Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guns, Slaves, Insurrection and the Hidden History of the 2nd Amendment

My column for The Daily Beast, "The US 'Right' to Own Guns Came with the 'Right' to Own Slaves," published Dec. 6, caused predictable outrage among NRA types, who thought I was accusing them of racism. I certainly was not. But having read their various tweets and emails, I am impressed by their ignorance.

People cling to the myths that suit them, and the myth that many gun-owners clutch so tightly you'd have to pry it from their cold dead hands is that collecting and carrying firearms is somehow an antidote to tyranny, and that's why the Founding Fathers wrote the 2nd Amendment into the Bill of Rights.

That sounds plausible, given the history of the Minute Men and the early battles of the American Revolution, but it's simply not true.

Paul Revere rode through the streets shouting "The British are coming!" to warn people the Redcoats were out to take their guns, and the rabble in arms at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill did a creditable job firing from behind stone walls and trenches against Englishmen foolishly mounting frontal assaults in the open.

But George Washington understood very quickly that, over the long run, the militias were no match for a regular army. Even at Bunker Hill, significant desertions contributed, ultimately, to the loss of the rebel position.  At the disastrous Battle of Camden, in South Carolina in 1780, the militias on the front lines, faced with a bayonet charge, turned and ran without firing a shot.

Eight years later, as the former colonies debated ratification of their new Constitution and the need for amendments, few of the leaders had much faith in the efficacy of armed citizens up against a foreign invasion or the regular army of their own government. The purpose of the "well regulated militia necessary for the security of a free State" codified in the Bill of Rights was quite different.

In "The Hidden History of the Second Amendment," an academic paper published in 1998, law professor Carl T. Bogus argued that, "The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South's principal instrument of slave control."

Some relevant passages —

Where did the militias and the need to bear arms fit in?

Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia all had regulated slave patrols, and by the mid-18th century the patrols had become the responsibility of the militia.

Is there more to the story? Of course. And I'd take issue with Bogus's apparent contention that the amendment was only about slave-patrol militias. The idea that "the rifle hanging on the wall" is a bulwark against tyranny (a notion embraced in an oft-cited out of context quote by George Orwell) was at least as strong in the late 18th century as it is today.  The romance of insurrectionism, born early, lived on among politicians, and there were a few states in the North that codified the right to bear arms before the Bill of Rights, notably "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire. In the great push westward, manifest destiny manifestly depended on a populace that carried guns.

But the power over this issue lay in the South, which was much bigger, much richer, and much more concerned about "servile insurrection." And in the South, it was precisely the combination of slaveholding and insurrectionism that eventually lead to the Civil War.

After John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 (illustration above), the militias started to look more and more like regular armies, not only to intimidate and subdue the slaves, but to prepare for secession. And, ironically, the Federal government, dominated at the time by Southern interests, gave them all the guns they needed to launch a war against the Union just 18 months later.

None of this, it seems to me, argues in favor of "gun rights" today.

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