Keeping and Bearing Arms: How Far is Too Far? Do We Have the Right to Overthrow Our Government?

Posted on March 13, 2013. Filed under: Founding Fathers, History, United States Constitution | Tags: , , , |

As I’ve been working on my series of articles on the United States Constitution, I’ve been researching the Second Amendment. In particular, I was looking for records on the debates over the various proposed amendments, and I ran across this article. Thom Hartmann, the author of the piece, says that those who claim that the Second Amendment is there to protect the people from the government are going against the Founding Fathers.

He points to a webpage that shows records of the debates over the Second Amendment (at the time, the Fifth Amendment), that I have perused and bookmarked to use later.

His piece is factually correct, but I think he is drawing the wrong conclusions. He is failing to take into account that most of the people who held these debates were Federalists, people who believed in a strong centralized government, people more along his line of thinking.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was an ardent Federalist, but later joined Thomas Jefferson in creating the Democrat-Republican Party, the Anti-Federalist party when he felt the Federalists were trying to take too much power.

Hartmann is also derisive of those of us who believe in that purpose of the Second Amendment, saying “as though their fully-loaded AR-15 with 100-bullet drum will keep them safe from Predator drones and cruise missiles.”

He forgot the tanks, jet fighters and artillery.

But, he maintains, “If indeed this is the true intent of the 2nd Amendment, protection from the government, then here’s the newsflash: you guys are woefully outgunned. And the 2nd Amendment would have allowed you to own a cannon and a warship, so America today would look more like Somalia today with well-armed warlords running their own little fiefdoms in defiance of the federal government.”

The Continental Army was woefully outgunned and outnumbered during the Revolution. The British Army was a professional army, yet the rebels still managed to defeat them. Three out of every four cannons used by the Continental Army were captured from the British.

George Washington was defeated in battle after battle, yet he held the Continental Army and the Revolution together through sheer force of will and the power of his personality. He later presided over the Constitutional Convention, and later became the First President of the United States. He remained a humble man through all of this.

So, Hartmann derisively says the Second Amendment would allow you to own a cannon and/or a warship if it were intended to be a protection against a tyrannical government. I say the Second Amendment, nay The Constitution itself allows you to own cannon and a warship, if you look at it closely enough!

What’s that you say? I’m nuts?

Hmmm. Let’s see.

The United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, line 11, Congress has the Power: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

What is a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, you ask?


David Bushnell's American Turtle, the first American submarine. Built in 1775, its intended purpose was to break the British naval blockade of New York harbor during the American Revolution.

David Bushnell’s American Turtle, the first American submarine. Built in 1775, its intended purpose was to break the British naval blockade of New York harbor during the American Revolution.

In fact, the National Park Service’s website, a government agency. defines: privateers (privately owned ships authorized to make war)Even a government agency admits that warships can be privately owned.

If you follow Alexander Hamilton’s idea that the Constitution has implied powers, it is implied that citizens can have their own warships, complete with cannon.

And there is this little nugget:

In December 1941 and the first months of 1942, the Goodyear blimp Resolute was operated as an anti-submarine privateer based out of Los Angeles. As the only US craft to operate under a Letter of Marque since the War of 1812, the Resolute, armed with a rifle and flown by its civilian crew, patrolled the seas for submarines. See Shock, James R., Smith, David R., The Goodyear Airships, Bloomington, Illinois, Airship International Press, 2002, pg. 43, ISBN 0-9711637-0-7

So what was that argument about citizens not being able to own nuclear powered submarines?

The answer is yes, they can, and don’t try to argue that the Founders didn’t know what a submarine was.

Here is a photo of a Turtle:

Turtle replica at Essex, Connecticut

Turtle replica at Essex, Connecticut

For the record, Hollywood director James Cameron (The Terminator, The Abyss, Titanic) owns a submarine. Several other collectors own functioning tanks.

There are those who argue that cannon do not fall under the Second Amendment because a person cannot bear, or carry a cannon. That’s a limited definition of bear. To bear is not just to carry, but to move, to tend in a course or direction, to be located or situated. I would argue that as long as the cannon can be moved, if falls under the bear clause (get it?).

How far is too far, though? While it falls into the realm of the ridiculous, does that mean I can buy a rocket propelled grenade launcher? A nuclear weapon of any size? Do chemical weapons fall under arms? What about hand grenades?

I agree with Justice Scalia that there has to be reasonable restrictions. I don’t agree that banning machine guns and submachine guns are reasonable. It’s still illegal for criminals to own them, yet they still seem to get them, but for the gun control crowd, reasonable becomes more and more narrowly defined as more weapons are banned. Some weapons need to be banned, but it needs to stop there. Like I said before, the Constitution implies that I can own a warship, so I want one now. =) A cruiser, maybe?

The majority of Hartmann’s argument lies on the supposition that the militia was there to defend the government.

The Founders disliked standing armies, and who could blame them? Look at what the standing armies did to them. The Revolution became a hot war when the British moved to confiscate weapons and military supplies the they believed were stored at Concord, Massachusetts. The rebels already knew about that movement, and had moved most of the weapons and material west to places like Worcester (pronounced Wooster).

Instead of having a standing army, they elected to let each state have its own militia. These militias were to drill and practice to be ready to be called up by the Federal or State government if the need arose. Armies, on the other hand, were to be reevaluated every two years.

Today, we have a standing army, and the militias have been turned into the National Guard, a more or less Federalized militia. So, the idea of a militia has become outdated, right? In a sense, yes. Militia are nowhere near the competency of professional soldiers when it comes to training. The training of a militia is woefully inadequate. Still, the Second Amendment is very clear:

…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

History shows, however, that professional armies tend struggle with irregulars. Look at the lessons of Vietnam and Afghanistan, and the Revolution, for that matter. When in open combat, the militias get beaten time and again, but when they change their tactics to irregular tactics, the professionals struggle.

The Founders had no concept of the American military being a global force. They were only concerned with their neck of the woods, and wanted to be able to defend themselves if attacked. They never conceived going to Europe to chase the Nazis out. The Americans did nothing to help Europe take down Napoleon after he had conquered most of it. The Americans ended up fighting the British again during the War of 1812, but that had little to do with Napoleon, and more to do with the kidnapping of American sailors by the British to serve in their navy.

Hartmann quotes an 1814 letter from Thomas Jefferson in which Jefferson claims that the Romans had no standing armies. History would have to disagree with that. The Roman army started out as Jefferson said, but as the empire grew, it became necessary to have a standing army to control their empire. Eventually, the army grew to such size that the military essentially took control of the empire through a series of military coups.

The American system has also started with militias, and has now evolved to a standing army. Can military coups be far behind?

Yes, the Constitution gives the government the power to quell rebellions. What government wouldn’t? However, Hartmann argues that this in and of itself  that the Second Amendment is not about the ability to overthrow our own government.

He conveniently ignores the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

That, in and of itself gives us the right to overthrow our government, if the need arises.

George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights, and author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) wrote this, his third clause in his declaration:

That government is or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

The question then becomes not that we have the right to do it, but should we?

George Washington, in his Farewell Address, recommended trying the Amendment Process (Article V) before resorting to rebellion, among other things:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in the Constitution for the people to call a Constitutional Convention, only for the States to do so. I have posed the question before. Is it time? Do we need to pester our state officials to call such a convention? Several already have, but not enough.

So, it is not only Mr. Hartmann who is incorrect in his interpretations (from my point of view, anyway), so are the ones who say “Our ancestors would be shooting by now!”

We must heed the Wisdom of George Washington. We must try other means, peaceful means, first. Voting simply isn’t enough. While our government may be growing to frightening proportions, it is our duty to alter it, via the amendment process. The Constitution is not the place for denying rights to others, but the place to restrict the power and size of the government.

It is important to keep a few things in mind. The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) culminated in the rise of a dictator by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. The defeat of Imperial Germany during the First World War led to the Weimar Republic, which ultimately collapsed leading to the rise of a dictator named Adolf Hitler. Contrary to internet belief, Hitler was never elected by the people. Although he had become Chancellor through legal means, as soon as he had the numbers in the Reichstag, he seized absolute power.

Therein lies the danger of overthrowing a government by force. We must learn from history. More often than not, and the American experiment is the exception, not the rule, when a government is overthrown by force, a despot steps in. We Americans were lucky Washington was a humble man who became the first president. Otherwise, we could still be in a monarchy. We certainly wouldn’t have the system of government we have today.

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