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.
2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
When reading the Constitution, historical context is not only interesting but a necessity. The 2nd Amendment is such a short and seemingly innocuous statement. How can it now cause such controversy, even in discussions about the meaning of the very words? The debate over gun control and the 2nd Amendment hinges on the meaning of a well regulated militia. Modern interpretations often lean toward seeing a militia as uniformed officers of the law, the National Guard and other military units. A brief American Revolution history lesson shows that to be a faulty and misinformed definition.
The European Backdrop
As England and other countries overthrew the old feudal system of concentrated power, they systematically moved toward militias as their primary source of defense. The rank of private actually originated during the 16th century, and referred to men who used their own weapons and equipment. They were contracted as “private” soldiers to serve alongside regular army soldiers and mercenaries. Great Britain, in particular, had developed a deep distrust for standing military establishments by the late 1600s.
One of the initial acts of Parliament after the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England as a result of the Revolution of 1688 was to reinstate the old constitution with its stipulation that every man be armed for self-defense. Unfortunately, King George III became embroiled in so many military ventures early in his reign that he quickly shifted England’s focus back to standing armies and away from militias.
British colonists brought their English distrust of concentrated military power with them to the Americas. They saw power concentrated in the hands of government as a threat to civil liberties and thus integrated the tradition of the citizen-soldier into their colonial charters. The first militia unit in the New World was formed in 1636 as the North Regiment of Boston. Two years later the oldest military unit in existence was instituted as the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company.
In 1760, Britain began enacting mercantilist policies toward the colonies. By 1768, those policies had created such hardships on the colonists that their unrest prompted George III to dispatch British troops to suppress riots and collect taxes. Over the following eight years, the official British policy was to disarm American colonists by every means possible. Some of the government’s favorite tactics were entrapment, false promises of safekeeping, banning imports, seizure, and ultimately shooting persons who bore arms. This phase in disarming the colonists culminated in a British embargo of the shipment of arms to America in 1774. Americans responded by arming themselves and forming independent militia companies.
From this point on the outcome was almost inevitable. What would a people, who had for generations been raised with a belief in the right of private citizens to bear arms, do when that basic right was taken away? Then, on April 18, 1775, the governor of Massachusetts, General Gage, ordered hundreds of soldiers from the Boston garrison to seize the arms and munitions stored by the colonial militias in Concord that had previously been declared illegal. When the British encountered the Minutemen on the Lexington common blocking their way, the colonists were ordered to throw down their arms and disperse. The Minutemen agreed to disperse but soundly refused to surrender their arms. What happened next is memorialized in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord Hymn as the “shot that was heard around the world.”
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Several days after the British troops were forced to retreat from Concord, Boston citizens were refused exit from their city until they surrendered both arms and ammunition with the promise their arms would be returned at a “suitable time”. Gullible Bostonians complied upon which General Gage seized the arms and refused to allow their owners to leave the city. Word of Gage’s seizure of the arms of Bostonians who were not engaged in hostilities, along with rumors of British troops sailing from England to seize the arms of the colonists, swept through the colonies like wildfire. Right thinking colonists saw these actions as a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed right to have and use arms for self-preservation and defense.
Other rights fell like dominoes over the next few months. William Knox, Under-Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, championed the creation of a ruling aristocracy loyal to the Crown, establishment of the Church of England as the State Church and the unlimited power to tax. Aware of current unrest and the course he was setting, Knox proposed disarming all the people:
The Militia Laws should be repealed and none suffered to be re-enacted & the Arms of all the People should be taken away, & every piece of Ordnance removed into the King’s Stores, nor should any Foundry or manufacture of Arms, Gun-powder, or Warlike Stores, be ever suffered in America, nor should any Gunpowder, Lead, Arms or Ordnance be imported into it without License; they will have but little need of such things for the future, as the King’s Troops, Ships & Forts will be sufficient to protect them from danger.
Knox’s arguments are trumpeted today by nearly every liberal minded and “progressive” out there. Like William Knox, they assure us we don’t need arms for our own protection. They guarantee our protection from harm by the police and military. They ignore the fact that the single best deterrent against oppression is the armed private citizen. Either by design or unwittingly, they define police and military as militia when such couldn’t be further from the intention of the Founding Fathers. They ignore these words from men who knew all to well the power of an armed citizenry when faced by tyranny.
To disarm the people. . . was the best and most effectual way to enslave them. – George Mason
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed. – Noah Webster
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
Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined. – Patrick Henry