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!!


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Chris McMillan

I consider to be myself somewhat of a pretty cool nerd. I have a BBS in History from Hardin-Simmons University and I graduated with honors with an MA in Military History with a concentration on War Since 1945 from the American Military University. Needless to say I love history. When I'm not studying history I'm also keeping track of MLB and my Texas Rangers. I'm also an avid fan of fitness and putting rounds downrange when the time presents itself. I enjoy shooting so much I got Uncle Sam to pay me to do it for a bit. However, the best part of my life is being the husband to a wonderful wife and mother and the daddy to a bouncy, energetic little girl.

One thought on “The Founding Fathers and the intent of the 2nd Amendment”

  1. I like this blog especially in light of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. The question that arises in my mind is not that the bad guys have the guns, but rather lets put guns in the hands of the good guys. If there are no guns then do we turn into a Hitler regime? Absolutely. I believe that the Anti-Federalists wanted individual rights in black and white when writing the Bill of Rights. One of those being the right to bear arms. Here is my thought, lets have an educated and responsible gun owner because yes this is a weapon which can kill others. Do not take lightly that you bear arms and use it to protect yourself and your family or hunt. People need to understand that a gun ownership means responsibility as well. Don’t take lightly that people can and will misuse this 2nd amendment right. I hate to associate irresponsibility with gun ownership but yes I know that it occurs. Legally we need to hammer idiots with guns, but the free flow of guns is necessary for a free well protected republic in America. God bless!

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