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Waitresses Ashlee Saenz, Lauren Boebert, Jessie Spaulding, and Dusty Sheets pose with their sidearms in front of the Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., on June 23, 2014. The western Colorado restaurant encourages the open display of firearms. Waitresses Ashlee Saenz, Lauren Boebert, Jessie Spaulding, and Dusty Sheets pose with their sidearms in front of the Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., on June 23, 2014. The western Colorado restaurant encourages the open display of firearms.

Waitresses Ashlee Saenz, Lauren Boebert, Jessie Spaulding, and Dusty Sheets pose with their sidearms in front of the Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., on June 23, 2014. The western Colorado restaurant encourages the open display of firearms.

By Audrey Bowler February 20, 2015

Did George Washington offer support for individual gun rights, as meme says?

Would George Washington have been an ally to modern-day gun-rights groups? A social-media meme suggests that he would have.

Around the time of Washington’s 282nd birthday, a reader sent us the meme, which includes a painting of Washington and a quote purportedly written or uttered by the nation’s first president: "When government takes away citizens’ right to bear arms it becomes citizens’ duty to take away government’s right to govern."

But are those really Washington’s words?

We contacted Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. He said "there is no evidence that Washington ever wrote or said these words, or any like them." Lengel cautioned that it’s impossible to prove a negative, but he added that he’s "as certain as he can be" that the quote did not originate from George Washington.

This is not the first time a similar claim has popped onto our radar screen.

In December 2012, PolitiFact Texas rated False a claim made two days after the Newtown elementary school shooting. When U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, appeared on Fox News Sunday, he was asked why he believed ordinary Americans should be able to buy semi-automatic weapons designed for military use. Gohmert answered in part, "For the reason George Washington said a free people should be an armed people. It ensures against the tyranny of the government."

PolitiFact Texas contacted Gohmert’s office to seek details on the Washington quotation but didn’t hear back.

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The closest statement they could find was one Washington made in his first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1790: "A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined."

The academic consensus is that Washington was referring to a trained militia to defend the new nation, rather than anticipating citizens seeking to head off perceived governmental tyranny.

Ron Chernow, whose Washington: A Life won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography, told PolitiFact Texas that Washington was "talking about national defense policy, not individuals arming themselves, and the need for national self-sufficiency in creating military supplies."

Some post-Revolutionary lawmakers did expect citizens to own firearms, but Washington does not appear to have been among them, experts said.

"The idea of resistance to tyranny being dependent on a nation of gun-wielding individuals acting at their own behest or even on local initiative would have been anathema to Washington," Lengel told PolitiFact Texas. "Indeed, during the (Revolutionary) war he very frequently lamented the crimes carried out by armed civilians or undisciplined militia against their unarmed neighbors. The solution to these crimes, as he understood it, was to increase the power of the government and the army to prevent and punish them -- not to put more guns in the hands of civilians."

Indeed, during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, "citizens of Western Pennsylvania rose up to fight a new tax on the whiskey they produced," said Mary Thompson, research historian at Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. Washington was "concerned that success by the rebels would lead to a diminishment of the central/federal government," and directed state militias to counter the insurrection -- "citizen-soldiers," she said, "acting on behalf of the government against their fellow citizens."

Our ruling

The meme said George Washington said that "when government takes away citizens’ right to bear arms it becomes citizens’ duty to take away government’s right to govern." Experts say there’s no evidence that Washington ever said that -- and there are indications that Washington, if anything, favored the arming of trained militias rather than wide swaths of the population. We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Social media meme forwarded to PolitiFact

PolitiFact Texas, "Louie Gohmert says George Washington said a free people should be armed to guard against government tyranny," Jan. 3, 2013

"Fox News Sunday" interview with U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Dec. 16, 2012

George Washington, First Annual Message to Congress, Jan. 8, 1790

Senate and House responses to First Annual Message to Congress, Jan. 11-12, 1790

Washington Post blog entry, "George Washington’s individual mandates," June 26, 2012

Center of Military History textbook, "American Military History," Chapter 5, "The Formative Years: 1783-1812," July 22, 2004

George Washington, memo to Committee to the Continental Congress on a Military Peace Establishment, May 2, 1783

Email interview with Ron Chernow, Washington biographer, Jan. 1-2, 2013

Email interview with John Woolley, co-creator of University of California-Santa Barbara American Presidency Project, Dec. 20-27, 2012

Email interview with Mary Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon estate, Dec. 27-28, 2012

Email interview with Edward Lengel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia, Feb. 19, 2015

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Did George Washington offer support for individual gun rights, as meme says?

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