How America’s Long Tradition of a “Well Regulated Militia” Remains the “Palladium of Liberty”
Nationwide, there’s a run on guns.
Clearly, people are worried about their safety if not the unsettled state of the country. They’re looking for ways to protect themselves.
You’ve probably seen this gun-buying trend if you bought a firearm or ammunition lately.
In some areas, the lines outside gun stores have stretched around the block.
Per FBI statistics, background checks for firearm purchases are up nearly 80% versus this time last year.
From what I gather, most gun shops have merchandise for sale.
But the selection is picked over. If you want certain makes and models of rifles and handguns, it’s likely a backorder with waiting time in the range of months.
Meanwhile, if you’ve tried to buy ammunition, you’ve probably learned that supplies are sparse, especially for common calibers like 9-millimeter.
Generally, mainstream media want you to think that this gun-buying trend is all about Trump-crazed, right-wing nuts stripping the shelves. But the reality is that much new gun-buying comes from women and racial minorities.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects are increasing their complaints that the one sentence that makes all of these purchases possible — the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — is flawed and outdated.
Of course, as a publication named Whiskey & Gunpowder, this issue is right up our alley.
So let’s take a look at what the Founders had in mind when they enshrined the right to bear arms… then consider how it impacts us today.
The first ten Amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights — prove that legislation can be elegant.
Each Amendment makes its point clearly and succinctly, in contrast to the reams of unintelligible “legalese” one finds in modern laws.
Consider the simplicity and directness of the 2nd 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.”
There’s no need to say more. Everything need to know is right there.
In a moment, we’ll discuss the phrase “well regulated Militia” because its history is oft misunderstood.
But otherwise, those 27 words are the reason why you — and millions of others in the U.S. — can buy that new gun and the ammo.
And they’re why gun training and safety courses are doing well, too.
(Seriously… If you are a novice and have recently bought a gun, PLEASE get training and focus on safety! Even if you “used to” know something about guns, from your days in the Army or such, get updated training!)
When you buy a gun, you are exercising a profound right of both personal and collective defense. You are mirroring deep-rooted American values and sentiments that predate yet led to the Battle of Lexington & Concord in 1775.
As I’ve explained before, the American Revolution was not simply a struggle of heroic Colonial farmers versus the mighty British Army. That may be how things began in 1775, but it’s not how things unfolded.
As we saw at Saratoga and other battles, the U.S. had to raise and field a professional army with which to fight the British. And it cost plenty of money to do that, so the young government created a worthless currency called “Continentals” to pay for it.
After the war, the legacy of that “Continental” debt created social and political problems, leading to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786.1
That, in turn, led to a nationwide call for a “Constitutional Convention,” which occurred in Philadelphia 1787.
The Philadelphia ensemble took matters into their own hands. They exceeded their mandate under the then-prevailing Articles of Confederation and wrote the U.S. Constitution.
One side-deal for ratifying the Constitution was to add a Bill of Rights shortly thereafter.
These “Amendments” would resolve issues that lingered from previous experience with British rule. Things like free speech, search & seizure, property takings, punishments and, of course, who could possess firearms.
The 2nd Amendment was composed by future President James Madison. He lifted the idea and general wording from Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.
There were several lines of thought in play:
- Madison and his Constitutional cohorts recalled pre-Revolutionary British tyranny, and how the initial, anti-British uprisings involved American “militia,” a concept of frontier defense with roots in Massachusetts in the 1630s.
- There was a somewhat fanciful angle as well, embodied in the thinking of Richard Henry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee), who noted in 1788 that “A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves, and render regular troops in a great measure unnecessary.”2
- Whatever the history, Madison, Lee and other U.S. founders were suspicious of any new, future class of American “professional” military people. The concern was that these kinds of individuals would tend to be far more skilled in the use of arms than mere civilians, and therefore a threat to freedom. This wariness had deep roots, relating back to a near-coup against the nation by disgruntled U.S. Army officers in 1783, called the Newburg Conspiracy.3
- Meanwhile, throughout the 1780s, there was a great deal of distrust between states under the Articles of Confederation. It was based on longstanding commercial and socio-political issues and rivalries, such as trade. There was also an early version of a North-South divide over slavery. (And it’s worth noting that in the 1780s and 1790s, slavery was “legal” in every U.S. state, not just the South.)
- Finally, there were the basic facts of life in the U.S. at the time. The country was a new nation, mostly agricultural, birthed in revolt and war. And many people owned guns for personal protection, guarding crops from robbers and varmints, putting down injured animals, hunting and more.
Beyond personal concerns, the geography of the U.S. — especially along its frontiers — dictated a widespread requirement for large numbers of people to own firearms. To the north, west and south were long zones of contact (and “iffy” control on the best of days) with hostile forces in British Canada, Native Indian nations and even Spain, down in Florida.
So it’s no wonder that along with the new Constitution, there was consensus over an Amendment concerning “the people” and firearms.
All of which brings us to 1792 and the Whiskey Rebellion…
As we’ve discussed before on many occasions, farmers in Western Pennsylvania rebelled against a federal tax on the capacity of their stills. With this revolt, the fledgling U.S. government faced a direct threat to its legitimacy. (I shared the full background of this in my Sprott Conference presentation.)
Right away, U.S. political leaders – including no less than President George Washington – realized they lacked the military and/or police power to deal with the Whiskey crisis.
At the time, the U.S. Army was small and ill-equipped. Most officers and troops were ageing soldiers of Revolutionary War vintage. The organization was more like a social club — and hardly an effective fighting force.
So the government turned to the people.
In 1792, Congress passed the U.S. “Militia Act” specifically to confront the Whiskey rebels. It enabled Pres. Washington to call up troops to put down those non-compliant farmers.
Washington raised militias from New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia; he didn’t trust Pennsylvania militia to march against fellow Pennsylvanians.
After many colorful events, the Whiskey militia performed its mission and enforced federal control out in the wilds around Pittsburg (there was no “h” at the end of the name back then).
Then in 1795, Congress revised the Militia Act, making permanent the President’s power to summon militia in time of rebellion, insurrection or war.
The new law applied to “every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States,” aged 18 to 45.4
Militia members were required to equip themselves with a musket, bayonet, belt, spare flints, ammunition and a knapsack. Most militia units created their own uniforms, which led to a hodgepodge of appearances.
Some occupations were exempted from militia service, including members of Congress (it figures), stagecoach drivers and ferryboatmen.
Training was spotty, depending on the location and degree of interest by state governors and legislatures. Some militia were disciplined military organizations. Others were little more than drinking clubs.
Overall, militia formed much of the backbone of U.S. military power for many decades, in the sense that it comprised the country’s “army in being.”
That is, any given militia unit may or may not have been worth its gunpowder. But collectively, America’s militia created a national potential to muster (literally) hundreds of thousands — and later millions — of able-bodied, armed men.
U.S. militias mobilized to fight the War of 1812, various Indian wars, the Mexican War and eventually the Civil War, although along the way Congress passed new laws and regulations covering terms of service.
In fact, the 1795 idea of a U.S. “militia” lasted through the Spanish-American War of 1898, with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Roughriders” being but one example.
Then in 1903 — in an early act of the Progressive Era — Congress folded the old militia concept into a new, nationwide approach to defense. The outcome was the “National Guard,” with well-structured military organizations in each state and most territories.
But that didn’t mean the 2nd Amendment was null and void…
Contrary to some specious and misguided arguments, a “well regulated Militia” has never meant there would be an office somewhere, filled with bureaucrats who write lengthy regulations.
No, the 18th century use of the term “well regulated” meant that militia – meaning the armed populace – should have military training, bearing and discipline. Troops had to be competent in drill, to perform military functions like marching, weapons-handling, setting up a firing line, shooting and generally obeying orders and bringing effective combat power to bear.
All in all, the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was:
- To create a militia that was, in essence, an “army in being” comprised of a large number of able-bodied citizens.
- To ensure that this militia was armed and trained, down to each individual.
- To employ this militia in case of domestic insurrection (like Shays’ Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion), or to wage war out along the expanding American frontier (think of how it played out in War of 1812, and later against Indians, Mexico, the Civil War and Spain).
Of course, this all is a far cry from what we have today.
The U.S. now has a much-evolved economic and legal system, giving the country its “professional” military, along with highly integrated state-level National Guard forces. And this is on top of elaborate police systems at local, county, state and federal levels.
And yet the 2nd Amendment has not been repealed. (Not yet, anyhow.)
The Amendment may seem quaint and outdated to some. But while it remains on the books, it still highlights a fundamental, Constitutional vision, right and political expectation that “the people” retain arms.
Look at it this way… When you walk into a gun store to buy a weapon, you are part of the very meaning of having a militia. And you may not realize it, but you could still be summoned for defense across the entire spectrum, from personal to national missions.
And when all else fails — when government fails to safeguard your safety or property, for example — that firearm becomes your one last guarantee of personal freedom.
The heart of the matter was well described long ago, in 1833, by former Chief Justice Joseph Story, who wrote:
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpations and arbitrary power of rulers; and it will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”5
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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5 Joseph Story (1833): A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States: Containing a brief commentary on every clause, explaining the true nature, reasons, and objects thereof.