The comments to the previous post on the current gun control debate generated an excellent discussion with a lot of useful information both about the history of the second amendment and the characteristics of the various types of guns that are out there and the appropriate terminology to refer to them, a lot of which was new to me since guns are peripheral to my life and I haven’t paid much attention to the topic.
One of the puzzles of the second amendment (to me at least) is the use of the opening phrase ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state’ to justify ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’. What was meant in those days by a militia and what should it be taken to mean now? What does ‘well regulated’ mean? What was the intended purpose of these militias? What is the ‘state’ that is being referred to? What kind of ‘security’ is being talked about? Some have argued that the opening phrase is boilerplate preamble that should not be given much weight. I am not so sure. The framers of the constitution were notoriously parsimonious with words so we have to assume they used them with deliberate intent.
Since there were no standing armies at either the federal or state level at that time the constitution was written, I had assumed that what was being talked about was something like the present day National Guard except much more informal and loosely structured, consisting of volunteer groups of citizens at a local level with some military training who could be mobilized quickly if necessary to quell civil disorder and defend against an invader.
But Thom Hartmann has an interesting article that says that the language of the second amendment had no such benign intent. Instead it was a carrot to get the slave owning states to sign on to the new constitution by putting in a provision that allowed them to continue the ‘slave patrols’ that then existed to keep slaves in order. The ‘well regulated militia’ referred to those slave patrols (which were actually called state militias then) and ‘security of a free state’ meant preventing the collapse of those states with slave economies if the militias that enforced slavery were undermined.
In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they were also called the “slave patrols,” and they were regulated by the states.
In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.
As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”
It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.
Hartmann then explains why the slave owning states were alarmed that the proposed new constitution might be used by abolitionists to take away this slave-maintaining power and were determined to put in language that would protect them.
If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband – or even move out of the state – those southern militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether.
These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).
Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.
Hartmann makes a persuasive case that those who supported the institution of slavery were determined to keep the slave patrols independent of the federal government and that this was what lay behind the language of the second amendment. I am not an expert on US history, never having had to study it as a subject in school and have not even read the Federalist Papers, but I know that some readers of this blog know a lot about this topic and I am curious to learn what they think of his argument.