Who knows better what the Second Amendment means than the Founding Fathers? Here are some powerful gun quotations from the Founding Fathers themselves.
If you know of a gun quotation from a Founding Father not listed here, send it to us. (But make SURE it's not already listed. Okay?)
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"A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined..."
- George Washington, First Annual Address, to both House of Congress, January 8, 1790
"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."
- Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Constitution, Draft 1, 1776
"I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery."
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787
"What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms."
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787
"The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They 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 to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."
- Thomas Jefferson, Commonplace Book (quoting 18th century criminologist Cesare Beccaria), 1774-1776
"A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks." - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785
"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, letter to to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824
"On every occasion [of Constitutional interpretation] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying [to force] what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, [instead let us] conform to the probable one in which it was passed."
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Johnson, 12 June 1823
"I enclose you a list of the killed, wounded, and captives of the enemy from the commencement of hostilities at Lexington in April, 1775, until November, 1777, since which there has been no event of any consequence ... I think that upon the whole it has been about one half the number lost by them, in some instances more, but in others less. This difference is ascribed to our superiority in taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from his infancy."
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Giovanni Fabbroni, June 8, 1778
“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759
"To disarm the people...[i]s the most effectual way to enslave them."
- George Mason, referencing advice given to the British Parliament by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adooption of the Federal Constitution, June 14, 1788
"I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers."
- George Mason, Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 4, 1788
"Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country 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."
- Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10, 1787
"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."
- James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788
"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
"...the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone..."
- James Madison, Federalist No. 46, January 29, 1788
"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."
- William Pitt (the Younger), Speech in the House of Commons, November 18, 1783
“A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves…and include, according to the past and general usuage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms… "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, Federal Farmer No. 18, January 25, 1788
"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.... The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun."
- Patrick Henry, Speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1778
"This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty.... The right of self defense 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 color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction."
- St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1803
"The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms, like law, discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance ofpower is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside. And while a single nation refuses to lay them down, it is proper that all should keep them up. Horrid mischief would ensue were one-half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths, and facts need but little arguments when they prove themselves."
- Thomas Paine, "Thoughts on Defensive War" in Pennsylvania Magazine, July 1775
"The Constitution shall never be construed to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms."
- Samuel Adams, Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, 1788
"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; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them."
- Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833
"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, I Annals of Congress 750, August 17, 1789
"For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion."
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 25, December 21, 1787
"If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource 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 intrusted 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
"[I]f 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 the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist."
- Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28, January 10, 1788
"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, Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789
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Second of three articles.
The original U.S. Constitution, as drafted in 1787, made no mention of gun rights and guaranteed relatively few other rights.
The Constitution actually granted the federal government considerable power over the state militias, such as power to arm and discipline them and to call them into federal service to repel invasions or suppress insurrections. (It’s all in Article 1; Section 8.)
Anti-federalists -- those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution – argued that the powerful new national government the framers sought to create jeopardized many important rights of the states and the people, including the independence of the state militias. If Congress had the power to arm the militias, did it also have the power to disarm them? Could the national government call up a state’s militia and send it out of state to suppress an insurrection elsewhere? (Apparently, it could.) Would a state whose militia had been thus nationalized and deployed elsewhere be defenseless? This was a special concern in southern states where the militia had duties as slave patrols, to capture runaways and to protect the white population against the possibility of a slave insurrection.
During the hard-fought campaign for ratification, James (“Father of the Constitution”) Madison and other federalist leaders proposed a compromise. If the states would ratify the draft as it stood, the leaders of the first Congress would propose constitutional amendments to explicitly guarantee that the federal government could not trample upon basic rights and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, press and religion and the right to keep and bear arms. Those amendments, the first 10 ratified soon after the Constitution took effect, are what we call the Bill of Rights. The right to bear arms was the second one ratified.
As you know from the previous installment, it says: “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.”
Several of the state constitutions protected the right of the militia to be armed, which modern gun-rights advocates cite as evidence that owning guns was considered as fundamental to liberty as freedom of speech. Many of those state provisions refer explicitly to a right to have guns for protection of one’s home or for hunting. If the federal amendment had picked up some of that language, it would be much easier to argue that the federal right covers such individual self-defense needs and hunting pursuits.
But the fact that the first Congress left out those references, even though they were present in some of the state constitutions, is a talking point for those who now argue that the federal right to own a gun was fundamentally tied to the militias and might not guarantee the right of non-militiamen to have guns unrelated to militia work.
Nonetheless, the Second Amendment was quickly approved by the necessary two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then quickly ratified by the requisite three fourths of the (then 13) states. It soon became largely invisible for two centuries, during which it was seldom the key point in a lawsuit and never the reason for any law to be struck down. Not until 2008 would the U.S. Supreme Court squarely face the question of whether the militia language at the beginning of the amendment meant that the right to bear arms was tightly connected to membership in a militia.
In the meantime, the concept of a state militia, as it was understood at the time, would have essentially disappeared.
In the 1780s, state militias were a vital part of the national defense. In many states, every able-bodied male (an exception would be made for members of pacifist religious denominations like the Quakers) was expected to have a gun, which he would acquire and maintain at his own expense, and to be available to be called forth to defend the state or the nation. Militias of this sort played a significant role in winning the war for independence, although ultimately the colonists developed a trained professional army (led, of course, by Gen. Washington.) But that army disbanded after the war.
The assumption in the 1780s was that the national government would not have a large standing army in time of peace and that the state militias would remain the backbone of the national defense. In time of war, a national army might be created for the duration of the war. The U.S. Constitution explicitly authorizes Congress "to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions."
It’s hard for contemporary American to grasp the degree to which 18th-century Americans saw themselves as citizens of their states more so than the nation. And, in fact, if you read the kind of statements that led to the adoption of the Second Amendment, it’s clear that many of the anti-federalists did not trust that the new national government would respect the sovereignty, freedom and independence of the states. Many anti-federalists noted that the Constitution did not bar the national government from building up a permanent standing army, an army that could, if you let your imagination go down this path, be used to bully, dominate and even tyrannize the states.
Believe it or not, among the ideas that the anti-federalists floated for changes to make the Constitution more acceptable would be an amendment that would simply have barred the United States from having a standing army. Think for a second about the impact that would have had it if been adopted. But that idea, which was formally proposed, did not make it into the Bill of Rights.
During the campaign for ratification, the pro-Constitution Federalists urged their doubters to bear in mind that the militias already provided the necessary check against the threat to the states from a federal standing army. In one of the famed pseudonymous essays on behalf of the ratification that later came to known as the “Federalist Papers,” (#46), James Madison sought to assure readers that any U.S. Army that sought to oppress them would stand no chance because: “To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of 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.”
Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the draft, said in the debate of the First Congress over what became the Second Amendment: "What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty."
Tune into this line of thinking and you begin to understand why the constitutional language that gave the national government substantial power over the state militias -- including, perhaps, the power to disarm them, as anti-federalist Patrick Henry suggested at the Virginia ratifying convention -- was alarming.
On the contemporary far right, you can occasionally hear talk that resonates with the ideas above. But to most 21st century Americans, it borders on crazy talk for several reasons. The United States has a standing Army (and Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps) of magnitudes and capabilities far beyond anything the founding generation could have imagined. It operates a global network of military bases scattered around the world. The United States is in a state of essentially permanent undeclared war with various nations, elements and what our presidents like to call “regimes,” which is a euphemism for governments we don’t like. Some of us are alarmed by this development but not because we imagine that this standing military might be used against the states that make up the U.S.A.
Those who care about such things may be vaguely aware that the official state militia system went away long ago and was replaced (in some of its roles) by the National Guard, which has chapters in every state and which serves as a source of troops for civil emergencies within the states and for troops who can be called into active duty by the U.S. military, as many were in the Iraq war. (Some states still have organizations militias, too.)
We can no longer relate to the utterly ludicrous (in 21st century eyes) idea that not only those hardy souls who have signed up for the National Guard but all able-bodied men are expected to be armed and ready for military action and, even more ludicrous, that such a force would have any chance if it came into conflict with the actual United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
In fact, as I noted above, the Constitution explicitly authorized Congress to call forth the militia to suppress an insurrection, which suggests that a rebellion against federal authority by one state would be put down by the militia of other states under federal control. (This actually happened during the George Washington Administration when Washington mobilized elements of four state militias to put down the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, but the rebels all scattered before the troops could get there.) It is also perhaps worth noting that the Constitution itself (Article III, Section 3) defines the act of "levying war" against the federal government as treason. The idea that the Constitution intended to set up battle between federal and state military elements is a muddle at best. I'm somewhat convinced by the Madison Federalist Paper quote above that the state militias were intended to provide a check against the danger to liberty represented by a standing army, but he seems to envision a circumstance ("half a million citizens with arms in their hands") in which all of the state militias have combined to turn back some effort to impose federal tyranny.
Muskets and single-shot cannons
It may have been the case that, in the 1780s (when the chief weapons of war were muskets, single-shot cannons that took forever to reload, flintlock pistols and cutlasses for hand-to-hand combat), in the unlikely event of a war between the U.S. military and the state militias, the sheer numbers of men making up the state militias would have given the militia side some hope.
But now, when the U.S. military would start the conflict with pretty much a monopoly on the aircraft carriers and the aircraft, and the cruise missiles and the tactical nukes, and the attack helicopters and the battleships, and the drones and the laser-guided – OK I’ll stop without even mentioning nukes.
In the circumstances of the 21st century, in the unlikely event that the president and the Congress was contemplating using the U.S. military to conquer, oppress or otherwise impose the will of the federal government on one or more or all of the 50 states, I am prepared to stipulate that, to the extent that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to assure that the militias of the several states would be able to deter or repel or defeat the United States military, that purpose is obsolete.
What the Supreme Court would decide 219 years later that the Second Amendment meant 219 years earlier will be discussed in the next installment of this thrilling miniseries. For the moment, let me just wrap this one up by suggesting – with full knowledge that the suggestion borders on sedition -- that there is something fundamentally strange and I would say crazy about worrying too much what the words and phrases “keep and bear” and “arms” and “well-regulated militia” meant to James Madison or Patrick Henry or the very small number of ordinary white, male Americans who voted for the state legislators who ratified the Second Amendment in 1790.
Thursday: The U.S. Supreme Court and the Second Amendment.