The Hidden History of The Second Amendment

Last week, I referred to the genesis of the Second Amendment, and its original intent. The volume of listener response, stunned at hearing facts I mentioned in passing, made me realize it was time to revisit this subject in greater depth. I’d done just that a few years ago, but there are lots of new readers on this blog post, and besides, in this “information age,” facts can get buried under so-called information.

Some scholars still disagree with aspects of this finding, but it’s pretty well-documented history, thanks to the work of Roger Williams School of Law professor Carl T. Bogus in 1998, as well as that of historian Richard Hildreth as early as 1840 (on the antebellum South), and in 1995 of Clayton Cramer, on the Second Amendment basis for the Black Codes adopted after the Civil War, requiring emancipated Africans and African Americans (but not whites) to obtain a license before carrying or possessing firearms.

By now, we all have the words of the Second Amendment hammered into our brains: “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.”

But do you know the real reason the Second Amendment was created and ratified? And why, by referring to “state” it means state and does not mean “country”? Let’s take them one by one.

It was created to preserve the militias in the Southern states—and was a demanded promise to get Virginia’s vote for the Constitution. Founders Patrick Henry and George Mason made that a condition—and were backed by the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison.

The South’s state militias also had another name. They were commonly called “slave patrols,” and they were decidedly “well regulated,” by the slave-holding states. For instance, Georgia had laws requiring all plantation owners or their male white employees to be armed members of the Georgia militia, and “to make monthly searches of all Negro houses for offensive weapons and ammunition” and “administer twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.” This was deemed necessary to preserve the institution of slavery.

Today, history-deprived citizens may wonder why the enslaved population seemed so “passive,” because we were never taught anything else, but the truth is that by the Constitution’s ratification, hundreds of uprisings by these enslaved people had already erupted across the South. Historian Hildreth observed that violence was frequently employed in the South, both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists, as well as being an approved way to avenge perceived insults to “manhood and personal status” (manhood is usually in there somewhere). The enslaved always outnumber the enslavers, so such a system requires relentless enforcement—precisely the role of the “well-regulated militias.” Indeed, if those militias were to be disbanded or relocated, the economic and sociopolitical structure of the South would have collapsed.

No wonder such Founders as George Mason (owner of over 300 slaves) insisted on the Second Amendment. So did slave-holder Patrick Henry, a Southern evangelical Christian theocrat (more on him below).

The Southern states feared that Article 1, Section 8—which empowered the federal government to raise and supervise a militia for the general defense of the country—would permit the swallowing up of their state militias, absorbing those local bodies from slavery-enforcing private armies into a national military, and they feared that such a national military would constitute an army that might someday free slaves, and would even permit service by slaves. Their terror about possible Emancipation was paranoid yet prescient about what would, a little more than half a century later, break into open Civil War.

At the 1788 ratifying Constitutional Convention, Patrick Henry said all this, flat out: “If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it. . . . In my state [Virginia] there are 236,000 blacks, and many in several other states. But there are few or none in the northern states . . .” Alarmed that government power over the state militias could be used to strip the Southern states of their slave patrols, Henry added, “Have they [the government] not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery?”

Madison, a slaveholder himself, then revised the relevant amendment, changing the word “country” to the word “state”—meaning “state,” not as a synonym for “nation” but literally as in “one of the United States”—thus ensuring that the South could maintain its slave-patrol militias.

Oh, yes, and Patrick Henry? He had fought Jefferson bitterly over the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, a document Jefferson wrote which, separating church and government, became the model for the Constitution’s First Amendment. Henry openly wanted a Christian theocracy. And one thing more. The “Give me liberty or give me death” guy not only was a slave-owner, but he also imprisoned his wife, Sarah, declaring her “mad,” and constraining her for the rest of her life in the cellar of his plantation manor. This he announced was a “merciful alternative” to putting her in an asylum. It appears, from spotty reports of the time, that her “madness” was simple “melancholia.”

Meanwhile, here is a different Founder on ownership of firearms, albeit one employing, of course, the use of “man” as the generic:

“To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government.” That’s John Adams, in his A Defence of the Constitution of the United States 3:475 (1787-1788).

So much for rabid right-wing interpretations of the Second Amendment as being our mythicized defense against British tyranny. In actuality, it had nothing to do with the war for Independence, but it had everything to do with tyrannizing the abducted and enslaved African population.

Knowledge is power. Shove that up your barrel, NRA.