Christopher Dickey writes: For most of the last two centuries, Europeans have been puzzling over their American cousins’ totemic obsession with guns and their passion for concealed weapons. And back in the decades before the American Civil War, several British visitors to American shores thought they’d discerned an important connection: People who owned slaves or lived among them wanted to carry guns to keep the blacks intimidated and docile, but often shot each other, too.
In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens, on a book tour of the United States, saw a link between the sheer savagery of slave ownership and what he called the cowardly practice of carrying pistols or daggers or both. The author of Oliver Twist listened with a mixture of horror and contempt as Americans defended their utterly indefensible “rights” to tote guns and carry Bowie knives, right along with their “right” to own other human beings who could be shackled, whipped, raped, and mutilated at will.
As damning evidence of the way slaves were treated, in his American Notes Dickens published texts from scores of advertisements for the capture of runaways. Often these public notices described the wanted men and women by their scars. One especially memorable example:
“Ran away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.”
Dickens also compiled a list of several shooting incidents, not all of them in the South: a county councilman blown away in the council chamber of Brown County, Wisconsin; a fatal shootout in the street in St. Louis; the murder of Missouri’s governor; two 13-year-old boys defending their “honor” by dueling with long rifles, and other examples.
What could one expect, he asked, of those who “learn to write with pens of red-hot iron on the human face” but that they carry guns and daggers to use on each other. “These are the weapons of Freedom,” Dickens wrote with brutal irony. “With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote themselves to a better use, and turn them on each other.” [Continue reading…]