Militia and the Second Amendment

by John Gardner. Republished by permission. Honey and Locusts.

So much has been said recently on the topic of gun control that I am hesitant to wade into the public debate myself. However, on the off chance that I’m not the only one who cares about the original intent of founding documents, I thought I’d share a few points of interest from my own study of the history of the 2nd Amendment, which, for the benefit of those who may not know it, reads as follows:

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.

Militia vs. Standing Armies

During the long and contentious debate which preceded the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there were few points at which those who favored ratification (the “Federalists”) agreed with those who opposed it (the “Anti-Federalists”). One thing they did agree on was their fear of a standing army. Both factions were adamant that the new government must not establish a permanent, professional military. This, in fact, was one of the “usurpations” of which the King of Britain was accused in our Declaration of Independence:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike believed that a standing army was dangerous to liberty, as well as a colossal waste of money. The Anti-Federalists believed that Article I, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution granted Congress too much authority over those who would bear arms; they did not want the federal government to have a say in the training (“regulation”) of the militia, or to have the power to “raise and support armies”. The following three quotes are from three of the “Anti-Federalist Papers”, which were all written under pseudonyms:

“Where lies the security of the people? What assurances have they that either their taxes will not be exacted but in the greatest emergencies, and then sparingly, or that standing armies will be raised and supported for the very plausible purpose only of cantoning them upon their frontiers? There is but one answer to these questions. — They have none.” ~ Anti-Federalist, “John DeWitt” No. 3

“It is universally agreed, that a militia and a standing body of troops never yet flourished in the same soil. Tyrants have uniformly depended upon the latter, at the expense of the former. Experience has taught them, that a standing body of regular forces, where ever they can be completely introduced, are always efficacious in enforcing their edicts, however arbitrary.” ~ Anti-Federalist, “John DeWitt” No. 5

“There is no instance of any government being reduced to a confirmed tyranny without military oppression; and the first policy of tyrants has been to annihilate all other means of national activity and defence, and to rely solely upon standing troops.” ~ Anti-Federalist No. 28

The Federalists countered that there would be no point in having a Federal government at all if it was not given the ability to organize armed men for the common defense. They assured the American people that because the Constitution limited Congressional ability to appropriate money for an army to a period of only two years, this army could never be a serious threat to the liberties of the people since there would be little, if any, difference in the level of training in the use of arms between the army and the citizens. Here’s Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 29:

“If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”

Eventually, of course, a compromise was reached. The Federalists got their Constitution (including the 8th section of the 1st Article), and the Anti-Federalists got their Bill of Rights (including the 2nd Amendment). Four years later, Congress voted to raise a trained standing army (to deal with the “Indian problem”), and we’ve had one ever since.

The Body of the People

When James Madison agreed to write the Bill of Rights, the precise wording of each of the articles was debated at length by Congress. Here is the version approved by the House and sent to the Senate:

A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the People, being the best security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.

You’ll notice that the Senate shortened this by quite a bit before reaching the final version seen at the top of this post. The clause related to religious scruples was dropped out of concern that cowardly men might feign such scruples in order to be excused from service (though provision was eventually made for “conscientious objectors”).

Of particular interest today, though, is the clause “composed of the body of the People”, also struck from the Amendment by the Senate. While there seems to be much confusion today about who ought to be the recipients of the right to bear arms, this was not in question in 1787. The “body of the people” clause was removed for redundancy; it was understood that the militia was composed of the body of the People. (See the United States Code for the “official” definition of militia as the term is used today.)

Reasons to Keep Arms

In a letter from prominent Anti-Federalist Samuel Nasson to his Federalist congressman George Thatcher, Nasson urges adoption of the Amendment, and lists several reasons for which citizens ought to have a Constitutionally-protected right to keep and bear arms:

“I hope that such may take place as will be for the Best Interest of the whole. A Bill of rights well secured that we the people may know how far we may Proceade in Every Department then their [sic] will be no Dispute Between people and rulers in that may be secured the right to keep and bear arms for Common and Extraordinary Occations such as to secure ourselves against the wild Beast and also to amuse us by fowling and for our Defence against a Common Enemy you know to learn the Use of arms is all that can Save us from a forighn foe that may attempt to subdue us for if we keep up the Use of arms and become well acquainted with them we Shall allway be able to look them in the face that arise up against us for it is impossible to Support a Standing armey large Enough to Guard our Lengthy Sea Coast and now Spare me on the subject of Standing armeys in a time of Peace they allway was first or last the downfall of all free Governments it was by their help Caesar made proud Rome Own a Tyrant and a Traytor for a Master… I think the man that Enters as a Soldier in a time of peace only for a living is only a fit tool to inslave his fellows.”

If you can wade through the antiquated/poor spelling & punctuation, you’ll notice three primary purposes for keeping arms: protection from wild animals, hunting/amusement, and defense against an enemy. You’ll also notice that the enemy against whom he most desired the ability to protect himself was his own government, should that government prove to be tyrannical.

Again, the Federalists shared this concern:

“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government…  if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28

Later in the same paper, Hamilton seems unable to imagine a scenario in which the federal government could not be kept in check by an armed populace:

“For a long time to come, it will not be possible to maintain a large army; and as the means of doing this increase, the population and natural strength of the community will proportionably increase. When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations?”

History Matters

Reinventing history to promote an agenda has become commonplace. Those pushing hard for bans on weapons seem to believe in the mantra of repeating a lie until people start to believe it. But no matter how often you hear that the 2nd Amendment only applies to flintlocks, that the right of a citizen to bear arms is reserved merely for hunting, or that average Americans owning weapons capable of protecting against the possibility of government tyranny is absurd, it’s simply not true, as the historical record clearly demonstrates.

I’ll leave you for now to digest all this and form your own conclusions. In my next post, I’ll sound off on some of the specific issues that have come to the forefront in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

*EDIT* Click here to go on to the next part of this series.


Here are some websites that have been helpful in my research for this post, but which were not directly quoted or cited above:

About the Author

John Gardner is the administrator of the Stevens Street School of Performing Arts in Cookeville, TN, where he lives with his wife and growing family. Through his writing at Honey and Locusts, he aims to challenge readers to think deeply about theology, politics, and culture, and to engage with the issues of the day from an informed, biblical perspective.

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6 thoughts on “Militia and the Second Amendment”

  1. This was a fair and balanced treatment of one side of a complex issue. Let’s avoid pointing to straw men. We can do better than that. Human institutions evolve and that’s a fact. I hope the people we have elected and appointed to our representatives within our government remain faithful to the citizens they serve. The government is OUR government after all. Vigilance is indeed important, just as it’s important to continue to evolve.

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  4. It is a good article.

    None of amendments in the bill of rights are absolute. The first amendment has some limitations in the context that child porn is routinely suppressed (a good thing to suppress) and there are limitations as to what one can own in the context of firearms in the 2nd amendment.

    1. Good point; so what ultimately governs is our innate, god-given sense of judgement on “matters of degree”. In other words, proportionality matters in judging what infringements from literal interpretation we are willing to accept. There are no objective metrics or bright lines to define that, so our individual instincts will dictate our actions. As for me, the frightening level and scope of constitutional infringement I see occurring right now have prompted me to prepare for the very real possibility of sacrificing my own life to defend that which is bigger and more important than a single man’s life. My father’s and mother’s generation showed the character and backbone to do that, so I guess it’s my turn now.

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