The Right to Own Guns and the Right to Own Slaves

We are, as a nation, currently embroiled once again in the debate over the right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. The talking point that seems to be popping up today about the Second Amendment is that the right to bear arms came from the same time and place as the right to own slaves. This talking point is as foolish as it is inaccurate, and worse comes from the Democratic playbook on tying anything not of them as an issue of race.

In his column up at The Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey pontificates on just how right Charles Dickens was that America in the early 1800s was brutish and thuglike, with barbarians masquerading as members of a normal society carried around guns and knives as evidence of their supremacy over others. Dickens wrote how appalled he was at the savagery of the people of the South, whose blessed right to guns seemed inextricably tied to their right to own people, a practice he was vehemently against.

When Dickens was writing in the 1840s, remember, keeping Negro slaves was defended as a Constitutional right with the same vehemence that we hear today when it comes to keeping and bearing arms, and perhaps with more foundation. The original U.S. Constitution was built on an explicit compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) that allowed slave-holding states to count human chattel, described as “other persons,” as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of taxation and state representation in the House, but allowed them no rights as human persons whatsoever.

The Second Amendment, adopted a couple of years later as part of the Bill of Rights (of free white people), was essentially written to protect the interests of Southerners in the states that formed militias—often known as “slave patrols”—to crush any attempt at what was called, in those days, a “servile insurrection.” That’s why the full text of the Second Amendment reads:

“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.”

To keep slaves in slavery, you needed militias and they needed to be armed. Such is the fundamental “right” assured by the Second Amendment.

This flies directly in the face of the actual reason why the Second Amendment, on the parts of both owning a weapon and forming a militia, was actually written. The origins of the Second Amendment can be traced all the way back to the late 1600s, when England produced the English Bill of Rights.

James II, a Catholic king in a country that was becoming largely Protestant, was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution after several attempts to use his authority as king to take away the rights of Protestants without going through Parliament to do so. The Glorious Revolution’s end came with the ascension of William III and Mary II, who agreed to create a bill of rights for English citizens. This bill of rights included in it the right to bear arms.

While you may be thinking “But Joe, they didn’t have guns in 1689,” why don’t you fast forward to the days leading up to the American Revolution and look at the conditions on the ground in the American colonies?

The British were using whatever means necessary to subjugate colonists from across the sea. The colonists had no representation in British government, and were at the mercies of the British authority, largely British troops. Early colonies had set up their own constitutions establishing government and what rights citizens within the colonies had. When the tensions between the Patriots and the British troops/Loyalists started rising, British troops and Loyalist militias attempted many times to seize the weapons of the Patriots. This, along with other issues pertaining to the rights of the citizens, was fresh in the minds of the Framers after the failure that was the Articles of Confederation.

The Framers included the right to keep and bear arms, along with the acknowledgement of that a militia was necessary to maintain a free state, because of their experiences with tyrannical forces. Even if you buy into the “hidden history” of the Second Amendment, you are choosing one minor negotiating point in the creation of the Second Amendment over the long historical context of keeping an armed militia against a tyrannical government.

Further, even if all this is true, it holds little meaning to today’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, which has nothing to do with slavery because the Civil War effectively put an end to that issue. Racial tensions did exist well into the 1900s, and still exist in some places today. However, the Second Amendment is not about keeping black slaves in line in 2015 any more than Third Amendment is about keeping the British out of our houses in 2015.