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This Day in History: Tench Coxe & the Second Amendment

On this day in 1755, Tench Coxe is born in Philadelphia. Was he a Patriot or a Loyalist? People weren’t so sure at first. But he rehabilitated himself—or at least his reputation—and later served in four presidential administrations. He also became an advocate of the right to bear arms.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given his background. Coxe’s father was once a stamp (tax) collector in New Jersey. Patriot threats and protests caused him to resign, but then Loyalists and royal officials were upset with him! You can imagine that the entire experience left the family jittery, and they worked hard to maintain an appearance of neutrality once the war began.

By then, Coxe was in British-occupied New York or Philadelphia, where he conducted business with Tories and the British. When the British left Philadelphia, Coxe’s name was included on a list of those suspected of high treason. Coxe promptly took an oath of allegiance to the United States and renounced all ties with the Tories.

You have to wonder if people really believed him.

Either way, he was in a very different position by the late 1780s. “[T]he events of the Revolution seem eventually to have influenced Coxe’s political philosophy on the issue of men and arms,” legal scholars Stephen P. Halbrook and David Kopel have written, “because most of what Coxe later wrote about the connection between arms and freedom was consistent with revolutionary Patriot philosophy.”

Well, no wonder! Coxe was in Philadelphia when British General Howe occupied that city and confiscated the colonists’ arms—and he would have known of a similar disarmament in British-occupied Boston. Such events seem to have affected his outlook. After the war, he served in many capacities: He worked toward ratification of the Constitution. He served in George Washington’s Treasury Department. Alexander Hamilton relied upon him there, but then the relationship began to sour.

Hamilton wrote a scathing letter in which he described Coxe as “too cunning to be wise.” (Ouch!?) To be fair, the insult may have been mostly about politics. Coxe found himself disagreeing with the Federalists more and more. He continued to work for Treasury after Adams was elected, but he disliked that administration’s efforts to strengthen the military.

Coxe’s worries would have been natural, given his experience in British-occupied Philadelphia. He knew from first-hand experience what it was like to live under a military governing force that had disarmed citizens. He couldn’t support a strong army.

Coxe did not last long in the Adams administration. Instead, he switched political parties and supported Thomas Jefferson for President. He became prolific in defending the right to bear arms. Perhaps fittingly, Coxe was later able to serve in the Jefferson administration, outfitting the army and local militias with supplies. He continued in this job even after James Madison was elected.

Coxe passed away in 1824, but by then he’d left his mark. “No one in the early republic wrote more about the right to arms than did Coxe,” Halbrook and Kopel conclude.

Indeed, Coxe’s writings continue to influence the political debate about gun control, even today.

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