I come down pretty hard on the conservative pundits for distorting the 2nd Amendment; but this time, it seems it is the liberal pundits who are distorting history.
Today, the Facebook Group ‘Americans Against the Republican Party’ shared a rather bizarre post entitled, “Founding Fathers’ Words Reveal 2nd Amendment Was… To Preserve Slavery?” written by Nathaniel Downes. The research in the article, posted to the website Addicting Info, was not actually done by Mr. Downes, but by Thom Hartmann over at Truth-out.org (click the link to go to original article). His thesis statement:
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.
But is this true? His best evidence (which I assume are the quotes he uses throughout the article) seems to fall short of proving his thesis. He draws heavily upon state articles written prior to the Constitution (and prior to the Revolution itself); e.g., in the year 1680, the governing committee at Jamestown, Virginia issued the proclamation that all blacks be disarmed and were prohibited from joining the militia. Mr. Hartmann also uses the laws, passed in Georgia, in the mid-late 1750’s as examples of how slaves were prohibited from being armed and were also to be put under the watchful eye by local militia. It should be clear, though, that this isn’t his thesis.
That slavery was an issue is not the debate; nor is pre-Revolutionary colonial society, nor are the individual state laws concerning slavery (because this is about the 2nd Amendment, after all). The real question should be: what evidence does Mr. Hartmann present that would otherwise prove his point that ‘the Second Amendment was ratified…to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states’?
In fact, while Mr. Hartmann does provide an abundance of quotes from Madison, Mason, and Henry (and he aptly points out they were slave owners), the only one of any real significance is this one from Henry:
“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”
But notice that ‘[slave]’ is in lacunae. Lacunae ‘[brackets like this]’ indicate that this word is not in the original text, but was added by the author of the article. So the original quote goes, “If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress insurrections.” It is important to recognize that insurrections were a serious issue during the period of the framing of the constitution and the founding era itself, but it had nothing to do ipso facto with people of color.
This isn’t to suggest that slavery and the arming of African Americans in the south wasn’t something that white slave owners feared; my goodness, it certainly was a huge terror to them. The British utilized the freeing of slaves to devastating effect during the Revolution (as many as 100,000 slaves took up arms with the British against their white oppressors during the war), and Mr. Hartmann is correct that it started, essentially, with Lord Dunmore (though it was Sir Henry Clinton, British Commander-in-Chief, who really got the ball rolling). Yet again, the issue is not whether the south feared a slave uprising or the freeing of all slaves (of which there is clear evidence), but whether the 2nd Amendment itself and those Southern framers of the constitution, as Mr. Hartmann claims, ‘wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government.’ To this, I’m sorry to say, Mr Hartmann has not made his case.
The whole point of even having a Constitutional Convention–the very reason the need for a new central governing document in fact–was over the fear of tax insurrections. The most vital being Shays’ Rebellion (which you can read all about here). Shays’ Rebellion was not about people of African descent rebelling against slavery, but started over the failure of the current government, under the Articles of Confederation, to distribute back pay to veterans of the American Revolution (and the stiff taxes upon land and property in Massachusetts under the state legislature under those Articles of Confederation; slavery was not even an issue since it had been essentially an abandoned practice in New England). Following the initial failures to put down the resurrection by the state militia, the framers of the constitution debated the issue as to whether states or the central federal government should be permitted to allot military action and arm individuals.
It may very well be that slavery was part of the issue for Southern delegates, but if so, it doesn’t come up in any of the debates directly, and that is a serious problem for Mr. Hartmann’s argument. Because there is clearly some vagueness as to whether or not Henry is disputing the federal authority over his right to maintain slaves or whether in fact he is concerned about tax uprisings in the south like those faced by the state of Massachusetts. It may actually be both, but Henry does not bring up slaves directly (Mr. Hartmann believes that his statement is ‘blunt’ about it, but it’s not remotely clear about slavery at all) and therefore we might speculate about his motives, but it will never be more than a baseless assertion.
It is important to note a few final items concerning this issue; first and foremost, the 2nd Amendment did actually help put down additional tax rebellions during George Washington’s presidency (the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania) and during John Adam’s presidency (Fries’ Rebellion in Eastern Pennsylvania). Second, the 2nd Amendment failed the United States in the War of 1812. The state sanctioned militia turned out to be no match against hardened British regulars and it was only when the federal troops (US Regulars) were deployed that the tides of the war began to change. Third, and perhaps most ironically, the 2nd Amendment was used by Lincoln to put down the uprising of the southern states and slave owners in a conflict that we know as the American Civil War. And I would add that the arming of African Americans, while initially troubling to Southerners, eventually became a less-important issue towards the end of the war as troops were desperately needed.
So while the conservative myth, that the 2nd Amendment is made to support the people against the authority of their federal government, is a false one (the 2nd Amendment was formulated with the intended purpose to help the federal and state governments subdue uprisings by citizens against the government itself); it is also a myth to claim that the 2nd Amendment was only about, or even mostly about, preserving slavery. This liberal myth, like the conservative myth, must be put to rest.
UPDATE 8/29/14: Concerning Jay Parini’s CNN Op-ed
Professor Jay Parini has apparently decided to publish an article demanding the banning of assault weapons–full disclosure: I agree with that position–but then goes on to argue the very same mythological construct as did the authors mentioned above. Unfortunately, the article falls short for many of the very same reasons. This blog post actually deals with all of Professor Parini’s claims about the 2nd Amendment and slavery. Most vitally, I am surprised that Professor Parini does not know that slave patrols after the Constitution had been ratified were not the same thing as the state militia, the latter of which falls under the 2nd Amendment.
This bothers me a great deal, as I fully support the arguments in favor of assault weapons bans, but I do not think that Professor Parini makes the case, nor can anyone, with this sort of anti-historical nonsense. With all the statistics and charts and historical evidence that actually demonstrates the founders disarmed people all the time, there is no reason to resort to pop-history that distracts and takes away from the larger issues.