daily is about how RKBA is regulated and how that is to be reconciled with regulations placed on other Constitutional Rights. Unfortunately, this creates many intractable conflicts of interest that affect our freedom to make individual choices. How we prioritize the hierarchy of possible choices expresses our character and intelligence as free people.

  9. avatar Frank H says:

    I think it really comes down to one thing: The government must live every day with a measure of fear of the power of the governed to revolt. When they lose that fear, tyranny rises.

  10. avatar Lew says:

    Good post!
    A couple of things: “The average Athenian citizen owned his own sword, spear and armor.” While it is true that the hoplites were free male citizens the average “working class” Athenian couldn’t afford the cost of arming himself. Especially armour was very expensive back then and if the line had a weak point (IE a man without armour) it would break. As such the lower class citizens instead did their military service on board the triremes of the Athenian navy, usually as rowers.

    In regards to arms/weapons and democracy the Icelandic example is worth studying. The island was settled by exiles from Norway, young, armed and violent men who has opposed the rule of the king. On Iceland they formed the “Alþingi” or “Althing” (General Assembly) at Þingvellir in 930 AD which still exists today, a tradition of democracy which is quite frankly very inspiring. I’m not sure if the armed state of the population helped but scholars I’ve spoken to say that it would not have happened if not for the blood fueds of early Icelandic history. It is however known that the Danish king allowed Iceland to keep its Althing after the island came under his rule, to send an army to subjugate those armed and angry Icelanders simply wouldn’t have been worth it.

  11. avatar Nick says:

    Great post.

    Our nation was essentially formed in response to a gun control measure. General Gage ordered the regulars to march to Concord, MA the night of April 18, 1775 to seize the powder and ball in an attempt to dissuade any sort of rebellion. Even then they realized that firearms in the hands of the people puts the power in the hands of the people.

    The core argument for our right to bare arms is this fact. When you refuse to exercise your right to arms, you also effectively refuse your right to be free. In 1775 and today still in America you can still say:

    “You can try and take my Liberty, but one of us is going to die.”

  12. avatar CarlosT says:

    A note about Rome: any statement one makes about ancient Rome is almost guaranteed to be both true and false, because ancient Roman history spans over 1200 years, and thus includes some major shifts in the way their society worked.

    For example, while it’s true in the Roman Empire, there was ever increasing political inequality, the Roman Republic that preceded it was among the most, if not the most egalitarian society of its time. A higher proportion of the population could vote for elected officials than any other society of the time. Women could own and inherit property.

    As for weaponry, the citizen-soldier was the model of the day. Each and every man serving was expected to supply his own armor, weaponry, and equipment. They were able to do this because the Romans had a relatively large middle class, which could afford the privilege and honor of military service. This middle class was able to man the Roman armies that won the Punic Wars, even if they did have to pause for a generation after the disasters at Cannae and Lake Trasimene.

  13. avatar ST says:

    The honest question all who own firearms must ask, is how long will it be?

    What is “it”?

    How long will it be before someone in the White House gets enough of the doughy population to support a general confiscation of firearms?

    Don’t laugh. Do not say its impossible. I go to college and see the future voters of this country, and let me tell you this now it is not a question of whether the Republic will sink that low, its a question of when.

    The First civil war was in regards to slavery, and I believe one day there will be another -and its genesis will be the same reason, but in a different sense. Instead of a class of people being slaves, it will be a matter of the government making slaves of all who wish to be via systematic ignorance of the Bill of Rights, starting with the 2nd Amendment.

    For more elaboration of what I mean by “slaves of all who wish to be”, I use Illinois as an example. People day in and day out live in what can be arguably considered the most corrupt state in the nation. If one wants to see what life was like in Soviet Russia you need not read a book, just stay a night in Chicago.And what’s sad is that people ACCEPT IT! People in that populous town think that the Constitution is an obsolete document, Welfare and Social Welfare are the paths to an advanced society, and that the State should pay you , feed you , and protect you. Unless youre rich, in which case you should be the one doing the feeding, giving, and protecting.

    I get stationed in South Dakota, and some of my fellow Airmen think the same way. Their patterns of thought are poisoned from a childhood raised without knowledge of the Constitution or the principles that built this nation. They choose their candidates accordingly. Most worrisome, among the ‘next generation’ the iPad kids think the Constitution is some name for a band, and that the Bill of Rights is the reason you can sue a credit card company for overcharging the bill.

    It spells a future where our political leaders will march us off the cliff of national self destruction.And then another conflict-in the polls or the hills-will take place, between the ‘progressives’ who know better than everyone else how things should be done, and those who know our national history and refuse to allow the light of freedom to be put out so quietly. That day will be a dark one for all parties involved, and I pray I’m not around to see it.

    I may sound like a conspiracy theorist or wack job posting this , but I do not care. I see too much political apathy and acceptance of mediocrity to keep silent on the matter in this medium.

  14. avatar Mark N. says:

    While an interesting premise, the history, much of which is misstated by the OP, dos not support it. The Magna Carta, for example, was essentially a pact between a king and his fractious barons who, tired from having to pay off the debts incurred for the benefit of Richard the Lionhearted and recognizing their inherent strength against a foreign king, soought to usurp the power of the throne, Given the times, this was not unusual–a brief history of Richard and his brothers and their interminable internecine fighting, even against their father, all for the glory of power, are proof beyond doubting. Then we add in the constant warring with Phillipe and the interminable rebellions of vassal lords, the historical background of the Magna Carta is indeed fractious. And the citizenry was indeed armed, if not armored. Stretching far back into history, the use of the axe was predominant for the common man, along with a wooden shield, typical tools of the agrarian society. The long bow was sidely adopted, one could say even mandated, in England, as a more effective weapon against axe wielding hordes of invaders and French armies of the day. But this was most definitely a class society–there were the nobles and then there was everyone else. This was true across Europe and Asia both. Human history seems to have a definite bias in favor of “feudal” or strong man societies, irrespective of the availability of arms.
    Your Greek history is off the mark as well. Yes there were democracies, but there were indeed few citizens. And only citizens were allowed to vote. Slavery was the norm, with often half the population as indentured servants or outright slaves–in the Spartan society, the proportion was even higher. And most men who fought in the phalanx only carried spears and wooden shields, no swords, no armor. Phalanx fighting is a form of rugby–the front line is pushed forward by the three four five even ten lines behind them in a giant scrum, with the goal, quite literally, to push the other side off the field. Swords were a weapon of last resort until the age of steel, and were really not much larger than a big Bowie knife (16″ overal length.) Bronze wasn’t strong enough for anything longer. War was pretty much the national sport, something you did to while away the hot summer days.

    Disarmed men have always found a way to arm themselves. Generalizing greatly in an area in which I have little knowledge, the Chinese monarchies often banned the private ownership of weapons–so the peasants developed forms of unarmed combat and employed various farming implements as effective weapons. And it is still true today, where the most common form of mass murder weapon is the knife. The same was true in Japan, where the samurai and the royals could pretty much kill any peasant who displeased them.
    So I think that one has to look beyond firearms for the basis of our revolution–which was entirely revolutionary in the thinking underlying its formation and structure. It is more reflective of American indivisual independence, culture not tied to a tribe or clan as had been the case throughout the rest of the world. A suystem not tied so tightly to central authority, yet unified when needed in the national interst. I personally attribute much of the change to the rise of the middle class-wealth (enough), educated, and involved. And to me that is the issue with the continuing divergence between the haves and the have nots–that divergence breeds autocracy.
    Thought provoking thread.

    1. avatar Tarrou says:

      My apologies if you feel I misstated the history, I tried to be careful to avoid that. I could offer the excuse that I am more used to long-form exposition that the more limited blogging length, but ultimately, the responsibility for clarity rests with the author. To clarify a few points:

      1: I didn’t say anything about the Magna Carta, for the obvious reason that it had little to do with the democratization of Britain in the short run and no connection with arms. I wrote a thesis a couple years back on the divergence of British and French society and government as a function of the Hundred Years War. Quite too long for full treatment here, but basically, I argue that the war had two very different effects on those societies, leading to the rise of the middle class and the strengthening of Parliament in Britain, and the empowerment of the king in France, leading to the absolutist days of the Louis. That research formed a nucleus of an idea that connected with what I wrote here. Weapons were not the only thing, but they did play a role.

      2: It is true that the peasantry of those days owned and used improvised weapons such as axes, and often owned a shield perhaps, and a reinforced cap. None of these were a serious threat to a knight unless he was first unhorsed and knocked prone. The added financial incentive of ransoming a rich noble alive meant that commoners rarely killed knights, even in battle, when they had a choice. Read the contemporary accounts of the battle of Crecy for an idea of the horror the chroniclers had for the slaughter of “belted knights”, especially by commoners. This was a social upheaval.

      3: I was careful to note the difference between “citizens” of ancient Greece and what we would consider a citizen to be today. You restate my whole point as a criticism. Citizens were indeed an exclusive class, certainly no more than a third of the male population at the height of their expansion in Athens, and usually far less than that.

      4: Finally, we find ourselves in agreement that the Revolution in the US cannot be laid solely at the feet of private ownership of firearms. There were many factors at work, the greatest of which, in my opinion, was the two hundred years of largely self-rule prior to the Revolution. We had practice in governing ourselves. But the widespread ownership of and skill in use of firearms contributed, exactly how much is a matter of conjecture. This, however, is a gun blog, and long treatises about historical minutae make for poor reading when people come here for firearms. I do strive for accuracy, and I once again apologize for being less than perfectly clear, I hope my next article will reflect that.

      1. avatar Tarrou says:

        Correction, which I must take responsibility for, a mis-communication between the editor and I resulted in the inclusion of a mention of the Magna Carta I did not intend. My apologies, I failed to read my own work in its entirety after the editing process.

    2. avatar Roger W says:

      Point to note though, slavery as practised in Greek time was significantly different to that practised (and now perceived as common) in the US.

      In fact, it was not uncommon for a well educated slave to be given a sum of money and sent off to establish a business, with the profits going to their owner, so that alone indicates a massively different degree of trust.

      Also, bearing the LEGAL responsibility for the actions of your slave would have quite some effect on how you treated them.

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