February 16th, 2009

Presidents' Day — And a History Lesson

Today we celebrate Presidents’ Day. It is worth remembering that many of America’s greatest Presidents were avid rifle shooters, including all four whose faces are enshrined in stone at Mt. Rushmore. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt were all shooters, and in today’s world they would probably be called “gun nuts” by the mainstream press.

Mt. Rushmore

George WashingtonWashington, of course, was a great military leader. He was also a staunch supporter of gun rights. In a 1790 speech to Congress, Washington declared: “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself! They are the American people’s Liberty Teeth and keystone under Independence. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences, and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security, and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable. The very atmosphere of firearms everywhere, restrains evil interference — they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good!”

Thomas Jefferson often went hunting as a form of recreation and as an escape from the pressures of high office. In 1785 he wrote to his nephew: “[For exercise]… I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks.”

Abraham Lincoln learned to shoot as a boy and used a rifle to put food on the family table as he grew up on backcountry farms in Kentucky and Indiana (Lincoln was 21 when his family moved to Illinois.) Even as President, Abe Lincoln remained very interested in firearms and he was a good marksman. When, during the Civil War, he was approached by Christopher Spencer, inventor of the Spencer Rifle, Lincoln tested the gun himself on the grounds of the White House. According to Mr. Spencer’s journal: “On the 18 of August, 1863, I arrived at the White House with rifle in hand, and was immediately ushered into the executive room. I found the President alone. With brief introduction I took the rifle from its case and presented it to him. Looking it over carefully and handling it as one familiar with firearms, he requested me to take it apart to show the ‘inwardness of the thing’. After a careful examination and his emphatic approval, I was asked if I had any engagement for the following day. When I replied that I was at his command, he requested that I ‘Come over tomorrow at 2 o’clock, and we will go out and see the thing shoot’.” The next day Lincoln and Spencer tested the rifle on the White House lawn. Lincoln shot the rifle very well and recommended that it be adopted by the military.

Theodore RooseveltTheodore Roosevelt was an avid hunter and conservationist. As a young man, he had his own ranch in the Dakota Territories where he enjoyed hunting buffalo, elk and other big game. Roosevelt earned fame an a “Rough-Rider” in the Spanish-American War. When he left the White House in 1908, he embarked on a lengthy African safari with his son Kermit. Roosevelt recounted his safari experiences in his book, African Game Trails, considered one of the “classics” of outdoor adventure literature.

So there you have it… four of America’s finest Presidents were avid gun enthusiasts. They lived in times when shooting a rifle was considered both a manly pursuit and an essential survival skill. Today, in the 21st century, the mass media often depicts gun owners as extremists. Today’s journalists would be wise to re-learn their American history and acknowledge that many of our nation’s greatest leaders were riflemen.

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