As early as 1840, antebellum historian Richard Hildreth observed that violence was frequently employed in the South both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists. In the South, violence also was an approved way to avenge perceived insults to manhood and personal status. According to Hildreth, duels “appear but once an age” in the North, but “are of frequent and almost daily occurrence at the [S]outh.” Southern men thus carried weapons both “as a protection against the slaves” and also to be prepared for “quarrels between freemen.” Two of the most feared public-carry weapons in pre-Civil War America, the “Arkansas toothpick” and “Bowie knife,” were forged from this Southern heritage.
The slave South’s enthusiasm for public carry influenced its legal culture. During the antebellum years, many viewed carrying a concealed weapon as dastardly and dishonorable—a striking contrast with the values of the modern gun-rights movement. In an 1850 opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court explained that carrying a concealed weapon gave men “secret advantages” and led to “unmanly assassinations,” while open carry “place[d] men upon an equality” and “incite[d] men to a manly and noble defence of themselves.” Some Southern legislatures, accordingly, passed laws permitting open carry but punishing concealment. Southern courts followed their lead, proclaiming a robust right to open carry, but opposing concealed carry, which they deemed unmanly and not constitutionally protected. It is this family of Southern cases that gun-rights advocates would like modern courts to rely on to strike down popularly enacted gun regulations today.
But no similar record of court cases exists for the pre-Civil War North. New research produced in response to Heller has revealed a history of gun regulation outside the South that has gone largely unexplored by judges and legal scholars writing about the Second Amendment during the last 30 years. This history reveals strong support for strict regulation of carrying arms in public.