The Second Amendment: The Founding Fathers (Part One)

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Thomas Jefferson Memorial (Photo credit: Eduardo V C Neves)

What did some of our Founding Fathers who were not members of Congress, think about the right to keep and bear arms?

Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson.

No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms. – Jefferson’s drafts of the Virginia Constitution

The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets [sic]? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably [sic] conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant [sic] 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787

The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, … or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press.Jefferson to Major John Cartwright, 1824

The following quote is often erroneously attributed to Jefferson, but it was not he who said it. It was found in the Legal Commonplace Book of quotations that Jefferson was compiling, and was actually found in Essays On Crimes and Punishment, by criminologist Cesare Beccaria.

Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one.

This link leads to a page of “spurious quotations” by Jefferson. All this means is that Jefferson didn’t say it, not that it was never said.

We see this kind of reaction today, with the attempts by Congress and various State legislatures to control weaponry in this country. In the end, it won’t help the law abiding citizen, only the criminals.

Jefferson obviously thought that the people being armed was important, believing that there had to be a revolution every 20 years or so.

John Adams:

Adams, the first Vice President of the United States, and its second President, believed that only the militias should be allowed arms, not individuals, except for cases of self defense, and that militia must be answerable to the executive authority.

…but if the militia are to obey a sovereignty in a single assembly, it is commanded, paid, and subsisted, and a standing army, too, may be raised, paid, and subsisted, by the vote of a majority; the militia, then, must all obey the sovereign majority, or divide, and part follow the majority, and part the minority. This last case is civil war; but, until it comes to this, the whole militia may be employed by the majority in any degree of tyranny and oppression over the minority. The constitution furnishes no resource or remedy; nothing affords a chance of relief but rebellion and civil war. If this terminates in favor of the minority, they will tyrannize in their turn, exasperated by revenge, in addition to ambition and avarice; if the majority prevail, their domination becomes more cruel, and soon ends in one despot. It must be made a sacred maxim, that the militia obey the executive power, which represents the whole people in the execution of laws. To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defence, or by partial orders of towns, counties, or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed, and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws. This truth is acknowledged by our author, when he says: “The arms of the commonwealth should be lodged in the hands of that part of the people which are firm to its establishment. – A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States, 475 [1787-1788]

Adams feared that allowing arms in the hands of citizens would result in mob rule and anarchy, the minority constantly fighting with the majority, each tyrannizing the other. Thus, they had to be answerable to the highest power instead of to the authority of cities or towns.

Resistance to sudden violence, for the preservation not only of my person, my limbs, and life, but of my property, is an indisputable right of nature which I have never surrendered to the public by the compact of society, and which perhaps, I could not surrender if I would. – (under the pseudonym U.) Boston Gazette, Sept. 5, 1763 

George Washington:

Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories [sic] as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.

The proper establishment of the troops which may be deemed indispensable will be entitled to mature consideration. In the arrangements which may be made respecting it it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the officers and soldiers with a due regard to economy.First State of the Union address; January 8, 1790

There are those who say that Washington was talking about the military, not the individual citizen. However, in one paragraph, he refers to a free people, not troops. He specifies troops in the next paragraph. There is a major difference between the two. What he is saying is that the people ought not to only be armed, they need to be disciplined as well. They need training and to be drilled, and in order to fulfill that notion, there needs to be a plan. Since the Federal government was more subservient to the States at that time, it was left to the States to perform that duty, as laid out in the Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, clause 16.

The people should promote manufacturing plants to create their own supplies, not just for military use. This is part of the plan for common defense.

To say otherwise is willful ignorance, or the twist of the meaning of the plain words of Washington. It ignores that everyone who was of a certain age was expected to serve in the militias.

While it is true, however, that Washington was talking about defense, he was not referring just to the defense of the nation, but the defense of the people. His speech also refers to the “depredations of certain hostile Indian tribes”. His speech refers to the defense of the inhabitants of those regions.

One common misconception, as far as I am concerned of “common defense” is that all of this, including the Second Amendment, refers to the defense of the government(s). The thing that has been forgotten, or misplaced is that all of this is about the defense of the people. Those who are pro-big government tend to forget the most important factor of government; the People. The government is not the be all, end all. Government governs at the consent of the governed (try saying that three times fast). It does not necessarily follow that defense of the nation, the State, or of the people is the defense of the Federal government.

Alexander Hamilton:

Hamilton, founder of the Federalist Party and first Secretary of the Treasury, wrote in the Federalist #29 that it was impractical to discipline every militia, and doing so would cut into the productivity of the nation, so only some militias would be disciplined full time. However, it would be necessary to assemble the other militias once or twice a year to drill and practice with arms.

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource 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…

…It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority. – Federalist #28

The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution. A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss. It would form an annual deduction from the productive labor of the country, to an amount which, calculating upon the present numbers of the people, would not fall far short of the whole expense of the civil establishments of all the States. To attempt a thing which would abridge the mass of labor and industry to so considerable an extent, would be unwise: and the experiment, if made, could not succeed, because it would not long be endured. Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.

“But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should, as soon as possible, be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia. The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate extent, upon such principles as will really fit them for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan, it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, 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 the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.  – Federalist #29

Samuel Adams (cousin to John Adams):

If ever time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin. – 1780

Thomas Paine (the author of the 1776 booklet Common Sense), on the American Revolution that had just broken out in Massachusetts:

Whoever considers the unprincipled enemy we have to cope with, will not hesitate to declare that nothing but arms or miracles can reduce them to reason and moderation. They have lost sight of the limits of humanity. The portrait of a parent red with the blood of her children is a picture fit only for the galleries of the infernals [sic]. From the House of Commons the troops of Britain have been exhorted to fight, not for the defence [sic] of their natural rights, not to repel the invasion or the insult of enemies; but on the vilest of all pretences [sic], gold. “Ye fight for solid revenue” was vociferated in the House. Thus America must suffer because she has something to lose. Her crime is property. That which allures the Highwayman has allured the ministry under a gentler name. But the position laid down by Lord Sandwich, is a clear demonstration of the justice of defensive arms. The Americans, quoth this Quixote of modern days, will not fight; therefore we will. His Lordship’s plan when analized [sic] amounts to this. These people are either too superstitiously religious, or too cowardly for arms; they either cannot or dare not defend; their property is open to any one who has the courage to attack them. Send but your troops and the prize is ours. Kill a few and take the whole. Thus the peaceable part of mankind will be continually overrun by the vile and abandoned, while they neglect the means of self defence [sic] . The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not,others dare not lay them aside. And while a single nation refuses to lay them down, it is proper that all should keep them up. Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths, and facts need but little arguments when they prove themselves.Thoughts on Defensive War, 1775

Paine felt that arms were a necessity to keep the wolves at bay. Arms were for the defense of the nation and for war.

George Mason:

I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for few public officials.

This is the end of part one. More quotes from other Founding Fathers will be found in Part Two.

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