Monday, January 12, 2009

The Founders' Second Amendment by Stephen P. Halbrook

This is the first of a series of three posts on the Health Of The Republic. The second post is about the Tragedy of the Commons and why it leads to larger, more intrusive government. The third post is about what motivates the government to act this way, and what to do about it.
Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana
We've forgotten a lot. The years slide gracefully into a pleasant blur, old men's memories cloud, and then fail. Inconvenient truths are put out of the way, up on that high shelf in the back of the store room. It's such a pain to get the step ladder to look, are you sure that you really want to see?

This Republic was forged in the fire of Revolution, and a fire it was. Nowadays people mostly get an airbrushed Morality Play, a sepia toned hymn of greatness-in-being, midwifed by a cast part Greek Chorus, part Einstein.
All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.
The reality was different, and much, much more interesting. Stephen P. Halbrook reminds us of the crucible of our Republic, that it was a hot and turbulent debate. The book was designed to - and succeeds at - remind us of the assumptions about the necessity of an armed populace that was universal across both sides of the ratification debate.

We've forgotten that. The idea that four of the Justices of the Supreme Court could describe firearms as limited to militia use in the dissent to Heller v. District of Columbia says that it's not just Joe Everyman who sees this past in sepia hues, but the intelligentsia. They should read this book.

The Constitution was originally drafted without a Bill of Rights, and the Federalists did not want one. Pennsylvania's James Wilson summed up the reason for the absence (p. 192):
A proposition to adopt a measure that would have supposed that we were throwing into the general government every power not expressly reserved by the people, would have been spurned at; in that house, with the greatest indignation ... If we attempt an enumeration, every thing that is not enumerated is presumed to be given.
On the other side of the debate were the Anti-Federalists, who demanded a Bill of Rights. Benjamin Franklin was one of these skeptics, saying "this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it ..." (p. 176).

Halbrook ably describes the heated debate that raged between these two groups. In some states (Delaware), there was no debate at all; the Federalists ran the show. In other states, the Constitution was either ratified with an explicit demand for a Bill of Rights (New Hampshire), or was explicitly not ratified without one (Vermont). In almost all, the debate was hot. He quotes (p. 202) Massachusetts Federalist leader Theodore Sedgwick, complaining an opponent:
... is making every possible exertion & by the meanest and basest arts stimulating pub[l]ick passions. He says that it will be a government for great men & law[y]erss. That the people will be disarmed. That a standing army will be immediately formed &ca. &ca. &ca.
Neither group trusted the government. We've forgotten that. The Federalists are sometimes painted as the "Big Government" party. They weren't. So why did they oppose the explicit limits on a federal government that they didn't trust?

They thought that the people would rise up in revolution, all over again (p. 235):
The New York federalists were led by John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, who had argued in The Federalist No. 29 that military establishments would not be a danger where "a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms," were ready to defend their right.
The book is filled with similar quotes. The casual reference to the armed defense of liberty is universal. Private ownership of firearms was not just thought A Good Thing by everyone, it was simply assumed.

We've forgotten this.

Ultimately, consensus mandated the Bill of Rights. And while technically a defeat for the Federalists, history has shown that they were right. Bit by bit, encroachment by encroachment, the power of the government has expanded. The Anti-Federalists were right, too: the militia did not leave their farms and workshops, massing on the town green, to dispute a couple of marginal tax rate percentages with powder and lead. Sedgewick's opponent saw more clearly than he:
He says that it will be a government for great men & law[y]erss. That the people will be disarmed. That a standing army will be immediately formed
God save this honorable Republic.

This book serves two purposes. It is exhaustive documentation to put to rest the (hopefully dieing) claim that the Second Amendment is a collective right, only intended for a Militia. Give a copy to anyone making this argument, or you'll make Baby Vulcan cry.

It's also a reminder to us - a Morality Play, after all - that even great men cannot see the future clearly, and what is casually assumed today can be under assault tomorrow. And that the small battles fought today are more important than a Gotterdammerung where nobody shows up.

UPDATE 13 January 2009 12:19: Welcome visitors from MArooned! Take a look around. More of this in the "Second Amendment" file.

UPDATE 13 January 2009 14:20: More on the difficulty in seeing the future here.


JD said...

I think the Founders would be surprised that we have not revolted yet and probably ask why not. . . .

Brad_in_MA said...


Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds interesting. If you want to read about erosion of liberties, check out The Dirty Dozen. It was co-authored by the fellow who funded Heller's court case all the way to the SCOTUS.

Ted said...

JD, you very well may be right. I think that the Founders would be surprised about a lot of things.

Brad, it sounds interesting, and maybe another Recommended Reading post.

DirtCrashr said...

Just finished it, I learned a lot that wasn't taught in HS.
What surprised me was that so many didn't want a Bill of Rights, that they believed it was unnecessary and sullied the diamond-like perfection of the Constitution.
Alternatively I'm beginning to wonder if when new "Rights" are discovered by SCOTUS through various penumbras and emanations etc. they seem to be Rights that already existed but were until now unenumerated - and probably should have been.
Like Privacy. If anyone were to tell Jefferson or Washington that the Gubbmin't could easily monitor people's various behavior and communications he'd probably crack them on the skull and call them a lowly cur. Except in time of war. Each side accused the other of delaying and interferring with the Mail...