Monday, March 18, 2013

The Second Amendment and the Fear of Standing Armies

Bernard Bailyn, a Colonial and Revolutionary War historian, wrote The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, first published in 1967. 

From Wikipedia:

[Bailyn] is known for meticulous research and for interpretations that sometimes challenge the conventional wisdom, especially those dealing with the causes and effects of the American Revolution. In his most influential work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bailyn exhibits through a thorough analysis of pre-Revolutionary political pamphlets that the colonists believed that the British intended to establish a tyrannical state that would abridge the historical rights of the colonists.

The referenced items in this post are taken from a compilation of essays regarding the Revolutionary war, The American Revolution: The Search for Meaning, edited by Richard Hooker.  This compilation includes an excerpt from Bailyn's book.

Consider the following through the lens of the Second Amendment to the Constitution:

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.

I will come back to this in the conclusion.

Bailyn presents as the primary concern for the revolutionaries as the concern of liberty as against power:

…the ultimate explanation of every political controversy was the disposition of power.

I have no idea if this is correct or not – it seems to me that when it comes to any subjective topic, and certainly to “revolution,” the term “every” is rarely applicable.  However, it is fair to assume that it was often true for many of the participants.  I approach this topic on this assumption.

The term “power” doesn’t quite capture the sentiment, as Bailyn explains via the editorial struggles of John Adams:

The colonists had no doubt about what power was and about its central, dynamic role in any political system…the essence of what they meant by power was perhaps best revealed inadvertently by John Adams as he groped for words in drafting his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.  Twice choosing and then rejecting the word “power,” he finally selected as the specification of the thought he had in mind “dominion,” and in this association of words the whole generation concurred.  “Power” to them meant the dominion of some men over others, the human control of human life: ultimately force, compulsion.

1.       the power or right of governing and controlling; sovereign authority.
2.       rule; control; domination.

There was no doubt to the colonists that dominion, or power, meant force…:

Most commonly the discussion of power centered on its essential characteristic of aggressiveness….The image most commonly used was the act of trespassing.

…and that the enemy and victim of power was liberty:

What gave transcendent importance to the aggressiveness of power was the fact that its natural prey, its necessary victim, was liberty, or law, or right.

The interesting insight of the revolutionary generation, as captured by Bailyn, is that they recognized that government was power, and the governors cared only for power and not for liberty.  Only the people cared for liberty.

…power in its legitimate form inhered naturally in government and was the possession and interest of those who controlled government, just as liberty…inhered naturally in the people and was their peculiar possession and interest.  Liberty was not, therefore, for the colonists, as it is for us, professedly the interest and concern of all, governors and governed alike, but only of the governed.  The wielders of power did not speak for it, nor did they naturally serve it.

The people want liberty, those in government want power.  For those who believe that government is working to secure liberty on behalf of the people, this last paragraph should be read a second time.

The revolutionary generation, as depicted in Bailyin’s work, is not referring to a general power – the power of government as an abstract concept.  They are concerned about one very specific manifestation of this power:

“…the absolute danger to liberty lay in the absolute supremacy of a “veteran army” – making “the civil subordinate to the military,” as Jefferson put it in 1774, “instead of subjecting the military to civil powers.”  Their fear was not simply of armies but of standing armies….

Bailyn takes from Trenchard, An argument, Shewing, that a Standing Army is Inconsistent with a Free Government:

With him the colonists universally agreed that “unhappy nations have lost that precious jewel liberty… [because] their necessities or indiscretion have permitted a standing army to be kept amongst them”….they had a vivid sense of what such armies were: gangs of restless mercenaries, responsible only to the whims of the rulers who paid them, capable of destroying all right, law, and liberty that stood in their way.

Bailyn lists examples known to the colonists where standing armies were used to dominate communities: the Turks were mentioned, as was Poland, Spain, Russia, India, and Egypt.  He also lists examples known to the colonists where formerly free people quickly gave way to despotic states. For example Venice, Sweden, and Denmark – a most carefully studied example from the previous century:

…the preservation of liberty rested on the ability of the people to maintain effective checks on the wielders of power, and hence in the last analysis rested on the vigilance and moral stamina of the people.  Certain forms of government made particularly heavy demands on the virtue of the people.  Everyone knew that democracy – direct rule by all the people – required such Spartan, self-denying virtue on the part of all the people that it was likely to survive only where poverty made upright behavior necessary for the perpetuation of the race.

Bailyn also offered examples known to the colonists of people who have retained their liberties: the Swiss, Dutch, and more recently, the Corsicans.  Most importantly, the English themselves – to include the colonists, as Britishers:

The ordinary people of England, they believed, were descended from simple sturdy Saxons who had known liberty in the very childhood of the race and who, through the centuries, had retained the desire to preserve it.

The early “childhood” of the Saxons was to be found in the Dark Ages, a time that offered much more liberty than is casually assumed.

These colonists, these revolutionaries, just defeated the most capable military of the time, with no standing army available at the start of hostilities.  Despite the many opportunities to have lost the revolution in part due to this military lack, there was a strong desire to avoid the tyranny that would come with a standing army.  Better to risk a loss in war than to make certain a loss in peace.  In this, history was a clear guide.

Now, back to the Second 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.

How might this analysis by Bailyn influence the interpretation of this amendment?  (In this commentary, I will not address the issue of the responsibility of each citizen to the Militia.)  Let’s start with the phrase “security of a free State….”  It seems to me that “a free State” does not refer in some manner to the government – in other words, a government that is open and acts to keep the people free.  Given Bailyn’s comments, it could very well refer to a State populated by a free people – “free” referring to the condition of the people in the state.  It is regarding the security of people in such a state that necessitates a militia.  It is impossible for a standing army to secure a free State, because a standing army has historically proven to be the downfall of such a state.  Instead, a standing army is proof of a state that is not free.

In order to maintain this free condition, the right to bear arms must be unequivocal – “shall not be infringed.”  Would the framers, with this concern about concentrated power as represented by a standing army, deem it appropriate to limit the arms available to the Militia in the face of enemies that feel no similar sentiment?  Here, I do not even speak of the citizens as against their own government.  Would the framers suggest that the militia, as the primary means of defense, be limited in its arms, when Britain (or Spain or France) had no such limitation on their armies?

And what of concern by the framers against the home government?  Is it possible that the framers believed it acceptable that the militia (citizens) be limited in arms relative to the government?  No clips over ten rounds for the people, as opposed to fighter jets and heat seeking missiles for the government?

Of course, the United States has moved far beyond a standing army; police forces are militarized, homeland security is ubiquitous – both overtly and covertly.  At the same time, regulation over the firearms available to the citizen are continues virtually unabated.

Bailyn’s analysis opens a new window for me on this amendment.  Is it possible that the amendment is not primarily about the people’s right to bear arms, but instead to ensure the infrastructure that must stand in place of a standing army?


  1. "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."

    I once sparked upon, and have since toyed with a quite different interpretation of even the one you came up with. I have no historical evidence upon which to base my alternate interpretation, whatsoever. Nonetheless, even as a simple mental exercise, I enjoy my interpretation quite a lot. And if my interpretation is not the correct one, I tend to wish that it were...

    Your analysis is correct, that a standing army was well understood to be a threat to liberty. However, as the amendment states, a well regulated Militia is *necessary* to the security of a free state. But notice that a 'well regulated militia' is but a stone's throw from an actual standing army, and therefore also a potential threat to liberty.

    My favored interpretation, then goes like this: Since we must have an armed Militia, then as a counter-balance to this potential menace, the right of the PEOPLE to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. In this interpretation the PEOPLE are allowed arms as a counter-balance to the well regulated militia.

    Again, I have no evidence that this was the original intent, and likely it was not(?), however I delighted with some amusement when I realized that by simply reading the words, it could in fact be interpreted that way. I don't know whether to rail against the writers of this amendment for being so vague and convoluted, or to thank providence that they were...

    1. “I once sparked upon, and have since toyed with a quite different interpretation of even the one you came up with.”

      I suspect multiple interpretations have roots and validity in the thoughts of the framers of the amendments. Every state submitted possible amendments, and from the nearly two hundred submissions, Madison condensed and combined until he had twelve.

      When the final items went around for debate and ultimately inclusion, I suspect each state (and each representative for each state) saw in the amendments what they wanted to see.

    2. It is my understanding that the militia was "the people" and they were not controlled by the FedGov nor a sub-unit of the Army, as is the National Guard today.

      [T]he advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess...forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. (James Madison, Federalist No. 46.)

      To Founding Fathers, the basic purpose of the Second Amendment was for the citizenry to be armed appropriately in case the government became a tyranny...which in many ways it has today. But, today, due to public (propaganda) schools, the people have been taught that tyranny can't happen in America and that the government is here to help you.

      It is my belief that America is not that far away from becoming an open police state. If the people can be disarmed then nothing will stop the power-hungry from making it a police state.

      Who else wanted to disarm the people? Oh yeah. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro.

  2. I have no dog in this hunt since I believe that any standing government( state) is a threat to liberty let along an army or militia. May I suggest to you to Gary North's excellent piece on this issue. See:
    Nicely done, BM

    1. Thank you, STS.

      Yes, I have read this from Dr. North. One of his stand-out pieces, I agree.

  3. When interpreting the 2nd am, I think it a good idea to let the interpretation be influenced first by the militia clauses of Article I and Article II of the Constitution. So, we could restate the amendment as follows:

    # A Militia regulated by Congress and commanded by the President,
    # being necessary to the security of this free State,
    # the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,
    # shall not be infringed.

    Already the great 2nd amendment looks very much like a militia monopoly amendment that promises little more than to impose the monopoly already suggested by the militia clauses of A1 and A2 alone. It would be more difficult to construe it as such if it read as follows

    @ Free and independent Militias,
    @ being necessary [or at least useful] to the security of lawful Individuals,
    @ the right of Individuals to keep and to bear Arms alone or in voluntary association,
    @ shall not be infringed.

    Still, amendments are a product of politics and compromise, so maybe a little charity leads us to interpret it by contrasting the phrase "free State" with 'slave State'. You flirted with this idea in your post; maybe you could developed it a little further, esp. with the possibility in 1789 of a defensive and combative faction of slavers who might not have objected to making every state a slave state if that were deemed necessary to preserve their way of life.