August 13, 2007
The men who founded our nation understood that government was necessary to preserve the people's freedoms. But they also knew that government agents could not always be trusted to use their authority justly, and that government remains the single greatest threat to the rights and liberties of the people.
America's Founding Fathers knew that freedom required that the people always retain the ability to take government out of the hands of abusive officials, "to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security." This was far from just some lofty theory to the Founders. They had witnessed oppressive government firsthand and had seen this principle unfold in dramatic practice as thousands of armed citizens took up their muskets and drove the king's soldiers — their government's soldiers — back to Boston on April 19, 1775. The United States was born out of the fight against tyranny.
Most important, the Framers remembered this when they created a new Constitution. To ensure that government remains in the hands of the people, the Second Amendment guaranteed that the citizen militia would remain sacrosanct.
The right of the people to keep and bear arms is the least understood of all rights mentioned in the Constitution. Few today have any idea of the true meaning and intent of this provision, and most people are more likely to deride this right either as an archaic and unnecessary remnant of an embarrassing past, or at best merely some benign assurance that "sportsmen" will be able to go hunting. Neither is true.
The right of the people to keep and bear arms is an important and integral part of what it means to be an American. In fact, it could be said to represent the most important and integral part of being an American. When our ancestors followed the example of half the state governments and included a "right to arms" provision in the Federal Bill of Rights, they unapologetically and irrefutably established a nation of free and autonomous individuals.
By granting legal and moral recognition to the right to keep and bear arms in the Constitution — "the law of the land" — Americans made concrete in practice that every single free citizen would remain the final repository of political power. Early American statesmen were following the sage advice of such men as the Scottish philosopher and militia advocate Andrew Fletcher, who argued that "arms are the only true badges of liberty," providing "the distinction of a free man from a slave."
Without arms, the people's rights could too easily become prey to the whim of an ambitious executive, the edicts of a corrupt legislature or the proclamations of false-hearted judges. Under an armed citizenry, this becomes much more difficult. Government must proceed carefully when exercising power, lest a "long Train of Abuses and Usurpations" inspire the people to again water the "tree of liberty . . . with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
In no other culture and under no other government has the importance of an armed citizenry been made so explicit or as carefully guaranteed as it has under the American constitutional order. While both ancient Rome and the British Parliament paid statutory lip service to the value of being armed, only in the United States was being armed recognized as an inviolable right protected by the Constitution. What started with gunfire at Lexington and Concord ended with the words of Tench Coxe, a friend of James Madison: "Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American. . . . [The] unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people."
James Madison also understood the ultimate, fail-safe role of the citizen militia. In Federalist 46, he dismissed fears of a standing army being used against the people because it "would be opposed [by] a militia. . . with arms in their hands." A few years later he would write what became the Second Amendment, with its promise that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
If the average person today wonders about his relationship to his government, the Second Amendment provides ample guidance. It represents the ideal of American political and social life: the individual, self-governing, self-motivated, self-respecting, dignified, free citizen — who takes these virtues so seriously that he will maintain the personal power to back them up.
Scott McPherson is a policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation.