Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms.” – Richard Henry Lee, Federal Farmer XVIII, January 25, 1788.
A significant point of contention in the debates over the proposed United States Constitution was the maintenance of a peacetime army. Some stalwart opponents, like Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts, wanted a ban on a “standing” army written into the Constitution. Others wanted the text to specify a maximum number and an expressly limited peacetime use, such as for border garrisons. In the minds of many Americans, standing armies were a direct and dire threat to the people’s liberties. Recalling their use by the last Stuart kings and the debate over them in the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, those Americans saw such an army as a tool of monarchical absolutism unfit for a republican system.
Instead, those critics wanted to rely on the militias of the states as the principal armed forces. Militia service long had been the mainstay of colonial self-government. It extended to all men able to bear arms, with some variations as to age and race. Universal service was a practical necessity to suppress insurrections and counter Indian raids. It also maintained the ancient republican connection between military service and qualification to participate in the community’s public affairs. Laws required individuals to keep arms sufficient to serve in the militia and, in some communities, to bear those arms while walking about.
The critics’ alarms about the Constitution were only magnified when they saw that the proposed charter also gave Congress the power to organize, arm, and discipline the militia, and to govern the militia employed in the service of the United States. They considered this to be an obvious attempt to deprive the states of control over their militias by establishing a highly trained national “select militia” composed of only a small portion of the whole eligible militia, in effect creating a standing army by another means. The distinction between the whole militia and a select militia was a common practice at the state level and was also followed by the federal government with the Militia Act of 1792. Although men fifty-five years old might be part of a state’s whole militia, they were unlikely to be called out for actual service at that age. Alternatively, critics charged that these provisions allowed Congress to neglect funding and training the militia altogether.
Supporters of the Constitution pointed to the Revolutionary War to expose the deficiencies in armament and training of the militias. General George Washington wrote the Continental Congress about his wartime experience with the militia:
“To place any dependence on the Militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff. Men just dragged from the tender Scenes of domestic life; unaccustomed to the din of Arms; totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly trained, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows….”
The general tenor of Washington’s letter reflected a common critique. Alexander Hamilton, a former militia officer who also served in the regular Continental Army, was more generous in Essay No. 25 of The Federalist, but nevertheless made similar points:
“The American militia, in the course of the late war, have, by their valour on numerous occasions, erected eternal monuments to their fame; but the bravest of them know and feel, that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.”
It was not enough for the Constitution’s supporters to point out the practical need for a regular army. Thoughtful critics might accept that, but still be alarmed by the danger an army posed to republican liberty. James Madison in Essay No. 46 of The Federalist sought to assuage those concerns:
“Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still, it would not be going too far to say, that the state governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.”
Madison lay great stock in three facts, that Americans were armed, that they could form themselves into militias that would still be commanded by men chosen by them or their states, and that there existed subordinate governments—the states—to which they were more attached than to the national government. As he wrote, “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”
The critics were not persuaded. True, even if Congress set up a select militia, or, worse, if Congress refused to fund the militia, the states could still, under their reserved powers and general principles of federalism, maintain militias outside those parameters. That authority was eventually confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1820 in Houston v. Moore. The problem was what else Congress might do. After setting up a select militia, Congress could, the critics reasoned, then pass laws to disarm the rest of the citizenry. Something else was needed to protect the people’s liberties.
Madison in that same essay had noted the distinction between the American states and other countries. In the kingdoms of Europe with their military establishments, “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” But something more concrete than reliance on the willingness of politicians to trust the people was needed. American politicians are not necessarily and inherently more respectful of the people’s liberties or less prone to oppressive actions than the European versions. If Congress and the President join to form a national tyrant, and the states have been rendered impotent, the people have the right to organize themselves to oppose that tyrant, just as the Minutemen did to King George and his regular army. As the Declaration of Independence averred, each person is endowed by the Creator with certain “unalienable rights,” and each person individually has the right to defend his life and liberty, even if the right as a practical matter sometimes might be carried out collectively. As concerns a tyrannical government, that right normally might be exercised through the state’s formal militia structure, but it does not depend on such a structure.
It is this right of self-defense exercised through a personal right to keep and bear arms that is reflected in the language of the Second Amendment. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story made that point in a famous passage in his influential 1833 work on the Constitution. “The militia is the natural defence of a free country,” he wrote. “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.”
The right to life, including the right to defend oneself and others from those who wantonly pose an imminent threat to that right, is the most fundamental of all rights. No government may deprive an individual of that right, including the right of defense by means reasonable and commensurate to the threat. That right of defense extends to defense of the community. It is an individual right. While, in the latter case, it is usually exercised collectively, that is not a requirement and is not the basis of the right’s existence.
The connection between the individual nature of the right and its practical collective application when used in defense of the community is reflected in the words of the Second Amendment. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia explained for the Supreme Court in D.C. v. Heller, the right protected in the amendment’s operative clause is the individual right to keep and bear arms. The prefatory clause explains the concerns that drove the adoption of the amendment, the right of the people to organize themselves into a militia to resist tyranny even if Congress and supine state governments seek to disarm them.
The formulation of the Second Amendment through a prefatory and an operative clause is unusual among those in the Bill of Rights. But the approach was not uncommon in other settings. The original proposal by James Madison was clearer, but the definition of the right and its distinction from the concerns that gave rise to the amendment are similar: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well regulated militia being the best security of a free country ….”
Likewise, various state proposals to amend the Constitution followed this structure. Thus, the Virginia convention observed in relevant part on June 27, 1788, “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit ….” Lest the formulation “the people” suggest only a collective right, that same term was used by the Virginia convention to define the right of the people to freedom of speech and of writing and publishing their sentiments. Yet such a right is clearly one that is exercised individually.
Other state ratifying conventions generally used the same structure for various proposed amendments. The report of the Pennsylvania Minority declared, “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals, and as stranding armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty they ought not to be kept up ….” The New York convention urged, “That the People have a right to keep and bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, including the body of the People capable of bearing Arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State ….” [Emphasis in the original.]
What if there were no Second Amendment? Ultimately, that would make no difference. The right to life and self-defense is a fundamental or natural right conferred not by the Constitution as a matter of political grace but, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, by the Creator. It is a long-recognized right inherent in each human that even as fervent an apologist for powerful government as Thomas Hobbes accepted. As to the right to defend the community by organizing a militia, that is exactly what the colonists did at Lexington and Concord when the British sent a military force to seize American weapons. It was this engagement that started the Revolutionary War and led directly to the Declaration of Independence with its endorsement of armed resistance to tyrannical government.
The Supreme Court has embraced this reasoning as to state and local laws in cases such as McDonald v. Chicago. After all, the Second Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, only applies to the federal government. States and cities are, however, limited by the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes protection against legislative violation of fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property. The rights to individual and collective self-defense, including the right to keep and bear arms and the right to organize a militia, are integral to all three.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.