Courtesy of Steve Reichert’s Facebook page, where it currently has over 85,000 likes and 780,000 shares! The implication of this quote is pretty obvious to the gun control debate, as who could be against the first, and perhaps most respected president in American history?
Well, the answer to that question is irrelevant in this case, because Washington never said this. PolitiFact did a good job of debunking this meme, and while it’s impossible to prove a negative, historians can’t find anywhere that Washington said this, or even a similar quote. Perhaps the closest quote to this could be found in Washington’s message to Congress in 1790:
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.
It should be noted that this quote was in reference to organized militias, not “the people” in a general sense. The reality is George Washington was probably one of the least gung-ho Founding Fathers on the right to bear arms. He preferred that men be trained and organized into orderly militias, and was generally skeptical of ordinary citizens using guns to advance liberty. As President, he also oversaw the Whiskey Rebellion, where he used government militias to suppress citizens protesting the newly imposed tax. In general, Washington was pro liberty, but was most concerned with leading and preserving the Union, as he believed upholding it and the Constitution was the best way to preserve liberty. In this regard, Washington would most likely be a defender of the 2nd Amendment to this day, regardless of his personal wishes, and the best thing for gun rights advocates to point to would probably be a quote like this, from his Farewell Address:
But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.
George Washington is definitely not the best figure to quote for supporters of individual gun rights, but it’s certainly not necessary to invent quotes to find Founding Fathers who were. Remember, Washington generally stayed “above the fray” in politics, and wasn’t the guy putting forth philosophical arguments, or composing essays swaying public opinion. He was more of a military, not intellectual leader, and it was the other Founding Fathers, like Jefferson and Madison, who furthered most of the arguments and philosophy behind the American Revolution and the Constitution.
When you look to these founders, you do see some “pro-gun” quotes. After all, the prevailing philosophy of the time was based on the Enlightenment values of individual rights, and a key part to that was the belief that one had the right to defend their life and property. The English had already established the right to bear arms, and as with most of the Constitution, the Founders took England’s ideas of liberty and attempted to strengthen them. Most of these quotes aren’t “meme worthy”, as the writing style was much more wordy back then, but here are a few examples:
A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives 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 your constant companion of your walks.
Letter to Peter Carr, 1785
No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.
That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms…
I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.
Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.
This meme might be a way to actually get the Founding Fathers to roll over in their graves! Both for Washington, who didn’t say the quote, and for the others who didn’t get 780,000 shares of their actual words supporting gun rights.