Home > Uncategorized > The dark history of the Second Amendment – posted 6/18/2022

The dark history of the Second Amendment – posted 6/18/2022

With mass shootings practically a daily event, defenders of unrestricted gun owner rights typically invoke the mantra of the Second Amendment. Attention is rarely paid though to the historical circumstances surrounding the origins of the Second Amendment.

As part of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment is shrouded in a benevolent mist. That mist obscures more than it enlightens.

The truth is that the Second Amendment was largely a response to Southern interests who feared slave revolts. Slaveholders wanted the firepower through militias to repress slave uprisings.

James Madison crafted the Second Amendment to strike a balance. He believed a strong central government was necessary but he also wanted to assuage pro-slavery interests. Southerners feared the federal government would try to destroy slavery and Madison was determined to keep the South on board as part of the United States. Patrick Henry and George Mason led the Southern advocacy. They had threatened to shatter the shaky union that did exist.

The historian Carol Anderson has best described the historical circumstances around the Second Amendment. In her book, The Second, she wrote:

“The Second Amendment was, thus, not some hallowed ground but rather a bribe, paid again with Black bodies. It was the result of Madison’s determination to salve Patrick Henry’s obsession about Virginia’s vulnerability to slave revolts, seduce enough anti-federalists to get his Constitution ratified and stifle the demonstrated willingness of the South to scuttle the United States if slavery was not protected.”

Anderson argues that the role of the militia is key to understanding the Second Amendment. Recall the Second Amendment’s language: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the rights of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Anderson’s perspective is obviously quite a departure from the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence as best exemplified by Justice Scalia’s opinion in the Heller case. Responding to the gun lobby, Scalia downplayed the militia part and emphasized the individual right to gun ownership. Anderson says the primary function of the militia was slave control.

As a historian, Anderson does not deny that militias in that era had multiple purposes. Many American revolutionaries feared a standing army. Militias were used to wage war against Native Americans and to quell slave revolts. They were also seen as needed to repel any possible foreign invasions.

The eighteenth century featured a huge importation of kidnapped Africans to America. Plantation owners brutalized the Africans with absolutely barbarous treatment. The goal was to induce submission in the quest for maximum profit. Slaves were the principal basis for Southern wealth.

As far back as 1639, Southern states prohibited Africans from carrying guns. In the eighteenth century Black people were forbidden from owning or carrying firearms but white men were required to own “a good gun or pistol” to give them the means to “search and examine all negro houses for offensive weapons and ammunition”.

As noted, the right to own firearms generally did not extend to Black people. New Hampshire, Delaware, Massachusetts and New York banned Blacks from military service in the Continental Army and the militias. It was only when there was a manpower shortage during the revolutionary war that the Continental Army reconsidered its “whites only” policy.

There was also the matter that in 1775 Virginia’s royal governor, the Earl of Dunsmore, said the British would emancipate every male slave of a rebel “who could and would bear arms for King George III”. There was fear that the enslaved might opt for the British side.

A deep fear of slave revolts permeated the white power structure in the South. In 1739, the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina saw a series of pitched battles in which a bloody slave rebellion was mercilessly put down. According to Anderson, the enslaved were tortured, shot, hanged and gibbeted alive”. Then another fifty slaves “were taken by their Planters who Cut off their heads and set them up at every Mile Post they came to”. Serving in slave patrols was required for all able-bodied white men.

Later in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, the fear of slave uprisings only increased. The Haitian revolution which began in 1791 terrified American slave owners. Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion in 1800, the German coast rebellion of Louisiana in 1811 and Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 all demonstrated the slave desire for freedom.

Those slaves who did try to escape were hunted down by militias and bounty hunters. Both horses and dogs were used by slavers. Slave patrols subjected Black people to questioning, searches and floggings. Guns were a key instrument in a regime of systematic control.

In the nineteenth century, the fugitive slave laws contributed to the growth of militias. The South wanted escaped enslaved people to be returned to their masters. Before our civil war, huge political battles were fought around the issue of fugitive slaves’ rights.

Many on the political right seem to think the Second Amendment was carved in marble by God. On TV, I just saw a political ad about how President Biden was supposedly trying to take away our “god-given” Second Amendment rights. Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was spouting this.

The irony could not be more extreme. Instead of being god-given, the Second Amendment emerged as an instrument to protect slavery and slavers’ rights to control black people. Its history is anything but noble.

Rights, even constitutional rights, do not come out of nowhere. They are rooted in a historical context. Those who want to whitewash American history ignore the centrality of slavery in our past. Unlike other constitutional rights in the Bill of Rights which have had a more positive and civilized evolution, I would argue the Second Amendment is unique. It was a gift to Southern slave interests to bribe them to stay part of the U.S..

The historian W.E.B. Dubois once wrote “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. I think that statement is true for all of American history. It is impossible to understand where the Second Amendment came from without placing it in the middle of the American battle around the maintenance and preservation of white supremacy.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ronni Wise
    June 18, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you for this illuminating history of the second amendment.

    Hope you are having a great summer.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • June 18, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks Ronni! I love this time of year. I like to garden. I hope your summer is really good too.

  2. Gordon Allen
    June 18, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Especially excellent piece.

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    June 19, 2022 at 1:06 am

    Another great read! It’s become almost impossible to break through people’s defenses when it comes to how deeply imbedded racism is in American law, but there’s enough distance between us and these historical facts to leave a bit of an opening. Thank you for yet more stuff I didn’t know! I shared it to Facebook.

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