The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expansionist American identity.
Amidst news of yet another mass shooting on American soil, this time at a naval yard in Washington D.C., the calls for more examinations of the prevalence of gun violence in American culture are being made once again. These calls will float around the cultural atmosphere long enough to gain a few approving nods, mostly from the suffering victims of gun violence, before they are quietly plugged back into the mysterious black hole of moral ambiguity dug by the NRA and its supporters in government. Indeed, following a stunningly successful recall in Colorado of Democratic state senators who supported additional gun control, and only a few days after the Atlantic announced the sad Death of Gun Control, the idea that we could have any rational debate about guns in American culture seems ludicrous on its face.
So why is this the case? History offers some not-so-subtle clues as to why Americans are so obsessed with firearms. Simply put, the United States was born and bred in gun violence, so much so that guns have historically played an essential role in the long construction of an American national identity based on the intertwined ideals of expansionism and self-definition. These ideals are interrelated because in U.S. history, various types of expansion have helped forge a particular American identity in contrast to a host of perceived non-American “others,” and guns have served as the pivotal tool in the construction of this identity.
A couple of years back, historian Glenn LaFantasie wrote an essay for Salon in which he outlined the essential connection between guns and American national identity:
It’s my belief, though, that American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government.
An American nation born in gun violence was also raised in gun violence, and LaFantasie notes that this intimate historical relationship with guns has hampered any rational discussions of gun violence in America:
Over and over again we deny the American heritage of political violence, for though we understand that much of our past has been filled with violence, or at least marked in prominent ways by violent acts, we find it very difficult to admit that we are, in the end, a very violent people and that aggression may be found at the very core of our culture. As Americans, there is much violence that we justify and even legitimize, particularly when it comes to looking at our past. We have been ready — proud, even — to justify the violence of the American Revolution that won our independence from Great Britain as a necessary means toward a positive end. Likewise, our participation in wars always seems to have been for the best of reasons — or for what at least looked like the best of reasons at the time. Violence in many forms, then, is often seen as a legitimate means to accomplish a positive purpose.
LaFantasie is hitting on the major issue at hand — legitimacy — that defines the historical culture of gun violence in the United States. There’s another ideal essential to American gun culture, however, that is integral to understanding just why guns have, for two centuries, shaped American national identity long after the Revolutionary War that won independence through bloodshed. That aspect is expansionism. The most notable, and notorious manifestation (pun intended) of American expansionism was Manifest Destiny, a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan to describe the long-existing notion that Americans were sanctioned by the Christian God to expand their national empire all the way to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny was the ideological fuel that drove American westward expansionism in the 19th century, and guns were the engines that ran on that fuel.
The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. At this and other killing sites, guns shaped the identity of modern America.
As historians Jan Dizard, Robert Merrill Muth, and Stephen Andrews Jr. observe in Guns in America: A Historical Reader:
Even without the French and Indian War, the War of Independence, and the War of 1812, the ideology of expansionism that fueled a steady push westward would have been reason enough to accept, with whatever reservations, the practical necessity of an armed citizenry.*
There’s an interesting background behind that armed citizenry. In a massive historical irony, in light of modern-day gun advocates claims that private ownership of firearms guarantees self defence against a tyrannical government, the American government actually created the American arms industry in the late 1700s.
It was American inventor Eli Whitney, of cotton gin fame, who came up with the idea of manufacturing guns by making interchangeable parts based on a single pattern. Making guns via mass production, rather than by hand, would make guns cheaper and more numerous. But private capital was leery of Whitney’s too-good-to-be true risky idea, so in 1798 he approached the U.S. government, who, with the blessing of Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, contracted him to deliver a large order of guns to help arm and field a badly needed standing army. Whitney’s production of guns stumbled and delayed for years, but government sanctioning of Whitney’s idea legitimized the mass production of guns for private investors, effectively giving birth to the American arms industry. By the 1840s, machine shops along the eastern seaboard were producing guns in accordance with Whitney’s basic ideas.*
In the mid-19th century, all of those mass-produced guns flooded the U.S. market just in time to pave the way for American westward expansion. The founders planted the idea of American national identity in 1776, of course, but the harvesting of that identity really happened in the 19th century, and it happened via Americans contrasting themselves with various “others,” using guns as their preferred tools of enforcement. Guns played a major role in the various Indian conflicts that swept the American southeast from the 1820s through the 1860s, resulting in the notorious Trail of Tears that forced multiple native tribes out of the South to make way for white plantation society. Armed slave patrols policed that slave South, ensuring that armed defence was a privilege of white supremacy.
Guns also helped the U.S. gain control over former Mexican territories during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. Further, during the Indian Wars that lasted roughly from the 1860s until the early 20th century, the U.S. army used firearms to forcibly subjugate tribes on the Great Plains. The surrender of those tribes to white American expansion revealed the essential role of guns in closing the American frontier. Finally, guns solidified modern American national identity during the Civil War, when they maimed and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, North and South, in the name of national reunification.
Each of these 19th century conflicts involved Americans using guns to expand their territory and influence while simultaneously subjugating “others,” whether they were non white, “savage” native peoples, enslaved African-Americans, or indeed, Union or Confederate soldiers. In each of these cases, guns helped their users define themselves as Americans: in the 19th century, Americans weren’t Indians, they weren’t black, they weren’t Mexicans, and, after the Civil War, they weren’t Confederates. By contrasting themselves with, and then destroying, the “other,” Americans defined who they were not, and, in the process, affirmed who they were: white, expansionist, capitalist citizens of a democratic and powerful nation-state. They couldn’t have done this without guns.
Pro-gun supporters rally outside the Idaho Statehouse in Boise. In case it was unclear that they liked guns, they brought guns. (Photo: AP)
Well into the 21st century, as the nation has undergone dramatic shifts in what it means to be American, polls nonetheless show a general antipathy towards gun control, despite occasional pro-gun control spikes in the wake of seemingly endless mass shootings. Not surprisingly, the most entrenched pro-gun support can be found in America’s former frontier regions, where Manifest Destiny was forged: the rural South, Midwest, and Plains. Among many divisions, the gun debate now wages along urban/rural geographical lines.
The long-entrenched culture of the gun has stubbornly maintained a hold on the national psyche because it defined American national identity in the country’s most formative period. The conflicts of the 19th century, waged with the gun around issues of economic and geographical expansion, race, political representation, and secession continue to profoundly shape American cultural identity to this day. This type of long history is not something you easily overcome, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the United States will continue to be the abode of loud, proud, and insufferably annoying gun nuts.
* Jan E. Dizard, Robert Muth, and Stephen P. Andrews, eds. Guns in America: A Historical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 4, 5.