Gun Rights: What Did The Founders Say?

This is not intended to be a scholarly work! It is simply a context for why the right to keep and carry arms was included and a little about the debate. There was so much said on the subject (the founders liked a good argument) that I had to pare it down to a few, and I chose some of the less commonly quoted founding fathers to speak.

I suppose that the first to speak on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, should be the Constitution itself:

“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.”

There was a debate among the founders. Truly there were many debates among the founders, but this one was what brought about our second amendment.

There seemed to be little opposition to the fact that individuals should act upon their right to self defense and keep and bare arms. That was not the question.
The question which inspired this debate was the question of a standing army.

Militia and Army

Our Constitution

Many were in favor of such a body, and many were not. The chief objection was that in all cases throughout history, a standing army had been used to oppress it’s own people. The idea of the militia, variously defined even in those days was brought up and given some debate, in the end it did not seem to matter much how it was defined, but here are some of the founders ideas related to the militia:

“I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.”
– George Mason, in Debates in Virginia Convention on Ratification of the Constitution, from Elliot, Vol. 3, June 16, 1788

Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts got right to the heart of the matter asking: “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”

At this stage, the militia was understood to be the body of the people themselves. The militia did, at least in part, gradually evolve into a standing army, but each state continued to maintain it’s own units, and neither the standing army nor the militia ever superseded the rights of the people themselves to own weapons. In the ensuing years, militia and army were both accepted, and neither were completely trusted by the populace, who, you will recall, had just fought a war against the standing army of their own country! The distrust seems to have been built in on purpose.

A Standing Army

Noah Webster takes us back to the principle again and shows why a standing army could be built, but kept under check by the people themselves:

“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 pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.”
– Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).

Knowing that many of the delegates didn’t really want a standing army. Many of the Federalists, among them; Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Jay sought to show that it would better serve the needs of the new nation if there existed a well regulated, well armed always prepared combat force available in case of attacks from other countries. They argued that no one should fear the army, because a well armed public would always outnumber any standing army and would always posses arms of equal lethality. It seems to have not occurred to them to think otherwise

At least that was the argument then, and they were convincing enough that we ended up, eventually, with a standing army, and because of existing militias and standing armies, the second amendment was needed to ensure the people themselves the right to defense against any and all, to quote Tench Cox:

“Whereas civil-rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
– Tench Coxe, in Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution (Using the Pseudonym `A Pennsylvanian’ in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789 at 2 col. 1)

Knowing this, to a modern reader the second amendment could be understood to read something like this:

A well regulated militia (that is a formal army) being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms (that is, the right of the people to keep and carry arms to defend against a formal military or for other self defense) shall not be infringed. (infringed means touched, it means that this right is not to be tinkered with legislated away, blocked or otherwise tampered with!)

Or:

Since an organized military is needed for the safety of the state, the right of the people to keep and carry firearms shall not be touched!

Or:

Since it is necessary to have an organized military, it is necessary that the people themselves have the right to possess arms for the purpose of defending themselves against them!

Whether one sees the militia as the citizen army, or the militia as the army makes little difference in the end. Either way, the people have the right to arms to protect themselves against tyranny from armies, militias, outsiders or all the above!

I am not sure why such plain language has caused such disagreements in the American public and politic. It seems plain and simple. I have great difficulty understand why some people thought it had something to do with hunting. This is particularly peculiar given the enormous body of information left by founders who were dealing with these issues at the start of our republic.

The founders speak on sticking to your guns

I wanted to let the people who were involved in the debate speak for themselves! There is much recorded on the subject and not all debaters, even on the same side of the issue agreed on the terminology as you will see. You can almost hear between the lines of the debate. and see the missing parts and sedgways! I propose to let them argue it out in your mind, and allow you the opportunity Here are just a few more genuine quotes from founders of our Republic regarding the second amendment:

  • “…if raised, whether they could subdue a Nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty, and who have arms in their hands?”
    — Delegate Sedgwick, during the Massachusetts Convention, rhetorically asking if an oppressive standing army could prevail, Johnathan Elliot, ed., Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol.2 at 97 (2d ed., 1888)
  • “As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.” Tench Coxe, in `Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution’ under the Pseudonym `A Pennsylvanian’ in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789 at 2 col. 1).
  • “The prohibition is general. No clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to Congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretense by a state legislature. But if in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either should attempt it, this amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both.” William Rawle, A View of the Constitution 125-6 (2nd ed. 1829)
  • “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.” George Mason, in Debates in Virginia Convention on Ratification of the Constitution, Elliot, Vol. 3, June 16, 1788
  • “Whereas civil-rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.” Tench Coxe, in Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution
  • “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed.” Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers at 184-188
  • If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse 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. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28
  • “That the 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, at 86-87 (Pierce & Hale, eds., Boston, 1850)
  • “[The Constitution preserves] the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation…(where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 46
  • “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 pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.” Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).
  • “Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” Tenche Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.
  • “Whereas, 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; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it.” Richard Henry Lee, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.
  • “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. ME 6:373, Papers 12:356
  • “No Free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Thomas Jefferson, Proposal Virginia Constitution, 1 T. Jefferson Papers, 334,[C.J. Boyd, Ed., 1950]
  • “The right of the people to keep and bear … arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country …” James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789
  • “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.” Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, spoken during floor debate over the Second Amendment, I Annals of Congress at 750, August 17, 1789
  • ” … to disarm the people – that was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” George Mason, 3 Elliot, Debates at 380
  • ” … 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 use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights …” Alexander Hamilton speaking of standing armies in Federalist 29
  • “Are we at last brought to such humiliating and debasing degradation, that we cannot be trusted with arms for our defense? Where is the difference between having our arms in possession and under our direction, and having them under the management of Congress? If our defense be the real object of having those arms, in whose hands can they be trusted with more propriety, or equal safety to us, as in our own hands?” Patrick Henry, 3 J. Elliot, Debates in the Several State Conventions 45, 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1836
  • “The great object is, that every man be armed … Every one who is able may have a gun.” Patrick Henry, Elliot, p.3:386
  • “O sir, we should have fine times, indeed, if, to punish tyrants, it were only sufficient to assemble the people! Your arms, wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone …” Patrick Henry, Elliot p. 3:50-53, in Virginia Ratifying Convention demanding a guarantee of the right to bear arms
  • “The people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them.” Zachariah Johnson, delegate to Virginia Ratifying Convention, Elliot, 3:645-6