The Founding Fathers and the intent of the 2nd Amendment

As an adult I have become more politically astute, or at least I like to think so. That does not mean I am all-knowing on anything, just that I keep a closer, more observant eye on things than I used to. I have also discovered as I have become older I have become much more of a Libertarian than a Republican in my political associations. I think I tend to fall middle-right on the political ideology scale. At the same time, there are some issues that really get me going and others that simply do not matter. I assume that is the case with most people. The one issue that just gets me twisted and ready to go from zero to jerk in two seconds is gun control.

I cannot say I am opposed to gun control because honestly there are some people who have no business ever putting their hands on a firearm. I know, I served with some of them.

In this article, I do not intend to focus on self defense and right to carry a weapon and the ins and outs of that argument. I will save that for another day. What I plan to focus on the application the 2nd Amendment.

Gun control is an issue that gets conservative stomachs twisted in a knot and liberals foaming at the mouth. Liberals cling to the “well regulated militia” aspect of the 2nd Amendment while conservatives hold the meaning of the same as the right to use weapons and force against the government as a last resort.

Someone might ask, “Last resort from what?”  The last resort as protection against an oppressive federal government that would stifle the voice of the people, fail to protect them, or possibly refuse to follow the Constitution. In 1773, American patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians and led by Sam Adams boarded a ship in Boston Harbor, dumping its contents into the ocean as a form of protest against the Tea Act. King George III expected the value of the tea to be repaid and therefore passed the Intolerable/Coercive Acts. These acts were designed to punish the colonists for their actions until their debt was repaid. Part of those acts allowed for the quartering of British soliders in Bostonians homes and allowed for them to confiscate weapons within the city. This last part was implied by British General Gage as he applied the proper act when ordering his soldiers to secure Boston.  The following year, 1775, the Revolution broke out as the British moved through Lexington and Concord. The British had gotten wind of an American stockpile of weapons and moved to take them away from the colonists. 1

Some people might also ask what did the Founding Fathers mean when they wrote the Bill or Rights? I will take a look at that shortly. Also, the topic has been brought up, usually by those in favor of strict gun control, did the Founding Fathers really expect people to own the “advanced” weapons we have today? The answer to this second question is probably not. However, I say this because they may not have envisioned the actual weapons, but they most certainly knew about technological advances in warfare. Many Founding Fathers were scientists, engineers, and historians. Society had advanced from the stone ages through technology, and therefore weapons would also. In the late 1700s, rifled barrels were a relatively new technology and allowed for a bullet to spin, thus allowing far more accuracy, stability, and range. No longer was the smooth bore musket the weapon of choice.

Edged weapons had also advanced. Europeans no longer used long, heavy swords to pummel their enemy into the ground before bashing their skull. Cavalry sabers, with sharp, curved blades were the sword of the day. This allowed both mounted, and foot soldiers to quickly slice at their enemy and then withdraw for another attack. Again, an advancement in technology. So the premise that the Founding Fathers never intended for people to own, or perhaps even use, advanced weapons is merely an historical fallacy dreamed up to counter the pro-gun crowds desire to own “advanced” weapons. (Sometime I will deal with the issue of types of weapons and who can or should own them).

The intent of the Founding Fathers is a not very complex when looking at the historiography of the day.  First, the Declaration of Independence was written in July of 1776, over a year after the British and American colonists had exchanged fire at Lexington and Concord. It was also roughly a year after the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill. It was a year to the day in which George Washington had been named Commander of the Continental Army. And it would be more than a year before the French began to truly supply the Americans with arms. So how were the Americans to fight? With their own weapons of course! These would be privately owned weapons that had been used for hunting and survival in their previous life. The importance of privately owned weapons was essential to arming the Americans and fighting the Revolution.

Much of the American Revolution was fought using local militias. The militia was the group initially called out to confront the British at Lexington, Concord, and the ensuing retreat of the British back to Boston. Militias, and what defines them, has been a source of conflict in the gun control debate. The term militia was used directly in the 2nd Amendment and has been a key term on the gun control platform.

The right to bear arms is explicitly stated in the Constitution. Who exactly has that right is the main source of conflict between pro and anti-gun debaters. The 2nd Amendment says, “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.” 2  The militia has the right to bear arms. Who makes up the militia?

In 1787, the US Constitution was written and took affect in 1789. At the time, the United States had virtually no standing army. It was expected the militia would be called out in the event of an invasion or outbreak of hostilities. There was never more than 6,000 men in the standing army until after the War of 1812. 3 Six thousand men would hardly stave off an invasion. Naturally, supplemental forces would have to come from the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 established the requirements of the state militias. 4 This act attempted to establish a procedure for call up to national service but it was hardly effective. The militia became a bit of a sideshow in the national focus. Today some claim the militia is the equivalent of the National Guard. I do not believe that is the case and will explain why at a later date. Suffice to say for the moment that the National Guard can be called into federal service. The National Guard could then be used to enforce federal law. This enforcement might go against the Constitution or desires of the American people, thus violating the purpose of the militia and its right to bear arms in protection of the people from an oppressive federal government.

With the militia and small army out of the way, the words of the Founding Fathers need to be analyzed. For background in 1787 and the British, their laws, and their military might was still very much on everyone’s mind at the Constitutional Convention. Many convention goers were against the Constitution because they felt it made the Federal government too powerful. This group, the Anti-Federalists, insisted a Bill of Rights be added to protect the people from the government. The Federalists, lead by Alexander Hamilton, insisted the Constitution was written in such a way the government could not possibly be oppressive. He even presented justification for the Constitution in The Federalist Papers. The Anti-Federalists refused to ratify the Constitution without the Bill of Rights. The Federalists agreed and the first ten amendments were ratified.

Keep in mind both sides agreed to the Bill of Rights. Both sides of the discussion were clear on an armed populace. The following quotes will demonstrate their clear acceptance of an armed populace.

George Mason, an Anti-Federalist said, “I ask, sir, what is the militia? Is it the whole populace except for a few public officials?” 5  Mason said this in debating ratification, there was no clear definition of the militia.

Alexander Hamilton said, “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed.” 6 Again, support for gun ownership. Hamilton also said in Federalist No. 28 something that is even more telling on gun ownership and its original intent. “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.” 7 Obviously he favored ownership to insure protection of individual liberties. Hamilton believed in the power of the Federal government, but he was clear it should not abuse the citizens and they should have a recourse to an abusive federal government.

James Madison, who was also a Federalist and worked closely with Hamilton to build the Constitution said in Federalist No. 46, “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost any other nation…where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” 8

Thomas Jefferson, although not at the convention and an ardent Anti Federalist, said to in a letter to William Stephens Smith, “What country can preserve its liberties of its rulers are not warned from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take up arms.” 9

Tench Cox said, “Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” 10 This last statement makes it very clear where he stood on the idea of an armed populace. Little explanation of this quote is needed.

All of the above quotes come from debate regarding the Constitution, the 2nd Amendment, and the powers of the people versus the power of the Federal government. It should be clear by just reading those quotes that the Founding Fathers were ardent supporters of an armed America, not just an army commanded by a federal government. They expected Americans to arm themselves and to stand up to tyranny within their own nation, just as they had stood up to the British during the colonial period. I believe the militia is the American people. They are allowed to be armed. They are allowed to assemble. These are rights protected under the Bill of Rights. These are rights that cannot be taken away without due process. The Founding Fathers wanted a United States that would not be abused and would take the steps necessary “to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” 11

On another note, I know I have mentioned a number of scenario and topics in the above entry.  They are all related and all relevent in my mind.  However, I could end up writing an entire research paper if I focused on all of the topics. Over time I will get to those issues I deem to be most pertinent and of interest to both myself, and any readers I can manage to convince to follow my ramblings.  If you ever have something you would be interested in reading about, feel free to mention it to me and I will see what I can do.

Happy reading!!


For further reading:












Thomas Jefferson, slavery, and the Declaration of Independence

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress decided it was time to become an independent nation and cast out the British in favor of a self-governing nation of loosely united states. These signers knew they were committing treason when the affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence upon its official signing the following month. Had the Americans lost the war, or had the signers been captured, it would have meant certain death for them. (5 were captured, tortured, and ultimately by British hands). 1 Source
However, I’m not writing today to analyze the reasons for signing. I want to look at for whom independence was declared. There has been much debate among historians and curriculum writers in the education system that the signers wanted slaved to be included. Revisionists like this theory and it tends to fit nicely into a kinder, gentler view of the signers.

To understand the slave issue it is probably best to look at Thomas Jefferson as he was the primary writer on the committee that consisted of Robert Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Robert Livingston. An original draft of the Declaration spoke of King George III allowing for the capturing and carrying of slaves on British ships. He also mentioned the negative affects of buying and selling of men. In addition, Jefferson wrote of how the King refused any law outlawing the practice. 2 Source After reading this, it does not appear Jefferson necessarily condemned the practice as an American. It appears he wanted the Americans held blameless. In the end, the Continental Congress rejected this portion of the Declaration of Independence and it was removed. In my mind, it says the signers did not want to deal with the slave issue because they knew it was controversial, but a necessary evil for many of them.

When the Declaration was signed in 1776, slavery was still legal in all 13 colonies. However it was still predominant in the southern colonies. Some of the most respected men in America detested slavery, but felt slaves were needed in order for their cash crops to be profitable. This group included names such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and later James Madison (although the latter did not sign the Declaration of Independence). 3 Source I theorize based upon common sense and knowledge of colonial economics and relations, the wealthy plantation owners in the south did not want to loose their slaves and the northerners did not want to push the issue because the support of the south was needed in order to fight a prolonged conflict with Great Britain. Both sides knew slavery was evil, but was needed to keep the southern economy afloat in order to keep the fledging colonies above water.
I want to move back to Jefferson. He is reported to have been against slavery. He favored a plan of gradual emancipation. In 1778, he proposed a Virginia law that would prohibit importation of slaves. 4 Source This ideas would later be incorporated into the Constitution as part of the 3/5 Compromise. These ideas sound good when thinking of Jefferson. Emancipating slaves was a phenomenal, but unpopular idea, despite the desire among many segments of the population to end the practice. Emancipating slaves also went against Jefferson’s actions. He was a slave owner. Jefferson owned them until the day he died and did not free them upon his death. 5 Source Also, Jefferson even stated he did not think Africans and Americans could live peacefully within the same nation. Do these sound like the words of a person who was against slavery? This runs counter to Jefferson’s actions as he may have fathered up to 6 children through his slave Sally Hemming. 6 Source
The question still stands, who was to be declared independent by the Declaration of Independence. Looking at the evidence makes me think Jefferson was against slavery as it being inhumane to own another human being, but was acceptable for the time, and acceptable to him. (This ties in with historiography. It is essential to study history from when the events took place and not place judgment by modern day standards). I also know from studying Jefferson he believed in the goodness of human beings and thought they would do the right thing. In my mind it was a social issue, fed by the social status of the day in that none of the slave owners really wanted to be the first to free all of their plantation slaves and therefore, Jefferson did not feel so inclined.
From also looking at the evidence, I do not think it was his intent, nor that of the Continental Congress, to free slaves. The Declaration of Independence is simply a list of grievances against the king of England and did not give any rights to Americans. The grievance being addressed was the transportation and trading of slaves. The Declaration was the official notice to King George III that the Americans had no desire to be part of the British Empire. Slaves at the time were viewed as property, and therefore a possession of the Americans. Thinking in this manner, slaves would be set free at the behest of well thinking Americans at a time more suitable than the beginning of the Revolution. Sadly, it would take almost 100 years, a bloody civil war, and a constitutional amendment to achieve what Jefferson had hoped would happen.
For Further Reading and examination of sources see the links below.


Revising History

I’ve dedicated this blog to my own rambling and commentary on history and social events. One of my main interests in life lies in the study of current events and history. My educational background shows I have a BBS in History from Hardin-Simmons University with a minor in Political Science. I’ve also managed to be granted a Masters in Arts in Military History (with honors) with a concentration in War Since 1945. I’ve also spent the past 14 years as a Social Studies teacher in Texas. I like to think, or at least put on a good show, that I know a little about the subject. However, I’ve discovered over time how limited my own knowledge is when compared to others. I like to take this as a lesson, there’s always a bigger fish and there is always more to learn.

As I have mentioned in my own study of history, I have spent more and more time beyond thinking of the basics of what happened. Studying the facts is where the study of history begins. In education, we refer to that as comprehension. I am sure most historians see their own thinking evolve as I have. As we gain more knowledge, we begin to stretch our study from “what happened,” to “what does it mean?” “What are the trends that I see?” “How are events influential to others?” “How does history impact life today?” These are just examples, but at least give an idea of my own thought process.

One thing that really gets me going is revisionist history. I tend to look at it from a couple of perspectives. First, history is what it is. It cannot be changed. What happened, happened. I think trying to whitewash history in order to placate certain segments of society does a disservice to the events and anyone involved. I believe the job of historians is to explain those events in their historical context. Historians refer to this as historiography. (I will tackle that topic at a later date. If you want to jump ahead, feel free to Google it). At the end of a research segment, a personal spin can be added in the conclusion and commentary. However, during the actual presentation of research, events must be presented in a neutral manner. Again history cannot be changed. It is what it is.

That said, some people claim revisionists are trying to change history. That certainly may be the case. However, conservative thinkers will claim liberals are trying to whitewash history while liberal thinkers are will claim conservatives are not telling the full story. I hate the idea of cleaning history, even the parts that make my own culture look bad. Every society has its bad apples and I think it is important to know all aspects of history in order to avoid similar problems in the future. On this same note, I believe history is all revisionist in that any new information that is discovered should be added to the overall historical picture. This is essential to ensuring future generation can get a full view of the past from multiple perspectives in order to have the greatest vision of the past as possible.

This revisionist theory is at a crossroads in the media. The conflict over the Confederate flag is huge. The fact that it flew over the south during the Civil War naturally leads some to automatically say it is a sign of racism and slavery. Others will simply say it is a sign of southern pride. The contentious debate over the causes of the Civil War still rages.  (Again, I see another blog topic on the causes of the Civil War). Some groups are pushing to end the flying of the Confederate flag as well as taking down, modifying, or moving monuments to Confederate soldiers. By removing these parts of US History, segments are taken away and lost to history simply because certain segments did not like what happened. The Civil War was horrific, and both sides of the causation argument have good, valid points. What happened in the South is still part of a heart breaking time in history. This division between North and South could be felt immediately after the war. Sectionalism continued to raise its dirty head during Reconstruction, leading to many problems and fewer solutions. Southern ideas are still prevalent in the US. They have been since colonization in the 1600s and are still felt today. Revising the people and history of the south does not change its contribution to history. (Perhaps the history of American slavery will be a future blog topic. I can sense it becoming one).

It is important that we revise history by adding to it, not taking away. The future must know the past, warts and all, in order to truly paint the most accurate picture of the past.

Studying Social Studies

There are a lot of thoughts that have come to mind as I’ve debated writing a blog for some time. First, I have no clue what I’m doing, so anyone who decides to follow me, please bear with me as I figure it out. Also, I have such a wide array of interests it makes it hard for me to focus on one topic. Therefore I decided to focus on the broad arena of social studies.

First and foremost, social studies is the study of society. Social studies applies not just to history, but also to geography, psychology, sociology, politics and government, as well as current events. So my topics may seem all over the board, but they will deal with the realm of social studies in one way or another.

I may delve into other areas from time to time, but at their root I’m sure there will be a tie in somewhere. I’m planning to write not just on areas of history that I have an interest in, but also on current events and what I see going on in the world. The world is so interconnected as we push further into the 21st century, that one event, although not directly related, may affect another. This is the very essence of studying history.

In my next entry, hopefully in the next day or so (maybe before if I can find time tonight), will deal with interpretations when studying history. Suffice to say that history has many different interpretations. It is not just the study of an event of the past, but rather the interpretation of events of the past.