The Founders Definitely Wanted Your Guns
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution 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.” Such language has created considerable debate regarding the Amendment’s intended scope.
On the one hand, some believe that the Amendment’s phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” creates an individual constitutional right for citizens of the United States. Under this “individual right theory,” the United States Constitution restricts legislative bodies from prohibiting firearm possession, or at the very least the Amendment renders prohibitory and restrictive regulation presumptively unconstitutional.
On the other hand, some point to the prefatory language “a well regulated Militia” to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense. Scholars have come to call this theory “the collective rights theory.” A collective rights theory of the Second Amendment asserts that citizens do not have an individual right to possess guns and that local, state and federal legislative bodies therefore possess the authority to regulate firearms without implicating a constitutional right.
Given what we know about the Articles of Confederation, the move to the new Constitution, and the fledgling beginning of our nation, there is no doubt that the founders believed in the collective rights theory as opposed to the individual rights theory. Context is everything and many gun enthusiasts today are missing it.
Shays’ Rebellion is the name given to a series of protests in 1786 and 1787 by American farmers against state and local enforcement of tax collections and judgments for debt. Although farmers took up arms in states from New Hampshire to South Carolina, the rebellion was most serious in Massachusetts, where bad harvests, economic depression and high taxes threatened farmers with the loss of their farms. The rebellion took its name from its symbolic leader, Daniel Shays of Massachusetts, a former captain in the Continental army.
The uprising in Massachusetts began in the summer of 1786. The rebels tried to capture the federal arsenal at Springfield and harassed leading merchants, lawyers, and supporters of the state government. The state militia, commanded by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, crushed the rebels in several engagements in the winter of 1787. Shays and the other principal figures of the rebellion fled first to Rhode Island and then to Vermont.
Although it never seriously threatened the stability of the United States, Shays’ Rebellion greatly alarmed politicians throughout the nation. Proponents of constitutional reform at the national level cited the rebellion as justification for revision or replacement of the Articles of Confederation, and Shays’ Rebellion figured prominently in the debates over the framing and ratification of the Constitution.
The founders realized that the states should retain some military powers as military powers were being defined for the newly proposed federal government under the newly proposed Constitution. They created the 2nd Amendment to allow state governments to raise a militia from among their citizens and to arm them so they could serve on behalf of state governments. This “well regulated militia” was for the “security” of the state, to ensure domestic tranquility, and most importantly to put down any armed rebellions. After the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the Constitution and George Washington became President, the people tested the executive with their newly minted second amendment rights.
In order to create a self-supporting and effective government, Treasury Secretary Hamilton knew he needed to find a steady source of revenue. He proposed an excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States, and Congress instituted the levy in 1791. In general, the citizens of that time felt negatively toward the idea of taxation. The farmers of western Pennsylvania, many of whom distilled whiskey and profited from its sale, proved outright hostile to the idea.
In July of 1794, a force of disaffected whiskey rebels attacked and destroyed the home of a tax inspector. The rebellion grew in numbers, if not in actions, and threatened to spread to other states. Hamilton knew that the presence of a large and potentially hostile force in Pennsylvania could not be tolerated. If the government were to survive, it would have to show itself capable of keeping control.
Hamilton advocated the use of military force; President George Washington instead put state militias on the ready and sent in negotiators. When talks proved fruitless, Washington acquiesced to Hamilton’s view. A force of 13,000 militia troops, led by Hamilton and Virginia governor Henry Lee, marched into western Pennsylvania.
By the time the federal force arrived, the Whiskey Rebellion had collapsed and most of the rebels had fled. Two men were convicted of treason and later pardoned by Washington. Alexander Hamilton was elated. The fledgling federal government had proven it could keep order — a necessity if the U.S. was to avoid instability.
They were unequivocally afraid of the masses having guns. In fact, the founders wanted state governments to have the ability to raise and arm its citizens on behalf of keeping law and order, meaning putting down any attempts to overthrow the government. This was the purpose of the 2nd Amendment and the law of the land for over 200 years until the 5-4 Heller decision in 2008. Prior to Heller, the courts refused to say that the 2nd Amendment was for anything other than arming state militias, which was in line with what the founders intended. The Founders didn’t trust the public with guns. Why anyone would think they thought gun rights were to be unfettered for individuals is at best self-serving and at worst just plain wrong.