The Washington Post often has “Five myths…” articles that are really obnoxious because if you are going to say that something is a “myth”, you need to prove that it is false, but what these articles mostly do is to just express opinions — and, occasionally, to state outright lies. Take the recent example of “Five myths about gun control“, and look at the fifth “myth”:
5. The Second Amendment was intended to protect the right of Americans to rise up against a tyrannical government.
This canard is repeated with disturbing frequency. The Constitution, in Article I, allows armed citizens in militias to “suppress Insurrections,” not cause them. The Constitution defines treason as “levying War” against the government in Article III, and the states can ask the federal government for assistance “against domestic Violence” under Article IV.
Our system provides peaceful means for citizens to air grievances and change policy, from the ballot box to the jury box to the right to peaceably assemble. If violence against an oppressive government were somehow countenanced in the Second Amendment, then Timothy McVeigh and Lee Harvey Oswald would have been vindicated for their heinous actions.
So it is a “myth” and a “canard” that the 2nd Amendment was intended to protect the people from tyrannical government, according to the Washington Post. How do we know this? Does the Post cite what the Founders had to say about it? Nope. The proof is in the Constitution itself, the Post asserts. Let’s examine each of the arguments presented:
1) The first argument:
The Constitution, in Article I, allows armed citizens in militias to “suppress Insurrections,” not cause them.
The logic employed here takes the form of “The Constitution does not allow the people to X, therefore the people may not do X”. The problem with this, of course, is that the Constitution does not allow or disallow the people from doing anything. It rather allows or disallows only the government from doing things. The is perfectly elementary. Here is Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have Power … To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
Does that clause prove the 2nd Amendment wasn’t intended to protect the people from tyrannical government? Not in the least bit. It authorizes Congress to call forth the militia — that is, the people, the armed citizens of the states (more on that shortly) — to suppress insurrections. This doesn’t speak to the purpose of the 2nd Amendment at all. Sure, if the people were to take up arms to defend their Liberty from a tyrannical government, and that oppressive government defined this collective act of self-defense as “Insurrection”, then the government could call upon the people to take up arms to put themselves down. But if the people weren’t inclined to just roll over and surrender their Liberty, they could obviously simply refuse the government in its request, which the tyrannical government would have no power to enforce. This clause certainly doesn’t suggest that the people do not reserve for themselves the right to bear arms for the purpose of defending their Liberty from tyrannical government. The Tenth Amendment spells this out explicitly, just in case it wasn’t already clear enough:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Nowhere does the Constitution state that the people have surrendered their right to bear arms to defend their Liberty from tyrannical government. Nowhere does the Constitution grant authority to the government to disarm the people. Needless to say, this is the whole purpose of the 2nd Amendment, to offer a double guarantee to protect the people’s right to bear arms, including in order to defend Liberty from the threat of a tyrannical government, the Post’s absurd claim to the contrary notwithstanding.
In fact, even this clause from Article I, Section 8, granting authority to Congress to call up the militia, was intended to protect the people from a tyrannical federal government! At the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 14, 1788, James Madison advised that the best way to prevent and protect the people from the “evil” of a standing army (that is, a permanent military force, as we have in the USA today) was to have a well-armed militia:
The most effectual way to guard against a standing army, is to render it unnecessary. The most effectual way to render it unnecessary, is to give the general government full power to call forth the militia, and exert the whole natural strength of the Union, when necessary. Thus you will furnish the people with sure and certain protection, without recurring to this evil…
Patrick Henry, who opposed granting Congress authority to call forth the militia, much less granting the federal government authority to create a standing army, emphasized that in order to protect against tyrannical government,
The militia, sir, is our ultimate safety. We can have no security without it…. The great object is, that every man be armed.
At the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 16, on the same subject, he expounded on his opposition to this clause:
We are told, we are afraid to trust ourselves; that our own representatives — Congress — will not exercise their powers oppressively; that we shall not enslave ourselves; that the militia cannot enslave themselves, &c. Who has enslaved France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, and other countries which groan under tyranny? They have been enslaved by the hands of their own people. If it will be so in America, it will be only as it has been every where else.
So it is clear that the debate over the very clause the Post cites as supposed evidence that the 2nd Amendment wasn’t about protecting the people from the government was itself intended to protect the people from the federal government, and specifically, from the threat of a standing army, and the controversy over that clause was whether even that limited authority could be employed for abusive purposes by the same government!
So much for the Post’s first argument.
2) Let’s look at its next supposed proof: Article III, Section 3. This, the Post tells us, “defines treason as ‘levying War’ against the government“. From that, we are supposed to draw the conclusion that taking up arms against “the government” even if in self-defense against tyrannical abuses would constitute an act of “treason”. Just intuitively, as an elementary moral principle, that interpretation cannot be right. Such an interpretation is irreconcilable with the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
But look at what the Constitution actually says here:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them…
Read it again:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them…
What’s that? “Them”? That’s right, “them”, plural. Not against “the government”, as in the federal government, but “them”, as in the States, plural, and by logical extension, the people of the States. So the Post has actually gone to the lengths of taking a quote from the Constitution out of context to try to support its claim! Tsk, tsk! This is shameful. This clause certainly does not show that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was not to guarantee the right of the people to bear arms in order to defend their Liberty from tyrannical government. On the contrary, it is perfectly consistent with that purpose of the 2nd Amendment. Notice that this clause means that if a tyrannical federal government levied war against the States, the people of those States would have the right to rise up to defend themselves from that tyrannical government, which would, by definition, have committed “Treason” against the States.
So much for the Post’s second argument.
3) Turning to the Post’s third supposed proof, it next cites Article IV, Section 4, stating that “the states can ask the federal government for assistance ‘against domestic Violence’ under Article IV.” Yes, it does. But notice that no argument is actually presented here. Let’s turn again to what the clause actually says, in full:
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.
So what is the Post attempting to argue, here? What is the conclusion we are supposed to draw, and by what logic are we supposed to arrive at it? That the Constitution says that the Union of States shall protect each of the individual States, and so therefore the 2nd Amendment wasn’t intended to protect the right of the people to take up arms to defend their Liberty against tyrannical government? It isn’t necessary to refute the Post’s argument here, since it doesn’t bother presenting one. Suffice to say that, clearly, the duty of the federal government under the Constitution to “protect” the States does not in any way contradict the purpose of the 2nd Amendment as being to reserve the right of the people of the States to likewise protect their Liberty against a tyrannical federal government.
4) Finally, the Post suggests the following syllogism: (a) if the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to guarantee the right of the people to bear arms to defend their Liberty from tyrannical government, (b) then that would mean that acts of terrorism like the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City or assassinations like the killing of John F. Kennedy would be legitimate acts of violence; but (c) since we do not accept such acts of violence as legitimate but recognize them as crimes, (d) therefore that cannot have been the purpose of the 2nd Amendment. Does the Post actually expect its readers to take this buffoonery seriously? Do we actually have to point out that (b) does not follow from (a), and therefore (d) does not follow from (c)? This is just idiocy.
And that is it. That is the best the Post could do to support its assertion that it is a “myth” that the 2nd Amendment was intended to protect the people from tyrannical government. Okay, so the Post hasn’t proven that it is a “myth”. But can we prove that it is not a myth? Certainly! And so could have Robert J. Spitzer, the author of this “5 myths…” article, or the Post editors, had they spent 10 or 15 minutes Googling the matter to educate themselves about what the Founding Fathers actually had to say about the purpose of the Amendment they had drafted.
First, let’s look at the 2nd Amendment:
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.
So what is the “Militia”? As George Mason explained at the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 16,
Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people…
Richard Henry Lee (or possibly Melancton Smith; as James Madison, et al, wrote the papers known as The Federalist as “Publius”, so did the authors of the papers that were compiled as The Anti-Federalist Papers write anonymously) wrote in Letters from the Federal Farmer, No. XVIII,
[R]egular troops, and select corps, ought not to be kept up without evident necessity…. A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves, and render regular troops in a great measure unnecessary…. [T]o 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….
Tench Coxe wrote in The Pennsylvania Gazette on February 20, 1788:
Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…. [T]he 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.
It is perfectly evident that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to protect the people against the threat of their own government attempting to disarm them, and not only to have guns for hunting or to be able to exercise an individual right to self-defense, but explicitly to ensure “the security of a free State”. That is, to ensure that the States would remain free. Free from what? From a tyrannical federal government that would seek to enslave them, first by disarming them.
At the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 14, 1788, George Mason warned against the threat to Liberty of the government disarming the people, stating:
Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.
At the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention in 1788, Sam Adams stated:
The Constitution shall never be construed…to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.
James Madison had this to say about the right to bear arms in The Federalist No. 46:
[T]he ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone….
[S]hould an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, … the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; … and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.
But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke….
The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition…. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. 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. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops…. 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. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to posses the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will, and direct the national force; and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned, in spite of the legions which surround it.
Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist, No. 28:
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 … against the usurpations of the national rulers…. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms….
Hamilton continued in The Federalist, No. 29:
[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.
Tench Coxe, writing “Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution” under the pseudonym “A Pennsylvanian” in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette on June 18, 1789, stated:
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.
Noah Webster wrote in “Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution“, 1787:
Another source of power in government is a military force. But this, to be efficient, must be superior to any force that exists among the people, or which they can command: for otherwise this force would be annihilated, on the first exercise of acts of oppression. Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom 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 that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.
Thomas Jefferson, in his first draft of the Virginia Constitution, wrote:
No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
And writing to James Madison on December 20, 1787, Jefferson said:
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.
In his commonplace book, 1774-1776, Jefferson quoted from On Crimes and Punishment by criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1764), on the ineffectiveness of disarming the people for the purpose of supposedly making them more secure:
Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…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 Paine echoed that thought in “Thoughts on Defensive War“, Pennsylvania Magazine (1775):
The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property.
Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote on liberty vs. security from was made with explicit reference to the right to bear arms as it appeared in the Historical Review of Pennsylvania (1759):
The thoughtful reader may wonder, why wasn’t Jefferson’s proposal of ‘No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms’ adopted by the Virginia legislature? They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
And George Washington agreed that:
A free people ought…to be armed….
Albert Gallatin remarked on October 7, 1789:
The whole of the Bill [of Rights, including the 2nd Amendment] is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals…. It establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of.
On August 17, 1789, Elbridge Gerry observed:
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.
There is just no question about it. As Sanford Levinson observed in his paper “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” (Yale Law Journal, Vol. 99, pp. 637-659):
In his influential Commentaries on the Constitution, Joseph Story, certainly no friend of Anti-Federalism, emphasized the “importance” of the Second Amendment. He went on to describe the militia as the “natural defence of a free country” not only “against sudden foreign invasions” and “domestic insurrections,” with which one might well expect a Federalist to be concerned, but also against “domestic usurpations of power by rulers.” “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered,” Story wrote, “as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power by rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
We also see this blending of individualist and collective accounts of the right to bear arms in remarks by Judge Thomas Cooley, one of the most influential 19th century constitutional commentators. Noting that the state might call into its official militia only “a small number” of the eligible citizenry, Cooley wrote that “if the right [to keep and bear arms] were limited to those enrolled, the purpose of this guaranty might be defeated altogether by the action or neglect to act of the government it was meant to hold in check.” Finally, it is worth noting the remarks of Theodore Schroeder, one of the most important developers of the theory of freedom of speech early in this century. “[T]he obvious import [of the constitutional guarantee to carry arms],” he argues, “is to promote a state of preparedness for self-defense even against the invasions of government, because only governments have ever disarmed any considerable class of people as a means toward their enslavement.”
Now, what was that about it being a “myth” that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to protect the right of the American people to defend their Liberty by rising up against tyrannical government? That Robert J. Spitzer and the editors at the Washington Post would attempt to perpetrate such a stupid lie is an embarrassment to the profession of journalism and an insult to the intelligence of their readers.