With all of the discussion yesterday (and in the past few weeks) about the Second Amendment and the Founders’ intentions, I thought it might be worth considering whether it’s really so clear that the Founders wrote up the Second Amendment as a bulwark against the tyranny of the government they’d just created.
In an earlier post about gun control, I said that I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing from people who think the Second Amendment is designed to protect us from governmental tyranny (because I’d heard all about it already and don’t find the logic particularly compelling). I repeated this in my reply to critics yesterday but I might also have discussed why I don’t think it’s compelling to believe that the Second Amendment enshrines some sort of right to armed insurrection.
Most people, most of the time, focus on one part of the Second Amendment:
“The right of the people … shall not be infringed.”
This leads people to believe that the only thing that matters is the right of the people to keep and bear arms, which leads to the notion that the Founders feared nothing so much as a government that wasn’t itself perpetually afraid of the weapons to which the citizens were constitutionally entitled.
But there are alternative explanations, which stem from reading the whole Second Amendment (rather than just the nice part that talks about possessing weapons) and they cast the Second Amendment in a very different light.
Here’s Saul Cornell, who holds an endowed chair in American History at Fordham University:
In 1776, most of the original state constitutions did not even include an arms-bearing provision. The few states that did usually also included a clause protecting the right not to bear arms. Why? Because, in contrast to other cherished rights such as freedom of speech or religion, the state could not compel you to speak or pray. It could force you to bear arms.
The founders had a simple reason for curbing this right: Quakers and other religious pacifists were opposed to bearing arms, and wished to be exempt from an obligation that could be made incumbent on all male citizens at the time.
When the Second Amendment is discussed today, we tend to think of those “militias” as just a bunch of ordinary guys with guns, empowering themselves to resist authority when and if necessary. Nothing could be further from the founders’ vision.
Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster.
Also important to consider is the fact that taking up arms against the government is specifically considered treason in Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution:
The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob. One of the reasons we have a Constitution is the founders were worried about the danger posed by individuals acting like a militia without legal authority. This was precisely what happened during Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection in western Massachusetts that persuaded many Americans that we needed a stronger central government to avert anarchy.
Many people think that we have the Second Amendment so that we can take up arms against the government if it overreaches its authority. If that interpretation were correct, it would mean that the Second Amendment had repealed the Constitution’s treason clause, which defines this crime as taking up arms against the government. In reality, in the first decade after the Constitution, the government put down several rebellions similar to Shays - and nobody claimed that they were merely asserting their Second Amendment rights.
So what happened?
In 2008, a closely divided Supreme Court abandoned more than 70 years of precedent and for the first time in American history affirmed that the Second Amendment is about a right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense. Lost in most of the commentary then and now is that this is almost the exactly opposite of what James Madison, the primary architect of the amendment, intended, and is hard to reconcile with the way most ordinary Americans would have read it in 1791.
There’s also little chestnut, from Thom Hartmann:
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference - see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote ….
At the ratifying convention in Virginia in 1788, [Patrick] Henry laid it out:
“Let me here call your attention to that part [Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution] which gives the Congress power to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States… .
“By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither … this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory.”
George Mason expressed a similar fear:
“The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practised in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless, by disarming them. Under various pretences, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them [under this proposed Constitution] … “
Henry then bluntly laid it out:
“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress … . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”
And why was that such a concern for Patrick Henry?
“In this state,” he said, “there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States… . May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free.”
Patrick Henry was also convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves (a process then called “Manumission”).
[Madison’s] first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form.