Our most precious right is the “right to bear arms.”
Think not? Well let us see. We all think that this right comes to us in the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights, but is that so? As a matter of fact most of us were taught that all our rights came from and are protected by the “Bill of Rights” so beautifully enumerated in the Constitution of the United States of America. Not so!
I have read and re-read the “Bill of Rights” countless times and I can think of many rights, that to me, are not specifically enumerated … how about you? For instance, how about the right to communicate or the unfettered right to travel or to be secure in your employment from governmental interference?
We all know about the First Amendment and most of us are aware, in addition, to the 2nd Amendment, the 5th Amendment … the attorneys we know are aware of the 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Amendments, but can you tell me about the 3rd or 9th Amendments? If you are a faithful reader of this blog, I would hope that you know about the 10th Amendment … “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States are hereby reserved to the States …” But all these ten Amendments, not just one or two, are the “Bill of Rights” the greatest statement of the rights of man ever guaranteed to a populace in all history. These rights are the reason that Americans are free men. It is, to me, incomprehensible to imagine the American Constitution without the “Bill of Rights.”
But it was not always so. Founders like Madison, Jay and Hamilton believed that the Constitution adopted in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, which did not contain a bill of rights, was sufficient to the new Federal government and initially fought against an amended constitution containing such a bill. These three men wrote a series of essays, now known as the “Federalist Papers,” explaining the document and urging its adoption. However, there were other Founders who, with good cause, opposed adoption of the new constitution because they strongly distrusted imposition of an all powerful central government … after all they had just had fought and won a war against an autocratic, tyrannical, arbitrary and unresponsive central government. The former group became known as the “Federalists” and the doubters the “Anti-Federalists.” The Anti-Federalists also wrote a series of essays, essays which opposed the adoption, “The Anti-Federalist Papers” that were just as compelling as the “Federalist Papers.” Today most people reading of those times are unaware of or tend to disregard the “Anti-Federalist Papers.” Many of these papers of opposition were written by anonymous authors writing under, as was then common practice, pseudonyms. Some of these authors were, among many others, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and George Mason of Virginia and George Clinton and Melancton Smith of New York. Samuel Adams and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and Luther Martin of Maryland, all men who had devoted their lives to the rights of free men, were among the strongest adversaries of a new constitution because it did not contain a bill of rights. And don’t forget the looming influence of Thomas Jefferson, who was in France when the Constitution was written, and was a lifelong enemy of strong central government and an equally strong proponent of the rights of man.
We were not taught in school how very contested the debates in the state ratifying conventions were as to whether to adopt the new constitution. The new Constitution was adopted in many states by tiny majorities, sometimes by as few as two votes. Eventually and because of the opposition of the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists in order to secure ratification consented to immediately adopt a bill of rights from a series of suggestions from the various states. Being men of honor, the promises were kept and the new constitution was adopted and true to their word, the Federalists in the first Congress proposed our “Bill of Rights” which the states subsequently duly ratified.
The debate as to what was to be included in the bill in the Congress was intense. The members did their best to delineate all the “Rights of Man” but there was concern. Finally, after incorporating the most obvious rights, as the story goes, James Wilson (probably), proposed what became the 9th Amendment … “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain Rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” … a catchall reserving all of Man’s Natural Rights to the people … “lest we forget one.” The 9th Amendment, so unused and quaint, more than any other makes it clear that the “Bill of Rights” is all about the personal freedom of American citizens.
So where did rights come from? The great thinkers of the “Enlightenment”, Locke and Montesquieu among them and including some of our Founders, postulated that man in his primitive state, before there was any government, had prefect freedom, freedom not given to him by any man, government or authority, but by his existence … his being … by his Creator. Rights that were not negotiable … they were God given – that no power of man could take away. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. (or Property, as Jefferson would have had it) …”
Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom from governmental force, freedom in personal effects, freedom to contract, freedom to legal justice and freedom to defend ones person and property were certainly “Natural Rights”, but certainly not all of Man’s rights.
From earliest history it has been an axiom that man is ultimately responsible to protect his person and property himself. It is his “Natural Right” and duty. The right and use of arms is what separated man from the beasts of the field. His arms protected him from criminals and soldiery. All the great thinkers of history, Hammurabi, Aristotle and Cato among them conceded the right of the individual to defend himself. When autocrats wanted to be secure in their tyranny, the first thing that they did was to disarm the citizenry thereby precluding the possibility of revolt against their regimes. The Nazis in Germany didn’t register gun owners, they registered the guns. Even the credulous Germans would not have suffered the registration of gun owners, but they apparently felt it OK to register guns that might be used in crimes … for “safety’s sake.” Of course, when the state authorities wanted to confiscate the guns, they went to the owner …you … and demanded them. If you couldn’t produce the registered arms, it was off to jail … presumably the concentration camp. It is well known that the Japanese did not contemplate invasion of the US because of the specter of the armed citizenry.
The benefits of the 2nd Amendment about which we were taught were that we could hunt, protect ourselves from predators, protect ourselves from criminals and those who would do us harm and additionally that we could quickly mass ourselves and our neighbors into a militia to protect our communities and states from organized aggression, be it foreigners, Indians or insurrection.
Most of the American colonists at the time of the American Revolution considered themselves to be English subjects if not if fact Englishmen with the rights and privileges gained from centuries of struggle in the British Isles. The King and Parliament, for the most part, thought otherwise, they treated the colonists as conquered foreigners. The causes of the American Revolution are replete with autocratic rules, taxes and edicts designed to punish and to take unfair advantage of the colonists, which were administrated by governors, judges and bureaucrats who came from the old country and were answerable only to the King and his minions. To add insult to injury, the King stationed military troops in the colonies to enforce his tyranny.
The right to bear arms afforded to Englishmen (Protestants at least), although a “Natural Right” dating from antiquity, had been codified in 1689 under the reign of William and Mary. Since many, if not most, colonists were armed for obvious reasons, when the King began to oppress them, he and his governors, with good reason, feared insurrection. The King’s men began to confiscate arms and the colonists began to hoard them. This waltz culminated when the British garrison in Boston got wind of a cache of arms that the colonists had at Lexington. The British moved for the arms, the colonial “Minute Men” resisted, a shot was fired that was heard around the world and the rest is history.
The fact is that the proximate cause of the American Revolution was because a tyranny tried usurp the right to bear arms and the colonists rebelled rather than to prostrate themselves defenseless before that evil. Remember that the legal government at that time was the British government and that the fight began when that government tried to subjugate its citizens by taking away the ordinary man’s “Natural Right” to bear the arms necessary to his well being.
Back to the “Bill of Rights.” At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, the American States did not need a bill of rights, because most of them had already codified a “Bill of Rights” in their constitutions or charters and those who had not done so all subscribed to the “Natural Rights of Man”, having agreed to that premise when they signed on to the “Declaration of Independence.” The “Bill of Rights” that we all venerate had already been enshrined in antiquity, the “Magna Carta”, the “English Bill of Rights”, the “Declaration of Independence” and in the codes and traditions of the States. So why was it necessary?
Under the new Constitution the Federal government was instituted to provide for peace and harmony among the States and to promote orderly trade and commerce among them. Additionally, it was to protect the commerce of the States with foreign countries and upon the high seas. And finally, it was created to deal with international affairs, be it commerce or war. The powers of the Federal government are few, the 17 powers delineated in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. But those powers combined with the arbitrary and unreviewable power the judiciary to interpret and the possibility of tyrannical execution of the laws in the hands of an unscrupulous executive gave the Anti-Federalists pause to believe that a new tyranny similar to or worse than the one they had just overthrown could be reinstituted under the new Constitution. They insisted that the rights of man be incorporated in the new document so that there could never be a temptation to abridge or abolish them by simple statute. Their fears were well founded!
The prescient Thomas Jefferson saw it best of all … he said: “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
And …” The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.”
And … “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
The question is “What is to be done when the government and those who govern do not obey the law?”
Jefferson’s insight was this …
“The people cannot 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 lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty…. And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the 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 its natural manure.”
What good are our rights if they cannot be enforced? None of the sacred rights in the “Bill of Rights” can be enforced of its own volition except the 2nd Amendment and it insures that none of the others can be long endangered.
The 2nd Amendment was included, although partially for our national defense, but primarily as a threat to those in high office in our national government who would attempt to subjugate us. We are today confronted by a foreign enemy, with citizen fellow travelers, more fearsome than any government or tyrant in history; it is international socialism, the antithesis of our free society. And there are people in high office, some knowingly, most unknowingly, trying to make us as defenseless before them as the German populace was before Nazi tyranny.
The 2nd Amendment is our greatest freedom, for with it we can protect all our other freedoms.
We must preserve it!