Conservatives often speak as if the suspension of logic in America’s public discourse is an exclusively left-wing deficiency. But some well-meaning conservative participants in the debate over the 2nd Amendment show signs of it as well. On the one hand, they rightly maintain that the word “militia” in the Second Amendment is a term generally applicable to all law-abiding, able-bodied people, of age to recognize and meet their responsibility for the defense of their community. But at the same time they assert that the Constitution means for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” to be governed solely by individual judgment and self-discipline. Article 1.8 of the U.S. Constitution provides that
- The Congress shall have power …to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
- To provide for organizing, arming and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively , the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress (emphasis mine);….
Proponents of the 2nd Amendment generally agree that the word “militia” encompasses all the able-bodied people characterized above, not just to those such as the National Guard and Reserve, formally employed in the service of the United States. It comes in a context that invokes the necessary existence of the whole armed body of the people. So, it’s logically apparent that the right to keep and bear arms also encompasses all the individuals comprising that body. After all, once one deprives the individuals of arms, the armed body such people comprise, ceases to exist.
But the same logic requires us to admit that the scope of any discipline Congress may, by law, prescribe to assure the readiness of the militia may also extend to all individuals comprising it, so long as the organization and training involved does not infringe upon the people’s clearly protected right. Since, for purposes of that right, the militia is not limited to those formally enrolled in the service of the United States, neither is the power the Constitution vests in Congress, to prescribe some discipline for the whole body. Both the right and the power look to secure the liberty that has been the distinguishing condition of the American people from the moment they declared their independence as a nation. But as President Andrew Jackson observed in his Farewell Address “eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and …you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.” As John Curran appositely said, reflecting the prudent logic of the English speaking world during the founding era:
It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
Now, the 2nd Amendment’s opponents often believe its true significance when they speak as if the “right to keep and bear arms” has only to do with hunting or other recreational uses. Even some of its strong supporter do so, when they talk as if individual self-defense is, above all, its aim. To be sure, at the time it was written, hunting was a matter of life and death for many Americans. Therefore, the practice of hitting one’s target consistently was not simply a sporting proposition. But these days most Americans purchase their food at a store. So one might reasonably argue that hunting is scarcely required to secure food.
Individual self-defense is certainly the primordial exercise of the unalienable right the Amendment has in view. But its language takes account of the fact that right-minded individuals are bound to be overwhelmed standing alone when numerous others, acting as one with evil intent, bear arms against them. The Amendment makes clear, at the outset, that its explicit aim is not just the security of one’s food supply, or even one’s body. It is “the security of a free state”, the body politic of a free people.
Since a well-regulated militia is necessary for that security, the people’s right “to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” We noted that the Constitution’s language applies to the “militia,” defined in terms of the objective traits of individual people (e.g., law-abiding, able-bodied, of age to recognize and meet their responsibility for the defense of their community.) Congress represents multitudes of individual Americans who have already joined forces (in their states and localities) to secure their God-endowed rights. The Constitution therefore vests Congress with the responsibility to prescribe a uniform discipline, intended to assure that, when called upon to do so, the individuals comprising those societies will be serviceable to the whole they form together..
The details of this provision, quoted above, here warrant further reflection. In charging the U.S. Congress with responsibility for establishing a uniform regime of training and discipline amongst the people, the Constitution foresees the need for them to act together against threats external to their union. In this respect they must, to some extent, be interchangeable parts, tooled to fit together and interact with regularity.
But though, when serving the union, they will stand in the chain of command that answers to the President, each state will be responsible for staffing the links of the chain that involve their militia units. At the time it was ratified, and for many decades thereafter, the loyalty individuals felt to their particular State was strong enough to be not only independent of the sentiment that bound them to the union, but adverse to it, in certain circumstances. If a sufficient majority in a given state acted on that adverse feeling, organized insurrection loomed as a possibility.
In the face of this possible, if not likely, threat to the union’s use of the militia, why did the first generation of American patriots leave it to the States to staff the command structure of the militia in each state? At the time, they may have had no choice. For reasons that had to do with family ties, religious affinities and sectional interests of various kinds (including, for example, the slaveholders’ interest in some states and regions) the selection of officers for the militia was a jealously guarded prerogative of the states, respectively, and even of particular regions within them. As a matter of sentiment, people were more likely to respect and obey leaders they knew, and even had a hand in selecting.
But thanks to their conflict with Great Britain, and their own difficulties and dissensions among themselves, during and after the War for Independence, the patriots of the founding era saw the need to stand against centralized government power in defense of liberty. However, they also experienced the damage that disintegration threatened greatly to exacerbate, when defiance of the Constitutional authority of the American people enfeebled their united strength.
Extremes of freedom and unbridled dictatorship do not preserve liberty. Its preservation requires a balance among forces that must remain potentially at odds with one another, but within bounds directed toward the common good of the whole people. To maintain this equilibrium, people have to live according to right, i.e., in the free exercise of their mutual goodwill.
This way of life requires that people possess both the means and the disciplined character to keep, bear and properly employ the means of defending themselves, as individuals and as a whole. But, just as the lack of arms must lead to liberty’s destruction, so the disintegration of character, in respect of right, must lead to its steadily increasing surrender. Why do our present leaders seemed determined to encourage us to fear the arms and despise the good character this balance requires? The authors of America’s creed would surmise that they pursue a design for despotism, which must end in our enslavement as a people.
But one aspect of the assault on the good character we need to sustain liberty is the elitists’ unremitting assault on the supposedly evil character of the founding generation. Because the founders could not, all at once, fully satisfy the premises of justice in principle, we are being tricked into abandoning those premises in fact. In effect this means tearing down the moral lighthouses they provided for the nation’s conscience, which have in every generation illuminated the way to push toward proper liberty and justice for all.
The vile elitist faction tricksters who are presently manipulating our public discourse invite us to abandon respect for the premises of right, by encouraging contempt for previous generations who did not live up to them. But it’s madness to decry past injustice by taking actions that surrender the standard of justice (in God and natural right) required to unite against wrongdoers, now and in the future. Yet this is what we are presently doing, on every front. This madness feeds inordinately rising fear. It is not just fear of oppressive government, self-serving elitists, or even dangerous terrorists and foreign invaders. As a free people, the corrosive fear most likely to cause our self-destruction is the fear of our own ungovernable selves. It’s long past time to recognize and turn against all those responsible for fomenting it.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.