So What DID the Nation’s Founders Think About Individual Gun Rights?

There has always been much debate and rhetoric about the true meaning of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and what it’s guarantee of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms really means.  From consternation over the placement of a comma to knee-jerk reactions to discourse over who, exactly, comprises the militia and what well regulated means, it seems like some are having a problem – perhaps deliberately, sometimes – grasping what the intention of our nation’s charter was.

Since we are celebrating the birth and early shaping of the United States of America this week, let’s take a look at what some of America’s architects had to say about gun rights and the necessity of individual firearm ownership.

As you read through these quotes and discussion, do so through the lens of current gun control laws and regulations, as well as those that have been proposed with various levels of success throughout history, and reflect on how you think the Founding Fathers may have felt about them.

Article the Fourth

First, let’s look at the Second.  The Second Amendment, that is.

Second Amendment to the United States ConstitutionIn discussing the inclusion of this text into the first amendments to the US Constitution, Massachusetts delegate Theodore Sedgwick pondered whether the forces of an oppressive government could enslave a populace “who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands.”  Virginia delegate George Mason spoke on government efforts to disarm the people, saying that it was “the best and most effectual way to enslave them.

“Father of American Scholarship and Education” Noah Webster agreed, saying:

Before a standing army can rule the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States.

Following the ratification of the original Constitution, James Monroe, who would go on to become the fifth president of the United States, proposed that the right to keep and bear arms be among the list of basic human rights that should be recognized.

The intent of the Constitutional amendment can be seen throughout the evolution of the phrasing:

  • The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country… (as initially proposed, June 8, 1789)
  • A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed… (as returned by committee, July 28)
  • A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed… (as given to the Senate by the House, Aug 24)
  • A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.. (as entered into the Senate journal, Aug 25)
  • A well regulated militia, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.  (as amended by Senate, Sept 4)
  • A well regulated militia being the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. (as re-amended by Senate after rejecting the addition of the phrase “for the common defense” as the reason for bearing arms, Sept 9)
  • 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. (as finally entered into House journal, Sept 21)

Following its inclusion in the Bill of Rights, Virgina Supreme Court member St. George Tucker wrote in his 1803 commentary:

[The right of the people to keep, and bear arms] may be considered as the true palladium of liberty…. The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.

Other Early Thoughts on the Individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. 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.” Thomas Jefferson, Proposed Virginia Constitution, Jefferson Papers 344

[T]he said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of The United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms… Samuel Adams, “Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” pp. 86-87 

The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed. Alexander Hamilton, “The Federalist Papers,” pp 184-188

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.  Thomas Jefferson, “Legal Commonplace Book” quoting Cesare Beccaria

[A]rms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as property. […] Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.  Thomas Paine

The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun. Patrick Henry, Speech at the Virginia Ratification Convention, 1787

The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.Thomas Jefferson

To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them… Richard Henry Lee Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republic, 1787

A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined…  George Washington, First Annual Address to both House of Congress, 1790

Have a safe and happy Independence Day!

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