Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.

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Strict Construction

During the Reagan administration Attorney general Edwin Meese and Judge Robert Bork and other conservative spokesmen demanded that the Constitution be interpreted as the founders intended it, that there be a “strict construction” of the Constitution in attempting to decide contemporary court cases. This view has been around for some time, but it rests on the questionable assumption that we can know what the hell the Founders meant when they wrote that document in the eighteenth century. We can’t. We don’t even know what we ourselves mean when we say or write something today — even our own words in many cases! Can anyone reading this please tell me, for example, what the dickens our President means when he tweets his endless drivel? Does he even know?.

James Madison, who authored the Constitution in large part, and who kept copious notes on the proceedings of the Convention when the document was being discussed, insisted that his notes be kept private until after his death. In his words, it was better that people make of it what they can on their own, that his notes remain unpublished

“till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, and till a knowledge of the controversial parts of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no proper account.”

In a word, it is better, in the view of the founders themselves, that no attempt be made to try to determine what a group of men — most or whom disagreed with one another on nearly every topic — might possibly have meant, especially hundreds of years ago. As John Murrin says in his excellent book, Rethinking America, ”

“Even if we decide to accept the accuracy of these accounts, they only tell us what one man [Madison] thought, not why the majority voted as it did or what the majority assumed it was doing.”

Strict Construction is a fiction. It demands that we strive for an impossible goal: to know what a group of men thought years ago in the heat of debate and during a time when thirteen colonies had very different agendas and there was yet no sense of a “united” states. Murrin concludes that

“The real question is not what the drafters thought they were writing, but what the people believed they were implementing [when they ratified the document].”

And that, as we know, is an impossible quest. But, then, so is “strict construction.”