New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.



Madison’s Amendment

In an interesting article about the original 20 items on James Madison’s Bill of Rights — reduced to 12 after considerable debate in the Continental Congress and later to 10 during the ratification process —  it is made fairly clear what the man was thinking when he wrote those amendments.

We know that the major concern of those who were debating the Constitution was the issue of ratification. How to write the Constitution in such a way that the required number of states would agree to it? Originally it mentioned the abolition of slavery, but that had to be cut to assure that the Southern states would climb on board. A number of those items also had to be cut from Madison’s 20 “Rights,” though they were eventually reworked into later amendments — such things, for example, as restricting Federal judicial powers. Another was added as late as 1992. Compromise was necessary in a new nation where individual rights, and the rights of the states themselves, must be guaranteed. The original Second Amendment reads as follows:

 James Madison

James Madison


“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person,” said Madison.

The final clause was dropped, sad to say. But, like that clause, the remaining part of the statement makes it abundantly clear that the major concern in this amendment is the right of the militia to bear arms, since the right of “the people” is predicated on the claim that “a well armed and well regulated militia” is necessary to guarantee that the country remain free. And the reference to “military service” in the omitted clause also makes it clear that the militia was of major concern — for reasons of self-defense.

It is a wonder in these days of heated debate over the need for some sort of gun control to limit the sales of automatic weapons to possible terrorists in this country that few bother to recall what the founders were most concerned about when they agreed to the Second Amendment. Much is said about our “Constitutional Right” to bear arms, but nothing whatever is said about this so-called right being predicated on the maintenance of a militia. With the disappearance of the militia the right to bear arms also disappears. At best, one could argue that the National Guard has such a right. But not every Tom, Dick, and Sally — and certainly not those who are not of sound mind.

Note: After writing this post I was pleased to read an article quoting various Constitutional lawyers on this topic that support what I have said here:

For almost 200 years after it was adopted, the Second Amendment was interpreted to protect the right for militias to bear arms, but not individuals. In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Miller that restricting access to shotguns or machine guns by citizens outside the military was permissible. . .  .

[Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe added that] the Second Amendment does not stand in the way of gun legislation to make the country safer.

“The largest misconception is that the Second Amendment justifies — or ever has justified — our nation’s abysmal record in protecting innocent people from avoidable gun violence, . . . The Second Amendment and the Constitution as a whole are abused by those who treat them as a sick suicide pact.”

So while there is a legitimate political debate to be had about the merits of gun control, Tribe says, conservatives are wrong to make it a constitutional issue.

This, of course, does not imply that the debate over gun control will end, though it should quiet those who argue that carrying automatic weapons is a “right” guaranteed by the Second Amendment. However, it most assuredly will not.


Brilliant Idea!

An acquaintance of mine recently urged one of my best friends in the very small rural town in which I live to get a permit and buy himself a weapon. “Everyone is doing it,” he said, including himself and his daughter. I suppose he feels it necessary to be armed to protect himself against would-be terrorists invading rural Minnesota — or, perhaps marauding Vikings. Whatever. Poor, frightened little man. I feel sorry for him. But his kind is becoming increasingly common in this country, as we all know. And these folks feel they have a “right” to carry a weapon because the Constitution tells them so. As I have noted in previous blogs, this “right” is predicated on the necessity of an armed militia to protect home and hearth against attacks from England — or wherever. But only those who actually read the Second Amendment would know that. The framers worried more about a standing army that would threaten states’ rights then they did an armed citizenry.

Indeed, it is the fact that the supposed “right” to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution is predicated on the necessity to have a well-armed militia that is ignored in the frenzy to simply own and be prepared to use the latest assault weapon to protect ourselves against whatever ghosts and goblins might be out there wanting to get us. Americans, more and more of them each day, simply want to own and carry weapons because they are fearful. But in a brilliant chapter in his latest book, Six Amendments: How And Why We Should Change The Constitution, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has suggested a re-write of the Second Amendment that would restore it to its original meaning and undermine the terribly weak argument we hear almost daily about the right to bear arms. His re-wording would place the emphasis of the Amendment where it belongs: on the need to have an armed militia, not the supposed right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to pack heat. In making his case, Stevens notes that “For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text. . . applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes.”  That lengthy period was followed by an extensive campaign by the NRA to help the gun manufacturers sell weapons, and this altered the game radically.

The Amendment, as the framers wrote it, states that “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.” Stevens suggests a five word insert that would clarify the meaning:” A well-regulated Militia, being  necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” Positively brilliant.

What this means is that those who have been designated as protectors of the nation, say the National Guard, have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms — others do not. This is clearly what the founders intended and the way it was understood for 200 years, and if it were written in this fashion it would undermine the arguments of the nutters today who are responsible for approximately eighty-eight firearms deaths every day in this country (30,000 each year) and might possibly open the door to a debate at the highest levels about whether or not there ought to be some sort of restrictions on the sale and use of such things as automatic weapons that are clearly designed to kill people, not wild game. As Judge Stevens points out:

“Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly  would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.”

Organizations like the National Rifle Association would continue to argue for the “right” of everyone and his dog to own guns of every possible variety, but on this re-write of the Second Amendment they would have to base that supposed “right” on something other than the Second Amendment which, as Stevens argues, never did support such license. What the grounds for that supposed “right” might be in the absence of a misreading of the U.S. Constitution one can only imagine; but one can bet guns would continue to be sold to frightened people who really don’t need to pretend they have any sound reasons for simply wanting to own a gun.

Homeland Security

In my recent travels to eastern Kansas (which is quite beautiful, by the way) my wife and I stopped for a snack along the way at a Subway in Missouri Valley, Iowa (which is not so beautiful, by the way). As I sat there eating my healthy sandwich I watched a paunchy, middle-aged man and his thin, mousey wife enter. They had arrived in a large SUV (which has to be an expression of his insecurity, I figure) and he sauntered in wearing a black tee-shirt with the slogan: “The Second Amendment: The Original Homeland Security.”

Now I confess I have a thing about tee shirts with in-your-face slogans written on them — though I do love the funny tees — and this one gave me pause. After all, the second amendment is about forming a militia and Homeland Security was formed, ostensibly, to fight terrorism after the Twin Towers were destroyed. So I am wondering: how can a militia be effective in fighting terrorism? How will a number of eighteenth century muskets — no matter how many — fight off huge planes piloted by zealots determined to fly them into tall buildings? What on earth is this man thinking? But, I jest. It occurs to me that this is imply one of the millions of slogans put out there by gun aficionados to affirm their “right” to bear arms. I assume this man has a SUV full of automatic weapons and the next time he sees a plane headed for a tall building he plans to open fire — with his mousey wife urging him on. Or something. It’s not clear what people like this are thinking — if, indeed,  you can call that thinking.

In any event, it is time the defenders of the  second amendment to the Constitution buy a copy of that document and sit down and read it. As I have noted before, it’s not about the right to bear arms. It’s about the necessity to form a militia in lieu of a standing army. But I will stop kicking a dead horse since those who read these blogs are getting tired of hearing me go on about what that document actually says. And it is not even a little bit likely that men like my middle-aged, paunchy freedom fighter will ever actually read the document or, even if he did, that he would understand what the Second Amendment actually says. So I suppose I should take solace in the fact that my country is now protected by well-armed, paunchy, middle-aged men who drive gas-guzzlers filled, I imagine, with automatic weapons and I need no longer fear terrorism. Boy, what a relief!

The Cost of Defense

This country was founded on the principle that a standing army should never be necessary; under the Second Amendment a militia made up of ordinary citizens would be guaranteed the right to bear arms to protect their country from tyranny. Even after the First World War we had no standing army, though in 1911 the concept of a militia was laid to rest. After the War to End All Wars, the country’s military might continued slowly to grow, and in the 1930s our government had a standing committee in Congress to oversee the military; in 1934 Congress passed the National Firearms act designed to keep the production of weapons of war in the hands of the government — and such weapons as machine guns out of the hands of civilians. In 1939 the Supreme Court upheld the Firearms Act insisting it was entirely consistent with the Second Amendment.

But even keeping them out of the hands of the citizens didn’t keep the production of weapons of war from making some people in this country very wealthy, despite the fact that in 1934 the Senate Munitions Committee was headed by a Republican, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who famously said “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war.” Not long after they were uttered, these prophetic words were soon drowned out by the sound of bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the Second World War a standing army was a matter of course. And with the Cold War ongoing the power of the military grew — as did the wealth of those companies providing the military with weapons and armament, resulting in President Eisenhower’s famous warning against the “military-industrial complex.” That warning has also been drowned out, this time by the sound of the cash registers ringing up huge profits for munitions companies like Lockheed Martin, a firm whose contracts with the Pentagon amount to some thirty billion dollars annually. This company alone spends fifteen million dollars a year to persuade members of Congress that we need a strong military presence in all parts of the world and that the military needs the very latest in weapons. No conflict of interest here!

Photo from The New Yorker magazine

Photo from The New Yorker

It is well known that members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are beholden to the “military-industrial complex,” that entity that has morphed into a hydra-headed monster now in control of Washington. Lockheed Martin has contributed to the election of three hundred and eighty-six of the four hundred and thirty-five members of this Congress. In the distance you can hear (if you listen very carefully) the fading words of President Eisenhower:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . This is not a way of life in any true sense.”

Jill Lapore, the author of a most interesting article in the January 28th issue of The New Yorker tells us that “The United States which was founded on opposition to a standing army is now a nation engaged in a standing war.” This, of course, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all. She quotes Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, who warns us that we “have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force.” Bacevich is now a professor of history at Boston University and he had some profound remarks to make about the war in Afghanistan, which he likens to the War in Viet Nam. “The mystical war against Communism,” he says, “finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism.. . .[mysticism] prevents us from seeing things as they are.” This from a man who knows whereof he speaks. And it should make us ponder the real costs of what is euphemistically called “defense.”

Losing His Cool

You remember Alex Jones, the man who wanted CNN’s Piers Morgan deported because he had the audacity to suggest that the United States needs tighter gun control laws. If we keep turning rocks over and idiots like Jones continue to crawl out it will eventually give conservatives a bad name. Assuming he ever had “it,” Alex Jones recently went on Piers Morgan’s TV show and lost it, as the following Yahoo News story tells us:

Alex Jones, the conservative talk radio host who launched a petition to deport CNN prime-time host Piers Morgan over the British citizen’s views on gun control, had what you might conservatively call a wee bit of a meltdown during an interview on Morgan’s show Monday night.

Jones, whose petition has generated more than 100,000 signatures since being posted last month on the White House’s “We The People” website, lashed out at Morgan over his public calls for tighter gun regulations in the wake of last month’s shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people—including 20 children—were killed by a gunman at an elementary school.

“The Second Amendment isn’t there for duck hunting,” a relatively calm Jones said at the beginning of a two-part, 15-minute interview. “It’s there to protect us from tyrannical government and street thugs.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons. To begin with, the fact that Jones later in the interview lost his cool and started to blather suggests that he knew deep-down he is on very thin ice. The thinness of the ice is demonstrated by his ignorance of the second amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was not written to protect us from “tyrannical government and street thugs.” It was written to protect us from standing armies, including our own. It was intended to guarantee that every American male would have arms and could be called upon to protect his country from armed invaders. There weren’t many “street thugs” about in those days — and very few conservative radio talk-show hosts (lucky Colonials!).  And the tyrants had already been sent back to England, though there was always the possibility that their armies might return. Hence the need for a militia.

The depth of ignorance among the gun-rights movement is staggering but not really surprising, given the fact that Americans are generally ignorant about their own history. One wonders how many of those who rant about the second amendment have ever read it. It’s not that long and has few, if any, big words. As I have mentioned in previous blogs (for example, this one), the right to bear arms is connected logically with the need for a militia and the desire NOT to have a standing army. It says, in effect: because we don’t want to be an occupied country we require a militia and therefore insist on the right to bear arms. No need for a militia, no need for arms.

But on a deeper level, it is disturbing that a man like Jones who professes to be an opinion-maker in this country cannot carry on a civil discussion with a person who disagrees with him. Related to this concern is the notion that he would have Morgan deported rather than defend the man’s right to have a different opinion than his about gun control. What happened to the first amendment? That amendment guarantees our right to have opinions even if they are outrageous and even stupid — witness the radio and TV talk shows. Read the Bill of Rights, people.

But in the end, it’s all about civil discourse and our inability to carry it on without watching it degenerate into a shouting match. We take our clue from TV. We are indeed a violent people, as Jones says later in that interview, and we seem to be perfectly happy to admit it and even demonstrate it with disturbing frequency.

Gun Control

One of the truly hot topics in America for years now is the issue of gun control. I never really understood why the topic produces so much heat. After all, it’s not about gun elimination, it’s about gun control at a time when we desperately need a bit of restraint, as recent events have shown. The favorite mantra of the N.R.A. and those who want no controls on the use of guns is the chant “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is one of those half-truths that saturates our thinking and keeps us away from the whole truth — so far as we can ever grasp that.

The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1789 and adopted in 1791 and it reads in its entirety “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.” It was written by James Madison, and please note the careful wording. The statement begins with what logicians call the antecedent “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….” The remainder of the statement is the consequent. In effect, it reads “Because we need an armed militia, we must protect the right to bear arms.” The two sections of the statement must be taken together.

The Bill of Rights was passed as a rider after the Constitution was adopted in order to persuade still reluctant individuals to come on board. As Madison said at the time, “I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed [the Constitution], disliked it because it did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power: nor ought we to consider them safe, while a great number of our fellow citizens think these securities necessary.” Initially it was felt that the Bill was unnecessary because no civilized country should need to spell out the rights of the citizens. Further, if they were spelled out there might be others, not mentioned, that would therefore be ignored. But these arguments were eventually dismissed and the Bill became part of the Constitution of these United States. At that time, there was considerable concern over an armed force on the continent — given the fact that the Colonies had been an occupied country for many years. In a word, the Founders didn’t trust armies. But, as was the case during the recent Revolution, men with weapons in their homes (muskets, of course) who could be called upon to defend their country was the acceptable alternative.

Thus, the reason the second amendment was adopted was to persuade those who were still reluctant to accept a constitution they thought would deprive them of states’ rights, but with the understanding that none of those supporting the document wanted a standing army. The “right to bear arms” was specified because it was believed that the country was better off being defended by men who were, in effect, defending their homes.

So much has changed since that time, needless to say. We now have one of the largest armed forces on earth and the need for an armed Militia no longer exists. Further, the Founders never envisioned hand guns and automatic weapons that could kill large numbers of people in a matter of seconds. It is true that someone must be holding a weapon for it to kill someone else (or the holder himself). But it is also the case that when these weapons are so deadly and so many people might die in such a short time, the likelihood increases that someone will die when the guns are fired. It’s a matter of simple probabilities. In a word, if there were no guns, no one could be killed by the accidental or intentional discharge of a gun. So, people kill people, but with fewer guns fewer would die or be maimed.

It’s impossible to read the minds of those who wrote the Constitution, though reading the Federalist Papers takes us back to the period and lets us see what sorts of things those people were thinking at a time when states’ rights were the central issue. One thing comes clear, and that is that these people lived in much simpler times and though they were just like us in so many ways, their technology was in kindergarten compared with ours. It is hard to imagine that they would have written and adopted an amendment like the second amendment given today’s conditions — the large stranding army and the advanced weaponry.

In any event, when the N.R.A. or others of their ilk defend the “right to bear arms,” they should also at the same time argue for the dismantling of the standing army. The two conditions go hand-in-hand.