Weekend Open Thread: Just a Second — Were Gun Rights Intended to Preserve Slavery?


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The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery

Second Amendment and Slave Patrols

“”Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”, asks Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in *Django Unchained*. Maybe it’s because they knew that the slave patrols, aka state-based “well-regulated militias,” would violently prevent it? (Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nakrnsm/8406056124/)

Commentator Thom Hartmann posted a column in January, based on the research of Carl T. Bogus, arguing that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery by ensuring that states could provide for militias that they could force white citizens to join in order to capture runaway slaves and prevent a slave revolt.  (There were exceptions to mandatory service for critical professions such as judges and bloggers.)

I just came across the article again again and decided that it will surely provide us fodder for a rollicking discussion this weekend.  Give it a read — maybe 10-15 minutes — then come back.  (If you don’t, then the discussion will be full solely of people who disagree with you.  You don’t want that, do you?)  Here’s a taste:

The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.  Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.

I suspect that a lot of RKBA (aka “pro-gun”) activists will take offense at this.  I probably would be, in their place.  And yet, in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Is the slave-holding history of our nation — the fossils of which are imprinted all over our Constitution — by now some sort of surprise to us?  Look at the compromises embedded in our nation’s founding: if true, is this really any sort of surprise?  The surprise, rather, is that we don’t hear about this.  Either fact or (at worst) theory, it’s more plausible than many ideas that are part of the public discourse.

I’m having to skip a lot here that I’d rather not (e.g., about the example of Georgia, about Django Unchained), but I’ll skip ahead to some of the constitutional history itself:

[The Southerners’] main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves. 

This was not an imagined threat.  Famously, 12 years earlier, during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunsmore offered freedom to slaves who could escape and join his forces.  “Liberty to Slaves” was stitched onto their jacket pocket flaps.  During the War, British General Henry Clinton extended the practice in 1779.  And numerous freed slaves served in General Washington’s army.

Patrick Henry is quoted as stating to Virginia’s decisive ratifying convention:

“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”

Wild stuff.  Makes a tremendous amount of sense, though.  But here’s the thing: I taught American Government classes and never recall seeing this in a textbook — or hearing it in any discussion before reading this article.  Google only gives {“second amendment” “slavery”} 145,000 results, which is small beans for a gun-related issue.  Is this something that RKBA advocates know but the rest of us don’t?  Or is this something that not even most RKBA advocates know?

To me, by the way, even if the Second Amendment started as a collective right reserved for states — that “being necessary to the security of a free state,” it says — that doesn’t mean that it’s not also an individual right for at least the sorts of limited self-defense and home-security protection purposes that Justice Scalia set forth in the Heller decision.  But it does suggest that the individual right it’s not quite so constitutionally immune to prudent regulation.

Read the whole thing!  This is your Weekend Open Thread:  talk about this or something else, whatever you’d like within broad bounds of decency and decorum.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)