February 2, 2013
One of the problems in our modern society is a little knowledge. We know just enough to foul things up, not enough to actually understand what
it is that we are supposed to be doing.
The Second Amendment is a case in point; most people know only that it says something about a right to keep and bear arms, and to a proportion of low-information voters that means they have the right to go into a fancy restaurant wearing a muscle t-shirt showing their shoulder tattoo. Americans do not even know the wording of the original source document, much less the historical context of it.
The Second Amendment did not come out of a vacuum.
First, the right to keep and bear arms comes out of English law. Henry II commanded in the Assize of Arms in 1181:
“Let every holder of a knight’s fee have a hauberk, a helmet, a shield and a lance. And let every knight have as many hauberks, helmets, shields and lances, as he has knight’s fees in his demesne. Also, let every free layman, who holds chattels of rent to the value of 16 marks, have a hauberk, a helmet, a shield and a lance. Also, let every free layman who holds chattels or rent worth 10 marks have an ‘aubergel’ and a headpiece of iron, and a lance.”
This likewise did not come out of a vacuum; the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom did not have a standing army, but was protected by a militia. England fell to the Normans partly because Harold Godwinson had to dismiss his militia so they could return home for harvest at the precise time that dual invasions occurred (Harold Hardrada, the Norse king, invaded in northern England and was squashed by Godwinson, but then William struck at Hastings.) Possession of weapons was not just a right but a duty.
Later, King Charles I sought to impose arms control, which precipitated the English Civil War in no small part. (Link)
This came out of the feudal order; when the Roman Empire could no longer act to protect her citizenry the job fell to the wealthier citizens, to local governments, and to the People themselves. Lords were those who could afford to build defensible fortresses, and knights were men-at-arms who maintained their own arsenals. Even the peasantry was armed albeit not well. Your chance of surviving a Viking raid, or retaining your freedom at least, was slim without weapons.
None of this was lost on America’s Founding Fathers.
The first government of the United States was not under the Constitution, but rather under another document, one that governed the land for a six years prior. Here is what it says about armaments:
Article VI, paragraph IV:
“No vessel of war shall be kept up in time of peace by any State, except such number only, as shall be deemed necessary by the united States in congress assembled, for the defense of such State, or its trade; nor shall any body of forces be kept up by any State in time of peace, except such number only, as in the judgment of the united States, in congress assembled, shall be deemed requisite to garrison the forts necessary for the defense of such State; but every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”
Now, this may appear to be a limitation on the individual States in favor of centralized power, but that would be wrong. The sixth paragraph of article IX says;
“The united States in congress assembled shall never engage in a war, nor grant letters of marque or reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof, nor ascertain the sums and expenses necessary for the defense and welfare of the United States, or any of them, nor emit bills, nor borrow money on the credit of the united States, nor appropriate money, nor agree upon the number of vessels of war, to be built or purchased, or the number of land or sea forces to be raised, nor appoint a commander in chief of the army or navy, unless nine States assent to the same: nor shall a question on any other point, except for adjourning from day to day be determined, unless by the votes of the majority of the united States in congress assembled.”
and this ultimately is restricted by;
“Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
So, the Articles of Confederation make no mention of a right to keep and bear arms, but does make mention of the first portion of the Second Amendment to the Constitution “a well-regulated militia”. What can we learn from this?
For starters, the power to defend the states resided in the states themselves. The Federal government (actually the Confederated Government) had the authority to authorize foreign wars, meaning it could ask the individual states to raise an army or a navy, but it could not raise one itself, and it could only act if nine of the thirteen states agreed. This is a critical point to understand, because America was still at war when this document was under construction and the individual states did not want to trade George III for George I.
But there IS a restriction placed on the individual states – they could not maintain a standing army or navy. Modern commentators believe this meant the power was reserved to the central government, but it is clear the central government had no authority to maintain one, either. What is permissible is a militia, a “well-regulated and disciplined” militia. Militia are irregulars; private citizens who volunteer their time.
So the states themselves were restricted in terms of power, but were left in a stronger position than the central government which had to ask the states for any power whatsoever.
What is the point? Why was it necessary to put in a Second Amendment to the new U.S. Constitution?
Well, a militia has to be provisioned, has to be “well regulated” which was an old term meaning well supplied. If government was the sole supplier of weapons it would be quite simple to turn this militia against certain aspects of the citizenry.
History would bear this assertion out.
Consider Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas Nebraska act started a true civil war in the Kansas Territory and in western Missouri, and it was one faction of militia against another. You had the Border Ruffians, Missouri slaveholders who wanted to drive out the free soilers from the territory. You had the Jayhawkers, who wanted to punish the slaveholding Missourians and southern settlers in Kansas. Later you had the Bushwackers, commissioned by the Confederate States. Clearly, militia could be used for despotic purposes as easily as for defense. That a government is in charge is immaterial; the power of a militia is great. The Founders understood that it would be easy for the fledgling nation to be subverted by men with guns.
The Founding Fathers understood the dangers of any concentration of power. They knew what had happened during the English Civil War, and they understood the lessons of history. They knew that feudal kingdoms had formed around the military power of wealthy individuals with private armies. They understood that with “modern” weapons it would be quite easy for unscrupulous men to empower themselves in a land where government was disarmed. They also knew that worse tyrannies formed around governments that were not.
The treason case against Aaron Burr was a prime example of the dangers of non-governmental military power and ambition. Burr, having ruined his political career, plotted to create his own personal baronage. (Link)
The Founding Fathers understood the need to balance the new United States with the power of the individual states, and that power was ultimately supposed to be driven by state militias. There was a reason why the Second Amendment has just one right enumerated (and they actually bothered to enumerate it unlike many rights) and it follows the First Amendment; it is the way to guarantee the enumerated rights of the first. But what counterbalanced the state militias?
An armed citizenry, that’s what. You let everyone carry arms and everyone has to be polite. If a group of militia overstep their bounds you have other citizens ready to oppose them. State militias oppose Federal power, and armed citizens are there to oppose out-of-control state militias. Just as the powers of the central government was broken into thirds, so too the power of military might was so duly divided. It is part of the checks and balances intended to preserve freedom.
It all goes back to the fundamental view of Man held by the Founders. They did not think in the collective as we do now, but rather saw Man as first and foremost the ruler of himself, a right granted by God. Self-government was not a new or radical idea but it was an idea that was at odds with the patrician classes of Europe, who were jealous of their “divine right of Kings” and who believed men must be governed by their betters. In America the citizen was largely self-made. There was plenty of land, plenty of opportunity, and government was often a few neighbors working together. The guiding principle was the inherent liberty of the individual. The community was good, a gift from God, but its role was to foster and facilitate the individual in his quest for self-government. That is what Jefferson meant with “the pursuit of Happiness” in the Declaration of Independence; it meant the right to pursue self-government, to pursue not just physical and emotional well-being but moral and spiritual well being. (Link)
Remember, Jefferson lifted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from John Locke, who argued that there were three inalienable rights “life, liberty, and property”. The slavery issue loomed large, however, and it was Benjamin Franklin who suggested that property be removed because it was likely to start a row over the meaning of property. Pursuit of Happiness was substituted because it made sense from the perspective of what they were trying to do, create a kingdom of conscience. They wanted America to be self-governing, starting with the individual.
And that is precisely what is wrong with our modern times; the Left has systematically dismantled self-government in favor of law. Their fundamental idea of freedom is the right to do whatever pleases without regard to consequences, and it is the purpose of law to act as guardrails. This vision of freedom makes children of the populace, a nation of Peter Pans who are unable to grow into self-government. The Founders had a very different idea, namely, that Man should be instructed on what is right and true, and then be allowed to govern himself, to defer gratification, to practice virtue. If everyone cares for his own soul the need for government and law reduces. Government moves from being a yoke to being a lamppost, something that merely aids the free moral agent. But to self-govern requires self-discipline, which requires giving up things which make one happy. This means subordinating lusts, subordinating selfishness, subordinating those things which our Judeo-Christian heritage has always taught should be subordinated. The modern liberal cannot bear the thought, because his view of freedom is the deification of the self. We must be completely free to indulge our every whim, self-willed. The law as a spiritual entity, an acceptance of something that is built into the very fabric of the universe but can be rejected by choice (with consequences) is not at all palatable to liberals.
And so the Second Amendment fight. The core of revolutionary leftists know the right to keep and bear arms stands in the way of their fundamental transformation of society, but many rank-and-file liberals see it as a form of repression, because in their hearts they want an anarchic society constrained by legal guardrails and firearms in private hands mean a society that must be governed by self-restraint.
Liberals hate self-restraint; it restricts their feeling of freedom.
Doubt that last assertion? Just read any liberal website; the acerbic nature, the bad language, the, well, unrestrained, snarling nature of the Left is sometimes quite shocking. They no longer govern their own passions but rather feed the beast within. This is the society they wish to create, one in which they can give full sway to their emotions, to their darker passions, and do so without consequence. Conservative websites, on the other hand, usually follow a more polite, more structured format. Why? Because we ultimately hold to concepts like Natural Law and believe in self-government.
Just look at the difference between a Tea Party rally and an Occupy Wall Street event; the Tea Party event sees no arrests and clean grounds while the OWS event usually has injuries, rapes, scores of arrests, and filth everywhere. Why the difference?
The difference is that difference between the spoiled child and the mature man. The spoiled child shrieks “I don’t want to!” When told he has to stop hitting the neighbor kid, or when he is forced to go to bed. The man controls himself. Liberals cannot see themselves as free when the nagging voice of Jiminy Cricket whispers in their ears; they want to play as they see fit. Conscience is a real downer, guilt a slap at their absolute freedom. They prefer to play unrestrained in a playpen than walk the world as free men. Freedom is such a killjoy!
The United States was established on a sturdier foundation. It was established on the Judeo-Christian idea of freedom, that thing which can only come when one is master of oneself. The first government is self-government.
The Founding Fathers sought to create a nation governed first and foremost by individual conscience, and the right to keep and bear arms was written with that very purpose in mind. There is always a predator lying in wait. Best that everyone have sharp teeth.