This is the first part in a two-part series. We will discuss the attitudes of the founders and the reasons why they insisted that the newly formed Constitution be amended to guarantee the federal government could not disarm the people.
“Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence.”
Okay, this quote from George Washington has been debunked. He never actually said it, but he should have. Others have said it, just not in those words.
Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat. The right to keep and bear arms was not given to us by the United States government in the form of the 2nd Amendment. The Framers knew that our rights come from God. They amended the Constitution because the several states demanded they list the rights that the federal government could not take away. The Bill of Rights is a list of the rights that our Creator endowed to us. The Bill of Rights protects the people from the government.
Thomas Jefferson wisely said: “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” This is the true spirit of the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution. There was no concern regarding hunting. It was understood that most men were hunters and were so to feed their families. There was no concern regarding sport shooting. There was even very little concern to personal protection. Those activities were all matters of fact.
The founders of this great country had spent years under the tyrannical rule of King George III. They were taxed unfairly and without due representation. They suffered unlawfully restrictive tariffs. They were denied the right to assemble. They suffered the brutality of an illegal standing army. The final straw however, was Governor Thomas Gage seizing the provincial powder from a magazine in Massachusetts and forcibly confiscating arms from the people. The founders put up with so much for so long with little more than peaceful protests and articles written in the patriot newspapers. Why did they draw the line at the seizure of their gun powder and firearms? In the words of George Mason, “To disarm the people… was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” The founders knew that without arms to protect themselves from a tyrannical government, the grievances they’ve had with the King up to that point would pale in comparison to what would come.
After the successful revolution there was a fierce debate in this country about forming a federal government. The people who had lived under a tyrant and fought a brutal war to throw him off were not about to let a new tyrannical government take his place. That’s why during the ratification process the several states demanded a Bill of Rights to guarantee the newly formed federal government would not be able to strip them of their God-given rights. So long as the people were armed, they knew they had a check against a government that attempts to become too powerful.
“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.” There’s been much debate over the language of the second amendment, particularly the “well regulated militia” piece. If you’ve read the words of our founders, it becomes clear.
During the debates in Virginia to ratify the Constitution George Mason said, “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #29 said, “…but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people, while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights…” In Federalist Paper #46 James Madison said, “Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” He also said, “the ultimate authority … resides in the people alone.”
To the founders, the language of the 2nd Amendment was clear. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed upon by the government because a well regulated militia (a well armed and trained citizenry) is necessary to the security of their freedom.
In Part 2 we will explore the debate we are having in this country today and why the Founders’ ideals are as important today as they were 222 years ago.