General Benjamin Lincoln who led a force in 1787 to put down Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts. (Painting by Charles Willson Peale)
By Robert Parry
The Right’s powerful propaganda apparatus has sold millions of Americans on the dangerous – and false – notion that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights so an armed population could fight the government that the Framers had just created.
As a result of that historical lie, many right-wingers today appear to be heeding a call to arms by buying up assault weapons at a frenetic pace. A “Gun Appreciation Day” is scheduled for the Saturday before Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural, which coincidentally falls on Martin Luther King Day. Thousands of gun owners are expected to turn out waving flags and brandishing rifles.
The organizer of that effort, right-wing activist Larry Ward, wrote that “the Obama administration has shown that it is more than willing to trample the Constitution to impose its dictates upon the American people.”
In recent weeks, this bogus narrative of the Framers seeking to encourage violence to subvert the peaceful and orderly process that they had painstakingly created in Philadelphia in 1787 also has been pushed by prominent right-wingers, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personality Andrew Napolitano
Napolitano declared: “The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.”
The suggestion is that armed Americans must confront the “tyrannical” Barack Obama – the twice-elected President of the United States (and the first African-American to hold that office) – if he presses ahead seeking commonsense gun restrictions in the face of the massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and hundreds of other horrendous incidents of gun violence.
These “revolutionary” Americans have been persuaded that they are channeling the intent of the Framers who supposedly saw armed uprisings against the legally constituted U.S. government as an important element of “liberty.”
But that belief is not the historical reality. Indeed, the reality is almost the opposite. The Second Amendment was enacted so each state would have the specific right to form “a well-regulated militia” to maintain “security,” i.e. to put down armed rebellions.
The Framers also made clear what they thought should happen to people who took up arms against the Republic. Article IV, Section 4 committed the federal government to protect each state from not only invasion but “domestic Violence,” and treason is defined in the Constitution as “levying war against” the United States as well as giving “Aid and Comfort” to the enemy (Article III, Section 3).
Second Amendment’s History
The historical context of the Second Amendment also belies today’s right-wing mythology. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the young nation was experiencing violent unrest, such as the Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts. That armed uprising was testing the ability of the newly independent nation to establish order within the framework of a democratic Republic, a fairly untested idea at the time. European monarchies were predicting chaos and collapse for the United States.
Among the most concerned about that possibility was General George Washington, who had sacrificed greatly for the birth of the new nation. After the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and their acceptance of American independence in 1783, Washington fretted over the inability of the states-rights-oriented Articles of Confederation, then governing the country, to deal with its economic and security challenges.
Washington grew disgusted with the Articles’ recognition of 13 “independent” and “sovereign” states and the correspondingly weak central government, called not even a government, but a “league of friendship.”
As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington had watched his soldiers suffer when various states reneged on their commitment to supply money and arms. After the war, Washington retired but stayed active in seeking reforms that would strengthen the central government’s ability to organize national commerce and to maintain order.
His fears deepened in 1786 when Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army captain, led an uprising of other veterans and farmers in western Massachusetts, taking up arms against the government for failing to address their economic grievances.
Washington received reports on the crisis from old Revolutionary War associates in Massachusetts, such as his longtime logistical chief, Gen. Henry Knox, and Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who accepted the British surrender at Yorktown as Washington’s second in command. They kept Washington apprised of the disorder, which he feared might encourage renewed interference in American affairs by the British or other European powers.
On Oct. 22, 1786, in a letter seeking more information about the rebellion from a friend in Connecticut, Washington wrote: “I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”
In another letter on Nov. 7, 1786, Washington questioned Gen. Lincoln about the unrest: “What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?” Washington was especially concerned about the possibility of a hidden British hand.
Lincoln responded: “Many of them [the rebels] appear to be absolutely so [mad] if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidence of insanity.”
However, the U.S. government – under the Articles of Confederation – lacked the means to restore order. So wealthy Bostonians financed their own force under Gen. Lincoln to crush the uprising in February 1787. Afterwards, Washington remained concerned the rebellion might be a sign that European predictions about American chaos were coming true.
“If three years ago [at the end of the American Revolution] any person had told me that at this day, I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws & constitutions of our own making as now appears I should have thought him a bedlamite – a fit subject for a mad house,” Washington wrote to Knox on Feb. 3, 1787, adding that if the government “shrinks, or is unable to enforce its laws … anarchy & confusion must prevail.”
Just weeks later, Washington’s alarm about Shays’ Rebellion was a key factor in his decision to take part in – and preside over – the Constitutional Convention, which was supposed to offer revisions to the Articles of Confederation but instead threw out the old structure entirely and replaced it with the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution shifted national sovereignty from the 13 states to “We the People” and dramatically enhanced the power of the central government.
The key point of the Constitution was to create a peaceful means for the United States to implement policies favored by the people but within a structure of checks and balances to prevent radical changes deemed too disruptive to the established order. For instance, the two-year terms of the House of Representatives were meant to reflect the popular will but the six-year terms of the Senate were designed to temper the passions of the moment (and senators were initially chosen by state legislatures, not the people).
Within this framework of a democratic Republic – where peaceful change was possible though intentionally gradual – the Framers criminalized taking up arms against the government. But it was the Constitution’s drastic expansion of federal power that prompted strong opposition from some Revolutionary War figures, such as Virginia’s Patrick Henry who spearheaded the Anti-Federalist movement.
Prospects for the Constitution’s ratification were in such doubt that its principal architect James Madison joined in a sales campaign known as the Federalist Papers in which he tried to play down how radical his changes actually were. To win over other skeptics, Madison agreed to support a Bill of Rights, which would be proposed as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights was a mix of concessions, some substantive and some rhetorical, to both individual citizens and the states.
The Second Amendment was primarily a right granted to the states. It read: “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.”
Madison’s political maneuvering narrowly secured approval of the Constitution in key states, such as Virginia, New York and Massachusetts. The First Congress then approved the Bill of Rights, which were ratified in 1791. [For more details on the Constitution, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Behind the Second Amendment
As the preface to the Second Amendment makes clear, the concern was about enabling states to organize militias that could maintain “security,” which fit with the Constitution’s goal of “domestic Tranquility” within the framework of a Republic.
This concept was amplified by the actions of the Second Congress amid another uprising which erupted in 1791 in western Pennsylvania. This anti-tax revolt, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, prompted Congress in 1792 to expand on the idea of “a well-regulated militia” by passing the Militia Acts which required all military-age white males to obtain their own muskets and equipment for service in militias.
At the time, Madison was in the U.S. Congress and Washington was in the presidency – with both supporting the new laws – so the “original intent” of the Framers could not be easily misunderstood.
The right “to keep and bear arms” was always within the context of participating in militias – or today the National Guard – not as the right of individuals to possess devastating weapons that could be used to violently overthrow the U.S. government or to kill its officials. (The recognition of a collective – rather than individual right – was only reversed in 2008 when right-wing ideologues had gained control of the U.S. Supreme Court and then overturned more than two centuries of legal precedents.)
But if there was any doubt about how the actual Framers saw the Second Amendment, it was answered in 1794 when President Washington led a combined force of state militias against the Whiskey rebels in Pennsylvania. The revolt soon collapsed; many leaders fled; and two participants were convicted of high treason and sentenced to hanging, though Washington later pardoned them.
Beyond this clear historical record – that the Framers’ intent with the Second Amendment was to create security for the new Republic, not promote armed rebellions – there is also the simple logic that the Framers represented the young nation’s aristocracy. Many, like Washington, owned vast tracts of land and favored domestic tranquility to promote economic development and growth.
So, it would be counterintuitive – as well as anti-historical – to believe that Madison and Washington wanted to arm the population so the discontented could resist the constitutionally elected government. In reality, the Framers wanted to arm the people – at least the white males – to repulse uprisings, whether economic clashes like Shays’ Rebellion, anti-tax protests like the Whiskey Rebellion, attacks by Native Americans or slave revolts.
However, the Right has invested heavily over the last several decades in fabricating a different national narrative, one that ignores both logic and the historical record. In this right-wing fantasy, the Framers wanted everyone to have a gun so they could violently resist their own government.
To build that narrative, a few incendiary quotes are cherry-picked, taken out of context or invented. [See, for instance, Steven Krulik's compilation of such apocryphal references.]
This “history” has then been amplified through the Right’s powerful propaganda apparatus – Fox News, talk radio, the Internet and ideological publications – to persuade millions of Americans that their possession of semi-automatic assault rifles and other powerful firearms is what the Framers intended, that today’s gun owners are fulfilling some centuries-old American duty.
It should be noted, too, that Thomas Jefferson, one of the most radical-sounding (though hypocritical) leaders of the Revolutionary War, was not a Framer of the Constitution. In 1787, when the document was written, he was the U.S. representative in France.
There is also the obvious point that the Framers’ idea of a weapon was a single-shot musket that required time-consuming reloading, not a powerful semi-automatic assault rifle that could fire up to 100 bullets in a matter of seconds without the necessity to reload.
However, people like Andrew Napolitano on the Right – as well as some dreamy revolutionaries on the Left – still suggest that the Framers enacted the Second Amendment so the firepower of people trying to overthrow the U.S. government and kill its agents would be equal to whatever weapons the government possessed.
This crazy notion would be laughable if its consequences were not so horrible. The human price for this phony concept of “liberty” – and this bogus history – is the horrendous death toll that gun violence inflicts on American society, including the recent slaughter of those children in Newtown.
Yet, instead of recognizing the actual history and accepting that the Constitution was an attempt by the Framers to create a democratic process for peaceful change, the advocates of a violent revolution – whether from the Right or the Left – feed the paranoia and the ignorance of their followers.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
(Originally posted at Consortium News)