The Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten 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, many Americans feel it necessary to own firearms today.
The importance of this issue to the Founders was quite clear. James Madison, who introduced the language that became the Second Amendment, also wrote that “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 just prior to the Revolutionary War there was mob violence in several of the colonies. In addition, many Americans 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,” expressed 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 and religious violence imposes on our peace every day. Older Americans are particularly sensitized to what has changed: the radical loss of trust and the absence of civility, ethical integrity, and social responsibility.
We must acknowledge the compelling reasons why so many feel it necessary to possess firearms.
It is in this context that I express my concern about the threat of force made or implied in the name of political ends. We already face dangerous instability, a condition likely to grow worse as conditions deteriorate. Political violence could easily tip us into chaos.
For those with the eyes to see, it is clear that the use of force for political ends will very likely produce exactly the opposite of its intended purpose. There is a dynamic relationship between means and ends. The character of our results will be determined by the character of the means we employ.
Indeed, violence committed by Americans against Americans would endanger the Constitution and contradict the rationale behind the incentive for violence itself. The uniformed services are staffed by our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. We need to win them over; not turn them against us.
We have pragmatic alternatives. We need to learn what they are. Both our purpose and our means must be carefully considered, and we need to get it right.
We face a long crisis. Many dark and dangerous things can happen.
A reminder for readers: Please look for the next post on or about June 14.