The meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has always been a puzzle. The text reads (my emphasis below):
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
What is a “well regulated militia”? And why does it say “state” and not “nation”? We as a nation have both puzzled over this for some time and been treated to a great deal of propaganda about those meanings.
Now comes Thom Hartmann, who has done a fascinating piece of research. I believe we have the answer to all those questions. Those answers will surprise you, but they will also make a great deal of sense once you see them. Hartmann’s headline is the same as mine. He writes (again, emphasis mine and some reparagraphing):
The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote [ratifying the Constitution itself]. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.
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.
The “well regulated state militias” of that day were busy:
[S]lave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy. By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.
And that need to maintain slave-hunting state militias was critical to the maintenance of the Southern aristocracy — just as was the creation of the explicitly anti-democratic U.S. Senate, by the way. But back to these militias; Hartmann again:
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.
And there you have it. The federal power to raise and supervise its own militia threatened the existence of the state militias, and also gave the federal government a back-door way to free Southern slaves.
The rest of Hartmann’s article details the discussions among the founders about how to guarantee that the Constitution would be ratified, while also guaranteeing that the slave-owning Southern aristocracy could keep their police state (sorry, their “well regulated militias”).
Thus was born the Second Amendment. Like all of the Bill of Rights, each of the first ten amendments was crafted to address a concern. Jefferson believed that a Bill of Rights wasn’t necessary — he thought that enumerating rights would imply that any rights not enumerated didn’t exist, and he strongly believed that all power not expressly given in the main document was reserved, including all rights not expressly taken away. [Update: Perhaps my bad memory that this was Jefferson's opinion --- it was certainly the opinion of the contemporary writer "Brutus," possibly Robert Yates.]
But others begged to differ, and others won. Thus was born the Bill of Rights, which explicitly declared — at least until the modern era — what the U.S. government could not do. (We freely practice police-state search-and-seizure, restriction of speech to “free speech zones” and other anti-Constitutional atrocities today — I’m looking at you, Mr. Executive Assassination — but it was nice while it lasted.)
Thanks to Thom Hartmann for this fascinating and eye-opening piece.
Why does this matter?
I have a couple of take-aways from this, the last of which I urge gun-violence activists to give serious consideration:
1. I found this historically fascinating, just on its own. I love this kind of find. Like finding out that the explicit goal of the Senate was to frustrate democracy (Madison and Franklin in their discussions and differing views of government-sanctioned property rights).
2. Interpreters of the Second Amendment always say the founders’ intent was to allow people to defend themselves against the government. This research shows that the amendment had no such purpose. In fact, except for Jefferson, our founders — that day’s aristocrats — hated anti-government insurrection (save their own). Intent is not nothing when considering law; it’s not everything, considering that people and their needs change over time; but it’s not nothing.
3. There’s a huge PR opportunity here. Painting the Second Amendment as a defense of racism & slavery is a nice way to rebrand the NRA types — both the organization itself and its most virulent supporters.
As Color Of Change has shown with its Trayvon-driven anti-ALEC campaign, racism is now a bridge too far for most Americans, and most people and corps will run these days when credibly painted as racist. In other words, people are always talking Second Amendment in terms favorable to the NRA. This is a way to change that discussion.
I guess if there’s an activist bottom line, it’s point number three. Anyone?
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