On the Second Amendment

Staff Writer Jeb Allen ’27 discusses the history of the Second Amendment and reflects on the relevancy of the Founding Fathers’ goals to America today.

Over time, the Second Amendment has been watered down to a self-defense doctrine, yet there exists a lost interpretation that appears far more radical than the conventional wisdom. While it is true that the Second Amendment was a compromise aimed at addressing issues such as slavery, countering the threat of a standing army, protecting states’ rights, and empowering individual autonomy, I would argue that there is a deeper principle of revolution and insurgency encoded within the doctrine, seemingly protecting the ability to rebel against the government as a fundamental right.

To contextualize the uniqueness of the Second Amendment and America’s gun culture, only Mexico and Guatemala also have the right to bear arms enshrined in their Constitution. In addition, despite the U.S. accounting for only 4.23 percent of the world’s population, nearly 46 percent of all civilian-held firearms are in American hands. Furthermore, American citizens are estimated to own more than three times as many firearms as the world’s governments combined, with an estimated 393 million firearms in American civilian hands compared to the worldwide military stockpile of 113 million.

To understand why and how the Founding Fathers created the Second Amendment, we must first delve into the mindset of the Founding Fathers during America’s birth. Fresh from the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers were primarily concerned with preventing the recurrence of government tyranny and viewed an armed population’s ability to rebel as necessary to ensure so. George Mason, a key figure in crafting the Bill of Rights, said, “When the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” The idea of self-defense as an inalienable right spread rapidly across post-war America, making any attempt to disarm the American people warrant cries of tyranny and oppression.

In addition to resisting “enslavement,” the government had to preserve the institution of slavery itself. In a country full of slaves, some of whom fought in the Revolutionary War, the ideas of liberty and freedom could potentially destabilize the power hierarchy. Consequently, James Madison crafted the language of the Second Amendment to appease Southerners and anti-federalists, allowing individuals to bear arms and states to retain complete control of state militias to repress enslaved uprisings – a scenario that frequently occurred. Thus, the Founding Fathers also considered the necessity of arming slave owners while crafting the Second Amendment.

Furthermore, the Founding Fathers grappled with the issue of who should have the authority to wage violence. Despite militias playing a critical role in the Revolutionary War, George Washington and Henry Knox, the War’s two leading generals, knew that militias had proven underwhelming during wartime. However, the Founding Fathers were more concerned about the potential tyranny from a centralized standing army than from a militia, which led them to enshrine the militia in the U.S. Constitution. Even though Alexander Hamilton was one of the most influential Federalists and the most prominent advocate of a strong central government, he acknowledged that standing armies were dangerous to liberty and ought not to be maintained in times of peace.

Also, suppose you’re continually funding a standing army. In that case, it only makes sense that they are fighting a war, opening the reality that a standing army could perpetuate continual warfare, as evidenced by the United States, which boasts the world’s largest and most engaged military. Considering the emphasis on the people’s right to rebel against the government, the need to uphold slavery, and the necessity of a strong military to deter invaders without overpowering the populace, the Second Amendment aimed to address a complex dilemma.

Examining the attempts to resolve the gun dilemma before the drafting of the Second Amendment also allows readers to observe the compromise process that ultimately led to its creation. The first document to address the right to bear arms was section 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson. While the language resembles that of the Second Amendment, a key difference lies in including a clause explaining the necessity of the militia and the threat posed by a standing army. When the Second Amendment was written, the detailed explanation of the importance of a militia was predictably dropped, as the federal government is responsible for the nation's defense as a whole and must consider a broader range of factors in preserving the land. Hence, the more vague language allows for state interpretation.

Additionally, the Founding Fathers knew that while it should be approached with caution, a nation without a standing army also leaves itself susceptible to harm. Virginia’s view of the army was much more grim than that of the founding fathers, leading to different goals and intentions regarding the arming of the public. Similarly, the Articles of Confederation prohibited a standing army, considering it a larger threat than an adversary to upholding citizens' liberties. While the constitution provides for a standing army to be led by the President, only Congress can fund it, ultimately allowing the people’s representatives to check the military. The constitution might seem somewhat nonsensical, providing for a strong central army, yet giving states and the people the ability to counter it. However, the founding fathers' hesitancy achieved a successful blend of providing a strong military while still giving the people control through representation and the individual right to bear arms.

Once the Articles of Confederation proved ineffective, American politicians decided it was time for a stronger government, which introduced a new dispute to the gun dilemma: Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists. While the Federalists believed the new Constitution struck a perfect balance, creating a strong, central government with checks and balances to prevent the transfer of power from the people to the government, Anti-Federalists argued that the initial Constitution proposed in 1787 was too powerful and would threaten individual liberties. Therefore, they began to work on the Bill of Rights, a document attached to the Constitution to safeguard individual liberties. Drafted by James Madison, the final version of the Second Amendment on September 25, 1789, reads, “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.” Understanding the disputes and previous drafts of the Second Amendment makes it clear that its primary aim was to give the people of the United States the power to fight back against their government and military if they deemed it oppressive, which is precisely what the Founding Fathers accomplished in 1776.

In today’s peaceful world, violence is immediately characterized as wrongful, but the Founding Fathers not only tolerated violence but encouraged it when deemed necessary. In a 1789 letter to John Adams’ son-in-law, Williams Stephens Smith, Thomas Jefferson stated, “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.” Jefferson also famously stated, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.” The Founding Fathers gave us the Second Amendment to protect our right to exercise violence against any force threatening our liberties, including and emphasizing the U.S. government.

While this narrative opposes the peaceful, orderly notion the government wants us to abide by, America was founded by rebel vigilantes who broke the law to violently overthrow their government, so I believe it’s appropriate to recharacterize this historical misunderstanding. Thomas Jefferson, as he articulated in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, vehemently supported the violent overhaul of a government once it became oppressive, and the Second Amendment was written to protect the people’s ability to do so.

The Second Amendment is one of the most disagreed-upon aspects of American politics because citizens don’t understand its intent and have lived in a peaceful reality long enough to forget the risks of an unarmed society. The Founding Fathers knew that an armed populace would not cultivate the most peaceful society but would be the best deterrent against government tyranny, and the trade-off of liberty for security would be a terrible decision. Once America realizes that our government was established by rebel vigilantes who violently overthrew their government and gave us, the people, the Second Amendment as a measure to wage war against any person, government, or military — including and emphasizing our own — that threatens our civil liberties, there will be much less confusion about the Second Amendment and why it allows for a seemingly more violent society than other nations.

In conclusion, the United States differs from all world governments in one fundamental way: violent rebel vigilantes successfully led a revolution to overthrow an external government, establishing the world’s first democracy. One cannot expect Canadians, a population whose government’s principle statement is “peace, order and good governance,” to react the same toward government restriction as Americans, who still resonate with Patrick Henry’s cry of “give me liberty, or give me death.” As long as we celebrate the American Revolution and abide by the Constitution, the ideas of liberty, individualism, violence, and rebellion will remain entrenched within our society. The Second Amendment serves as a key example of how revolutionary philosophy continues to shape America today.