Politics & Policy

The 1619 Distortion of the Second Amendment

A woman holds up a sign in support of the 2nd Amendment around the Virginia State Capitol grounds in Richmond, Va., January 20, 2020. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Even a cursory examination of American history shows that gun rights are not racist.

Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Nikole Hannah-Jones had some thoughts on the Second Amendment yesterday:

It’s not really a “head scratcher” to comprehend why Americans want to protect their property and lives from looters and the mob. Why a reporter can breezily fabricate history under the banner of one of the nation’s most-widely read newspapers, on the other hand, definitely qualifies.

There’s no historical evidence to suggest that the Second Amendment was “created to ensure Southern slaveowners the right to maintain & arm slave patrols to put down insurrections amongst the enslaved,” even if southerners subsequently used guns for their nefarious purposes. As Charles Cooke has noted, “That neo-Nazis are protected by the First Amendment does not indict the First Amendment, just as that criminals are protected by the Fifth does not call that bulwark into general question.”

The right to self-defense, in fact, is incompatible with the idea of slavery — it runs counter to the arguments made by the Founders, even if some of them were hypocrites; counter to the arguments made by many abolitionists and the early civil-rights leaders; and counter to the arguments made by Second Amendment advocates today.

The animating ideas of the Second Amendment — both as personal and communal protection — are predicated on natural rights and English common law. And while nearly every intellectual, political, and military leader of the Founding generation stressed the importance of the right to bear arms as a means of preserving liberty, some of its most vociferous champions were against slavery.

In his 1770 defense of Captain Thomas Preston, one of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, John Adams — who often defended freed slaves and “held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence” — argued that even the unwanted and intrusive British soldier had the inherent right to arm and defend himself from a mob. “Here every private person is authorized to arm himself, and on the strength of this authority,” he said. It was “the primary canon in the law of nature,” he argued, quoting William Blackstone, whose writings helped define the English common-law legal system.

Those interested in fact-based history of the philosophical foundations of the Second Amendment can read Joyce Lee Malcolm’s classic study on the topic: To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. In it, Malcolm makes the case that “colonists were men and women steeped in English laws, English customs, English prejudices, and English habits of mind.” It was within this tradition that colonists staked their claim to revolt when the king came for their weapons.

The 70 or so American militiamen who fought 700 British soldiers in Concord and Lexington — among them Prince Estabrook, a black militiaman wounded in the battle (a soon-to-be freed slave) — weren’t anxious about slave revolts. They were intent on stopping the British from stripping them of the ability to defend themselves.

Sam Adams, one of Massachusetts leading revolutionaries and agitators, argued in 1769 that the “the subjects of England are entitled first to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law — next to the right of petitioning the King and parliament for redress of grievances — and lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.”

Adams opposed slavery.

Even abolitionist religious leaders such as Simeon Howard and Jonathan Parsons — “for while we plead for liberty on one hand, and promote slavery on the other, our principles are too contracted and corrupt,” Parsons said — defended the ideas that gird the Second Amendment. “[F]or if one man may defend himself and his rights against an assailant, much more may a whole country defend themselves when their rights are invaded,” Parsons preached.

The first American effort to codify and guarantee the right to bear arms was made in Pennsylvania, under a conference run by Benjamin Franklin, also president of the colony’s antislavery society. The second colony to do so was Vermont, where there were few slaves and no fear of a revolt. When New Hampshire suggested language for the future Bill of Rights — “Congress shall never disarm any Citizen unless such as are or have been in Actual Rebellion” — the future state probably had less than a hundred slaves.

After the ratification of the Constitution, five states (Rhode Island and New Hampshire among them) demanded a Bill of Rights be adopted by Congress, and every one of them asked that the individual right to bear arms be mentioned.

As I argue in my book First Freedom, of all the rights organized in American life, none had a longer and more defined history in English common law and tradition than the right to self-defense — not freedom of speech, or press, or religion.

What’s most misleading about Hannah-Jones’s distortion of the Second Amendment, however, is that the first gun-control laws were all racist in intent, meant to keep newly freed black Americans subjugated. “Black Codes” instituted after the Civil War made owning guns illegal for most blacks, and continued to put them at the mercy of racist governments. Arguments made during the debate over the 14th Amendment often specifically mentioned the right to bear arms.

What’s most ironic about Jones, who names herself after 19th-century civil-rights leader Ida B. Wells, is that the historic figure was a champion of the Second Amendment. She maintained that an important lesson of post–Civil War America, one that “every Afro American should ponder well,” was “that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

The Second Amendment certainly wasn’t a head scratcher for the real Ida B. Wells.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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