The Lessons of a School Shooting–in 1853

- Maret 24, 2018

This weekend, thousands of people are expected to gather in cities and towns across America for the “March for Our Lives,” a national response to the horrifying school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Will it change policy? Skeptics doubt it, having watched time and again how previous shootings vanish from the headlines with no change to our national debate over guns. But there’s actually precedent, deep in American history, for school shootings to shift the gun debate.

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

The deadly encounter between the two men was triggered by a trivial matter: eating a bunch of chestnuts during class. William Butler was a 28-year-old teacher, a Yankee immigrant to Kentucky who had helped found the Louisville School, an institution that attracted students from some of the best families in town. One of those was William Ward, the son of a prominent cotton merchant. Butler, a stern teacher, confronted the young Ward about eating in the classroom. Ward denied it. His teacher called him a liar and administered a whipping. This was a severe form of punishment, but not unusual in the mid-19th century, an age when corporal punishment in schools was the norm in many places.

The punishment did not go over well in the Ward household. The next day the boy’s older brother, Matthews Ward, purchased two small pistols and returned to the school with William and another brother, Bob. Butler had no inkling that his actions had incensed the elder Ward brother, and he greeted all three brothers cordially. Matthews confronted the teacher, calling him a “damned scoundrel” and a “coward.” Matthews and William Butler scuffled, and in the course of the altercation, Ward pulled out his pistol and shot his opponent. The Ward boys fled the building; students rushed to Butler’s aid, carrying him to his house, where a doctor attended him. But to no avail. Butler died within days of the incident.
Ward was arrested and charged with murder. The trial was a news sensation, garnering headlines in papers across the nation. As today, the public was horrified at the thought of deadly violence in a school, a protected place of learning, and the very embodiment of civilization and order. And the idea of a student killing his brother’s teacher was almost an unthinkable violation of the social order.


But there was something else, too. The shooting took place at a time in American history when the nation was growing increasingly frustrated with gun violence, and in which opposition was growing to an aggressive new conception of the right to bear arms was generating opposition. The case became a kind of lightning rod for the ways that views on gun were splitting the country.

At the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification, gun ownership rates in America were high, but the guns in greatest demand at this time weren’t handguns or military weapons: Most Americans wanted to own lighter hunting muskets or fowling pieces, guns better suited to shooting birds and dealing with critters attacking crops. Many Americans considered owning a military-quality musket a burden—so much so that states and the federal government were forced to require white men to purchase military-quality muskets at their own expense for public defense. Importantly, also, guns at that time were not the preferred method for homicide: Edged weapons and blunt instruments were more readily at hand and far more effective at close range.

But by the time of the Ward trial, things had changed. The tightly knit communities that nurtured the Minuteman ideal of the American Revolution had given way to a more urban society, and one that was far more democratic, individualistic, materialistic, and violent. The practice of carrying easily concealed weapons, such as the pair of pocket pistols that Ward had procured for himself when he confronted William Butler, had become common in many regions of the nation, especially the South. To facilitate this increasingly common practice, the burgeoning market revolution made a wide assortment of easily concealable weapons available, including a variety of handguns and a host of fearsome edged weapons. This was the era of the Colt Revolver and the Bowie Knife.

During the colonial era, Americans lived under a gun regulation regime inherited from English common law. That tradition held that individuals were obligated to retreat from armed conflicts, not stand your ground. English common law also prohibited traveling armed in populated areas, unless one were assisting in the preservation of the peace. After the American Revolution, however, this common English legal legacy fractured, producing radically different legal regimes for regulating firearms in the slave-owning South and elsewhere. Outside of the South, many states emulated Massachusetts’s broad prohibition on public carry. But in the South, things were different. Kentucky judges, in particular, had adopted a more libertarian reading of the Constitution that rejected most forms of regulation as a violation of the right to bear arms.


Under Kentucky law, the defense’s strategy was simple and straightforward. At the time of his trial Ward’s right to travel armed was considered by Kentucky judges to be constitutionally protected. The fact that Ward had actively gone to confront his brother’s teacher was irrelevant. The only legally pertinent fact was that at the moment that he drew his pistol, Ward had a reasonable fear that his life was in danger which justified his use of deadly force. The jury acquitted Matthews Ward.

News of his exoneration prompted protests and denunciations across the United States. Condemnation of the verdict was especially severe outside of the South. Abolitionists in particular were outraged by the trial’s outcome, and used it to underscore their belief that the inherently violent nature of the slaveholding South meant that its laws were dominated by “the pistol and the lash.” As one newspaper wrote, “An Act that would have hung him in Massachusetts, is justified in Kentucky.”

One of the most interesting features of the response to the Ward verdict—and one worth remembering for gun-control advocates today—was the way critics attacked Kentucky’s broad interpretation of the right to bear arms in self-defense. Legal critics of the trial argued that Kentucky law had veered too far from mainstream American constitutional thought, which had always balanced the right of self-defense against other rights, such as the right to enjoy peace. According to this way of thinking, Ward’s actions were not a vindication of American ideas of liberty, but a distortion of them, encouraging anarchy rather than true liberty.

Although advocates for the modern gun rights movement claim to be champions of the Founders’ vision of the Constitution, they have actually taken their cues from this later, libertarian vision of gun rights—one that was developed by slave-owning judges in antebellum America. In fact, the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller—the 2008 case that struck down the District of Columbia’s gun-control law and established an individual right to bear arms unconnected to the militia for the first time under federal law—approvingly cited these Southern precedents as the foundation for his reading of the Second Amendment.

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.


 

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