Most people already have an opinion of what the Second Amendment means, or ought to mean, in contemporary US society. But what did it mean to the people who wrote it? Why did the writers of the US Constitution feel it was necessary to compose the Second Amendment, and what did they hope it would accomplish?
It turns out there’s a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer becomes apparent as soon as we look at the actual text of 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.” The raison d’être of the Second Amendment is immediately given in the initial dependent clause: a well-regulated militia is critical for national security. Regardless of how we might feel about this statement, we can safely assume that, at the time of writing, the authors of the Constitution believed it to be true.
Unfortunately, the conciseness of the amendment belies a number of conflicts and concerns about rights and duties, ownership and financial accountability. In order to really understand what the Second Amendment meant to the framers of the Constitution, a little more historical context is necessary.
Why the Militia?
First of all, the framers of the Constitution explicitly invoked the importance of a well-regulated militia because they abhorred the idea of a standing army. A professional military was completely anathema to most Americans at the end of the 18th century. Even James Madison, one of the most stalwart proponents of a strong federal government, noted in a speech before the Constitutional Convention that, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”
This American dislike and distrust of standing armies was nothing new. It had its roots in English military history. However, even more notable was the colonists’ own experience with the British standing army. In the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, they had begun to view the British army as little more than the enforcers of tyranny. In fact, the Second and Third Amendments to the US Constitution can be understood as having been written in direct response to the conduct of the British soldiers.
Not only did the British work to curtail colonists’ access to arms and munitions at the outset of the revolution, but colonists had been forced to lodge and supply British soldiers in the Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1774. Hence, the framers of the Constitution were quick to enshrine the right to keep and bear arms, as well as the provision that, “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
It was their fear of standing armies that led the framers of the Constitution to emphasize the importance of militias. During a congressional debate on the crafting of the Second Amendment, Elbridge Gerry summed up this connection quite neatly: “What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.”
A citizen militia could be formed when needed and seemed much safer than a large body of armed men who made a career out of soldiering, and who were loyal to a single executive (i.e., the president). Besides, for much of their history, the colonists had relied more or less entirely on militias for protection. They did not imagine they would ever fight overseas, and they believed citizen militias would be sufficient to repel any attacks on the country’s borders.
The Development of the US Militia
Historically, the biggest military threat facing the colonists had always been the Native Americans and the French. When the British established colonies in the US, colonists were not accompanied by soldiers. They were forced to form militias to deal with external threats.
Over time, as the colonies grew and conflicts over land between the British, French and Spanish increased, the British began to maintain a military presence in the US. By the time the French and Indian War broke out, Americans were relying primarily on the British army for protection, and the role of the militias was mostly relegated to maintaining order within the colonies themselves.
By the time of the Revolution, militias mostly just met on the weekends to practice marching together. Their role in the Revolutionary War itself was mainly to serve as auxiliaries. The militias, it was discovered, could be used to great effect to aid the regular army, but they had a tendency to cut and run when they came face-to-face with the British on the battlefield, which led George Washington to pointedly inform John Hancock that, “If I was (sic) called upon to declare … whether the militia had been most serviceable or hurtful upon the whole, I should subscribe to the latter.”
When the war ended, the Continental Army was reduced in size to around 700 men, as a smaller, weaker professional military was presumed to be safer for the fledgling democracy. Congress also reserved itself the right to command the militia, and together, these two forces were seen as sufficient to preserve the United States from any internal or external threat. It is important to remember that the framers of the Constitution considered the army itself one of the most significant of these threats, and the inclusion of language governing the militia in the Constitution was a direct result. Following the Revolutionary War, the militia was to be organized not by independent citizens, but rather by the state governments, and it was to be commanded, above all, by the United States Congress.
The militia, as the framers of our Constitution understood it, was never meant to be a grassroots collection of citizens. It was meant to be organized, managed and commanded by the government. Certainly, no citizen or group of citizens would be permitted to defy (much less take up arms against) the government, even for the sake of pursuing their constitutional rights.
How the Militia Was Actually Used
In 1791, under President George Washington, the “whiskey tax” was imposed on distilled spirits. Farmers in Western Pennsylvania resisted the tax, which they believed was counter to the principles of the American Revolution. The conflict culminated in a group of more than 500 armed men attacking the home of the tax inspector, which prompted a large-scale government response. Washington himself rode out to meet them with 13,000 militiamen sent by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Fortunately, the rebels disbanded and went home before Washington arrived and armed conflict was averted, but there was no missing the fact that the first federal use of the militia following the Revolutionary War was an attempt by the government to enforce a tax that many farmers felt was unjust. The militia during this period was very much an instrument of the state, and it was used as a means to violently enforce the law much more often than it was called upon for defense of the nation or the states.
During 1792, the formal role of the militia was further amended in response to the events of the Northwest Indian War. The Militia Acts of 1792 granted the president the authority to call up and command the militia (the Constitution had previously reserved this power to Congress). They also conscripted every able-bodied white male citizen between 18 and 45 into local militia units, and further required them to own a musket, bayonet, belt, two spare flints, a cartridge box, 24 bullets and a knapsack. Requiring militia members to own weapons and ammunition was eminently practical, as it spared the government the enormous expense of arming them. At this point, it was clear that the federal government wanted to be able to command the militia without assuming the responsibilities of organizing, training and supplying them. Meeting these responsibilities would be the burden of the individual states.
The War of 1812 brought into stark relief some of the glaring problems with this arrangement. First of all, it had never been made sufficiently clear under what circumstances, and to what ends, the federal government could command the militias of the states. When the war began, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut refused President Madison’s call to send their militias to the frontier. The governors of Rhode Island and Vermont echoed these sentiments, with the former refusing to send his state’s militia at all, and the latter declaring he had the legal right to recall Vermont’s militia at his sole discretion.
The war also called into question the efficacy of relying on the militia as the nation’s primary means of defense. Militias frequently declined to march into battle, or ignominiously ran from the field in the face of danger. The most infamous example occurred at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814 where the militia fled at the worst moment possible, leading to a complete rout, and the British invasion and burning of Washington, DC. Following the war, politicians such as John Calhoun advocated for a larger, better trained standing army to serve as the nation’s first defense. Even Madison argued for expanding the army’s ranks.
In the years that followed, militias were rarely used outside of their home states, and when they were used, it was frequently to aid the police in suppressing the rights of slaves and workers. A militia was raised, for instance, during the Wakarusa War during the turmoil of the Bleeding Kansas violence between pro-slavery factions and Free-Staters who opposed the expansion of slavery. A militia also helped thwart the abolitionist John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, and, in Southern states, they were mostly used to round up fugitive slaves.
Militias played a minor role in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War; however, these wars further exposed problems with the discipline and preparedness of militias. In each of these conflicts, militias were used predominantly as auxiliary forces, and they displayed embarrassingly low levels of individual and unit training for battle. During times of war, the government relied more on volunteers for the regular army, where at least it could enforce certain standards in training and equipment and ensure uniformity in organization under officers of its own choosing.
The Transformation of the Militia Into the National Guard
Following the Spanish-American War, the militia underwent a federal overhaul that created the precursor of today’s National Guard. The Militia Act of 1903, also known as the Dick Act, formally repealed the Militia Acts of 1792 and created two distinct groups: The Unorganized Militia, which was a pool of all able-bodied men aged 17-45, and the Organized Militia, which was essentially the continuation of the old militias held by the states, or the National Guard.
The Organized Militias were allotted federal funds for training and equipment, but in return, the federal government demanded more control over state militias. States were ordered to train and equip their militias according to the standards set by the regular army, and if they failed to meet these standards, they would lose their federal funding and recognition. The president was also authorized to call up the National Guard for up to nine months in order to suppress rebellion, repel invasion or enforce federal laws.
The National Guard was used, for instance, to end a 1914 coal miners’ strike in Colorado. The event, which would come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre, saw the Guard firing machine guns into a colony of striking miners and their families. About two dozen miners, women and children were killed.
Over the next several decades, the federal government assumed even greater control over the state militias. In 1916, in response to the events of World War I, the National Defense Act doubled the number of mandatory drill periods and tripled the length of summer training camps.
In 1933, an amendment to the National Defense Act created a reserve component of the US military called the National Guard. The National Guard was now an official part of the standing military, and all guardsmen became simultaneously members of both their state’s National Guard and the National Guard of the United States. This is the official status of the militia today and the direct descendent of the force of citizen-soldiers that the framers of the Constitution imagined would protect the nation from invasion and insurrection. The militia mentioned in the Constitution has, through a series of acts and amendments, become the National Guard.
Shifting the Debate
There are plenty of confused notions in circulation about what the framers of the Constitution meant by a “well-regulated militia.” The militia was never meant to be a protection from government tyranny in the sense that armed citizens would be able to physically fight off subjugation or oppression; rather, the militia envisioned in the Second Amendment was a means of avoiding a large, powerful standing army, which the framers feared could easily overthrow the government. In other words, the militia was only a safeguard of liberty insofar as it meant we could maintain a very small professional military. Over time, as a result of a series of wars and conflicts, the United States came to rely increasingly on a large standing army, and today, we have one of the largest professional militaries in the world.
It would be foolish or disingenuous to look at the Second Amendment without considering the context in which it was written. The militia was meant to be used as the nation’s defense because a large standing army was too dangerous. Obviously, we do not feel the same way today. In the 18th century, requiring militia members to own their own weapons was a way of defraying costs. This is no longer necessary, as today’s guardsmen are supplied by the federal government.
Thus, the primary premise behind the writing of the Second Amendment is no longer valid. This does not, however, necessarily mean that we should eliminate it — that is a different argument entirely. It simply means that we have no choice but to admit that it was created for a reason that is no longer viable. It would be completely nonsensical to suppose that the Second Amendment protects us from the dangers of a standing army when the United States has arguably the most powerful standing army on Earth.
The idea that a militia comprised of private citizens has any legitimacy through the Second Amendment is erroneous. Regardless of how you feel about the Second Amendment, it is abundantly clear that what the Constitution refers to as the militia is today the National Guard. If, then, the raison d’être of the Second Amendment is a well-regulated militia, and the right of civilians to keep and bear arms has no bearing whatsoever on the ability of the federal government to arm the National Guard, perhaps a conversation on the utility and merits of the Second Amendment in the 21st century US is worth having after all.