The Second Amendment, Then and Now

The Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten of the amendments to the Constitution, was first proposed to Congress by James Madison as articles to be incorporated into the main body of the Constitution.

Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution in 1789 and submitted them to the states for ratification. Contrary to Madison’s proposal, they were submitted as “supplemental” additions. Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became Amendments One through Ten in 1791.

The Second Amendment, which has become a matter of considerable interest in recent years, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This was not controversial at the time. The concept existed in English common law long before the enactment of the Bill of Rights. And for a variety of reasons today many Americans feel it is necessary to own firearms.

The importance of this issue to the founders was quite clear. James Madison introduced the language that became the Second Amendment and also wrote: “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

Alexander Hamilton, like Madison a strong advocate for Federalism, was equally explicit: “The constitution shall never be construed…to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” And he also wrote that “The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

During the years leading up to the Revolutionary War there was mob violence in several of the colonies. In addition, many American lived in or close to wilderness regions where conditions were essentially lawless. The need people felt to protect their families was quite rational.

It should be noted that a primary motivation for supporting “a well regulated Militia,” articulated in the Second Amendment as “being necessary to the security of a free State,” was the strong opposition among the founders to the concept of a standing army.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important.” “Every citizen should be a soldier,” he wrote. “This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.”

The American reality in 1776 and 1791 was entirely different from that confronting us today. Yet, news of social, religious, and psychopathic violence imposes itself on us every day. Older Americans are particularly sensitized to what has changed: the radical loss of trust and the lack of civility, ethical integrity, and social responsibility we see everywhere.

We must acknowledge the compelling reasons why so many feel it necessary to own firearms.

That said, however, I must tell you I believe the use of force among Americans today, in defense of the Constitution and the American freedoms, would be counterproductive and incompatible with an effective strategy.

Our consideration in recent posts of the dynamic relation of means to ends should, in my view, make this clear.

Violence committed by Americans against Americans would contradict the rationale behind the impetus to violence itself. It would be self-contradictory, pitting brother and sister against brother and sister, subverting the integrity and viability of the American Idea as a guiding force for the good.

We can do far better.

I have presented principles supporting this assertion in previous posts, (see especially Nov 28 and Dec 12), and will offer a more explicit argument next week.

We need to consider this carefully and get it right. We face a long crisis. Many dark and dangerous things are possible.


Next week: Principled Means, Principled Ends

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