Tench Coxe came from a family that continually
held a leading role in public affairs. His great-grandfather
Daniel Coxe was a physician to Charles II and
to Queen Anne. Although Daniel Coxe never left
England, he served nominally as Governor of New
Jersey by purchase of land, and bought other large
tracts of land throughout America. He attempted
to settle a colony of Huguenots in Virginia, but
failed. Daniel Coxe's son, also named Daniel Coxe,
served as a colonel in the British Army stationed
in North America. He settled in Pennsylvania and
served, first, on the colony's Supreme Court,
later, as Speaker of the Assembly and, still later,
on the New Jersey Supreme Court. Daniel Coxe was,
as his grandson would be, a strong advocate of
American unity. In 1722, he wrote a book proposing
that an assembly of delegates from each state
and a national executive could unite the American
Tench Coxe's maternal grandfather was Tench Francis,
"the undisputed leader of the Pennsylvania bar
of his time," whose eloquence earned him the appointment
of attorney general of Pennsylvania in 1741. Coxe's
cousin Tench Tilghman served as a negotiator with
the Onandaga Indians on behalf of the Continental
Congress, and then as aide-de-camp to General
Washington throughout the Revolutionary War.
Tench Coxe was the twenty-year-old son of a merchant
residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when the
War for Independence broke out in 1775. Coxe's
company carried on a thriving business with Loyalists
and the British army when the British occupied
Philadelphia ―a business which would have
been impossible if the British military commanders
had decided not to allow it.
After radical Patriots took power, Coxe left
Philadelphia for a few months only to return when
British General Howe occupied the city in September
1777. Coxe remained in Philadelphia after the
British departed in 1778, and some Patriots credibly
accused him of having Royalist sympathies and
of having served briefly in the British army.
Although Coxe's trading successes during the period
of British occupation lent considerable support
to the charges, nothing came of the allegations,
and the Revolution ended before Coxe became active
in politics. The Pennsylvania militia records
of 1780, 1787, and 1788 listed Coxe as a militia
Whatever Coxe's attitude during the first part
of the Revolution in Pennsylvania, the events
of the Revolution seem eventually to have influenced
Coxe's political philosophy on the issue of men
and arms, because most of what Coxe later wrote
about the connection between arms and freedom
was consistent with revolutionary Patriot philosophy.
For example, Coxe, like the delegates who created
Pennsylvania's 1776 Constitution and like other
Patriots of revolutionary Pennsylvania, saw a
direct connection between the right to hunt and
the strength of the militia as a check on tyranny.
When occupying Philadelphia in 1778, British General
Howe had disarmed the population. As reported
in Philadelphia newspapers, General Gage had done
the same to the citizens of Boston in 1775. Although
it is not known how Coxe reacted to the disarmament
at the time, his later writings are aligned closely
with the political philosophy of vehement opposition
to firearms confiscation that Patriots of the
time expressed in Philadelphia.
When the Revolution ended, Coxe formed the international
merchant firm of Coxe & Frazier and began
to take an interest in political reform. In addition
to playing a leading role in the Philadelphia
Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public
Prisons, Coxe served as secretary of the Pennsylvania
Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery,
of which Benjamin Franklin was president. In 1786,
Coxe represented Pennsylvania by serving as the
secretary for the Annapolis Convention, the effort
to revise the Articles of Confederation, which
set the stage for the constitutional convention
the following year. Coxe also was appointed to
represent Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress.
Firearms were among the many commodities dealt
in for many years by the firm of Coxe & Frazier.
A sample of business records from 1786 illustrates
the company's involvement in the firearms businesses,
and also reflects politico-military conditions
at that time. Several New York militia companies
lacked sufficient muskets of a common bore, and
ordered two hundred stands from the firm. The
State of Georgia ordered five hundred stands of
arms for the Georgia state militia, and a Southern
distributor observed how dangerous conditions
were in the deep South: "you apprehend they will
want them for there is scarcely a doubt, but they
will be engaged in an Indian war ― if they
should not purchase we apprehend this state South
Carolina will ...." A Northern distributor who
ordered from Coxe likewise noted how the people
were arming themselves in response to political
instability: "The present uneasiness in Massachusetts
Shays's Rebellion has caused a great demand for
muskets, in consequence of which we have disposed
of about three hundred of yours with bayonets
&c at three dollars each...." Like most others
in the arms business, Coxe made arms for private
purchase (the firearms sold in Massachusetts),
for state militias (Georgia), and for local militia
groups (New York).
In the summer of 1787, while the constitutional
convention met in Philadelphia, Coxe presented
a paper urging industrial development to the Society
for Political Enquiries at the house of Benjamin
Franklin. The paper presaged the major role Coxe
would play in the Jefferson and Madison administrations
by promoting an early version of American industrial
policy. Among the articles that he promoted for
domestic manufacture were gunpowder and ironworks.
While the convention was meeting, Coxe delivered
a major address about the need for government
to promote invention. Madison probably knew of
Coxe's remarks, as Madison soon after proposed
to the Constitutional Convention that Congress
should have authority to encourage discoveries
through premiums and provisions.
In 1788 Coxe served as one of Pennsylvania's
last delegates to the Continental Congress, which
held its final session early the following year.
As a compromise with the Constitution's opponents,
who agreed not to oppose the Constitution further,
many federalists reversed their opposition to
a bill of rights in order to entice the remaining
states to ratify.
In 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton
appointed Coxe as the Assistant Secretary of the
Treasury, making him Hamilton's second in command.
Two years later, and at Coxe's request, Hamilton
made Coxe the Commissioner of the Revenue.
As Commissioner of the Revenue, Coxe was in charge
of the collection of all tax revenues, including
the revenues from the Hamilton-inspired federal
excise tax on distilled spirits, which prompted
the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.
While there is no evidence that Coxe personally
supported the tax ― which bore unfairly
on western farmers in general and on his state
of Pennsylvania in particular (because farmers
needed to distill their grain before taking it
to market, in order to make it more compact and,
thus, transportable) ― Coxe strongly opposed
the western Pennsylvania farmers taking up arms
in protest against the excise tax.
Critics of the individual rights interpretation
of the Second Amendment sometimes claim that the
Standard Model implies that people can go to war
with the government whenever they disagree with
any government decision, such as an unpopular
tax increase. Coxe refuted this claim. Coxe clearly
believed in the individual right to arms, and
he just as clearly believed that it was wrong
for the Pennsylvania farmers to take up arms against
a lawful tax that had been duly created through
proper constitutional methods. Coxe would continue
to support the right to arms as a mechanism allowing
popular revolt as a last resort against tyranny
― but Coxe, like the vast majority of Americans,
could tell the difference between a tyrant and
George Washington. Today, when federal taxes are
much higher than the taxes that sparked the Whiskey
Rebellion, the vast majority of Americans, including
those who support Coxe's understanding of the
Second Amendment, agree that a tax constitutionally
imposed by Congress is no grounds for a Second
Amendment revolution to rescue the Constitution
While serving President Washington's administration,
Coxe wrote a major book analyzing the future of
the American economy: A View of the United States
of America. The book was a leading work of the
time on commerce, industry, and agriculture, and
has earned a modern reprint because of its comprehensive
and insightful examination of American economic
Coxe's growing alignment with Thomas Jefferson
and other Republicans led to his dismissal from
office by President John Adams in 1797. Coxe then
plunged into political activity supportive of
the Republican cause, adherents of which claimed
to be suffering repression under the Sedition
Act within a year.
Coxe closely associated himself with the Philadelphia
Aurora, the leading Jeffersonian newspaper of
the time. By mid-1799, according to accounts in
this paper, armed conflict between Federalists
and Republicans threatened. The Aurora published
reports of bullying, weapons brandishing, and
rioting by soldiers in the Federalist faction.
In retaliation, a mob of "federal savages" attacked
and beat Aurora editor William Duane. As a consequence
of the mob's threat to destroy the press, "a number
of republican citizens collected with arms and
ammunition, continue to mount guard in the Printing-Office."
The same issue of the Aurora which included this
report, also included an article signed by Tench
Coxe and an urgent appeal by "Mentor" addressed
"To the Republican Citizens of Pennsylvania."
The article vividly expressed the premises upon
which Republican doctrine rested:
"But as men intent upon hostility have
associated themselves in military corps, it
becomes your duty to associate likewise ―
Arm and organize yourselves immediately....
"Do you wish to preserve your rights?
Arm yourselves. Do you desire to secure your
dwellings? Arm yourselves. Do you wish your
wives and daughters protected? Arm yourselves.
Do you wish to be defended against assassins
or the Bully Rocks of faction? Arm yourselves.
Do you desire to assemble in security to consult
for your own good or the good of your country?
Arm yourselves. To arms, to arms, and you
may then sit down contented, each man under
his own vine and his own fig-tree and have
no one to make him afraid....
"If you are desirous to counteract a
design pregnant with misery and ruin, then
arm yourselves; for in a firm, imposing and
dignified attitude, will consist your own
security and that of your families. To arms,
then to arms."
Subsequent issues of the Aurora charged that
newspaper offices were being attacked around the
country wherever Federalists were losing elections.
The paper portrayed the riot, the attack on Duane,
and President Adams's dismissal of Tench Coxe
as elements of a Federalist conspiracy to institute
monarchy. Finally, the Adams administration had
Duane arrested for seditious libel for publishing
a letter Adams (while Vice President) wrote to
Coxe which admitted British influence in the government.
Duane was vindicated, and the Federalists were
embarrassed, when he offered to produce the authentic
The Alien and Sedition Acts and other Federalist
transgressions were not the only aspects of the
administration of John Adams that the Republicans
attacked in the election campaign of 1800. Tench
Coxe and other supporters of Jefferson emphasized
that the monarchical tendencies of Adams also
were exemplified in his neglect of the militia
and support for a standing army.
Coxe served as an unofficial economic advisor
to Jefferson, and helped the secretary of state
prepare reports to Congress about America's international
commerce. Having written so assiduously on behalf
of Jefferson in the 1800 election, Coxe began
angling for a position in the Jefferson administration.
But Coxe did not succeed until 1803, when President
Jefferson ― at the recommendation of Secretary
of Treasury Albert Gallatin, himself a former
arms manufacturer ― appointed Coxe as purveyor
of public supplies. Coxe held the post through
the rest of the Jefferson administration, and
for the first four years of the Madison administration,
including the opening months of the War of 1812.
Aside from political considerations of gratitude
for Coxe's work in opposition to Adams in the
election of 1800, the selection of Coxe as the
head of military procurement stemmed from both
his experience as a merchant and his political
commitment to the militia as the defense of a
free society. Halving the size of the standing
army and arming the militias were important objectives
of the Jefferson administration.
Even as Jefferson was attempting to shrink the
standing army, the Napoleonic wars in Europe had
created a constant foreign policy crisis for the
United States. Under the Adams administration,
the United States nearly had gone to war with
France, and certainly would have done so if a
hawk like Alexander Hamilton, rather than a steady
statesman like John Adams, had been president.
As purveyor of public supplies, Coxe was responsible
for procuring arms for both the standing army
and the militia during years when war and foreign
invasion were a constant threat ― a threat
that materialized in 1812.
In 1807 and 1808, Congress finally passed legislation
to arm the militia, providing an annual appropriation
"for the purpose of providing arms and military
equipment for the whole body of the militia of
the United States, either by purchase or manufacture."
The arms were to be transmitted to the states
for distribution to their militias. The federal
armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harper's
Ferry, Virginia were not capable of meeting the
production demands of Congress. In administering
the program, Coxe contracted with and made monetary
advances to private arms manufacturers. This system
of government patronage greatly advanced the development
of small arms making from a handicraft to a modern
industry, in part by promoting the development
of interchangeable parts.
For Coxe, the 1808 Act was an ideal opportunity
to use federal resources to help build a strong
domestic firearms industry. Coxe's letters to
Secretary of War William Eustis set forth the
relation between the industry and an armed populace.
To defeat a standing army, a populace must be
"No part of Europe will permit us to
obtain arms from them.... A general armament
for the purpose of a general stand is a measure...
worthy of consideration. The omnipresence
of the public force is the consequence of
a general armament. The skill of modern regular
armies require the mass of the population
to be equipped for resisting the potent invaders
of this time."
Sales of arms to the public would not only arm
them, but would also generate industry advances:
"A decided tone, a good inspection,
good patterns and in short much care, pains
and vigilance are necessary to procure substantial
Arms from public & private Armories. If
sales to the Militia & private persons
[&] to ships should at any time be desired
and practicable, it would keep up the manufacture
and enable us to improve the standard quality.
In a circular to contracting gunsmiths, Coxe
emphasized: "The importance of good arms is manifest....
The lives of our fellow citizens, to whom the
use of them is committed, depend upon the excellence
of their arms." In his correspondence with manufacturers
and inspectors, Coxe demonstrated great technical
expertise in the design and manufacture of muskets,
rifles, pistols, and swords. But despite Coxe's
expertise and dedication, the public arms program
ran into trouble.
Coxe's small office was overwhelmed by the procurement
needs of the militia and the rapidly expanding
standing army as tensions with Great Britain increased.
Despite working seven days and nights a week,
he still had to bring in his adult sons as unpaid
assistants. In 1810, Coxe fired the inspector
in charge of quality control for the arms being
acquired. In a series of articles published in
early 1811, Coxe's former Pennsylvania political
associate, William Duane, charged that Purveyor
Coxe had accepted large quantities of inferior
firearms. In his first article, Duane made the
sweeping allegation "that arms we had seen, which
had been manufactured for the MONEY (for we cannot
say the use) of the United States, were better
adapted to kill American soldiers into whose hands
they should be put, than an enemy." Coxe rejoined
in the same issue, flatly denying the charges
and noting that all arms were inspected prior
In subsequent installments, Duane relied on averments
of the former inspector who was discharged for
incompetence. Duane claimed that some rifle barrels
lacked grooves (rifling), had grooves only six
inches down the barrel, or had grooves that were
too shallow. Some were made with unfit Dutch locks
(firing systems), or had stocks filled with glue
and sawdust. There were Hessian or Hanoverian
arms (German imports) which needed inspecting.
"There were nine hundred pairs of pistols, but
not one pair fit for public service."
In a series of articles addressed To the Public,
Coxe responded to "the late unfounded attack upon
the public muskets and private manufacturers of
of muskets for the United States." The muskets,
rifles, and pistols in question were the equivalent
of any manufactured in this country. Coxe stated
that, thanks to the federal procurement program,
the number of private armorers had increased ten-fold
in just a few years.
Months passed without further public controversy,
but at the end of 1811, Duane renewed "The Military
Establishment" series. Duane insinuated that in
America there were those who placed "a military
force before its enemy with saw dust cartridges
or balls too large for the calibre, or with rifles
without touchholes, and without spiral grooves,
and of which 8 out of 18 burst on the proof with
powder only of 135, whilst the true proof should
be of the standard of 150."
The Duane dispute quieted down, and Coxe continued
the course of his work, soliciting "Home Made
and Other Supplies," including "Muskets, Pistols,
Rifles and Swords." The outbreak of the War of
1812 in June of that year, however, occasioned
a military reorganization, giving Coxe's congressional
opponents the opportunity to eliminate the office
of purveyor of public supplies by replacing it
with a quartermaster's department.
Despite relieving Coxe from the purveyor's office,
the Madison administration continued to appreciate
Coxe's talents. Madison appointed Coxe to the
post of collector and supervisor of the revenue
in Philadelphia. Coxe eventually left this position
for the larger salary of clerk of the Court of
General Quarter Sessions for Philadelphia, a post
he held until his retirement in 1818. Coxe's most
important contribution came at the request of
Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, who assigned
Coxe to analyze the condition of industry in the
Coxe retired in 1818 after having served three
years as clerk of the Quarter Sessions in Philadelphia;
he spent his remaining years as a writer. Coxe
continued to correspond with Madison and his other
political friends. Jefferson, who had found Coxe's
self-promotion to be offensively blunt while he
was President, reconciled himself to Coxe's personality
flaws, and lauded Coxe as "'a long tried public
and personal friend' and 'a fellow laborer, indeed,
in times never to be forgotten."' Coxe also continued
to write prolifically for public consumption,
often on matters involving the right to bear arms.
During his retirement years, Coxe was energized
particularly by his opposition to the presidential
ambitions of John Quincy Adams and by Adams's
support of restrictive European laws regarding
gun ownership for hunting. Coxe argued in detail
that Adams's position undermined the entire right
to keep and bear arms, and thereby threatened
Tench Coxe died on July 16, 1824, a few months
before John Quincy Adams was elected president.
(Excerpted from William and Mary Bill of Rights
Journal, February 1999)