Politics & Policy

The 1619 Project Comes for the Second Amendment

A gun owner wears a handgun as members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League hold a gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va., July 9, 2019. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)
If the right to bear arms was intended to preserve slavery, why did civil-rights leaders insist that black Americans should be armed to protect themselves?

Left-wing academic Carol Anderson’s new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, is all over the news. “The Second Amendment is not about guns — it’s about anti-Blackness, a new book argues,” reads a CNN headline. NPR claims that the author has uncovered the racist “roots” of the Second Amendment.

This is wishful thinking. The Second is an attempt — much like the 1619 Project — to reimagine history in purely racial terms. The result is tendentious polemic that suffers not only from a paucity of historical evidence, but from a dishonest rendering of the facts we do know.

After comprehensively detailing the constitutional debate over slavery and the nefariousness of that institution, Anderson takes the liberty of asserting that the Second Amendment was “not some hallowed ground but rather a bribe, paid again with Black bodies.” This is a contention that isn’t backed by a single contemporaneous quote or piece of hard evidence in the book.

Indeed, Anderson ignores the tradition of militias in English common law — codifying the “ancient and indubitable” right in the 1689 English Bill of Rights — which had nothing to do with chattel slavery. Anderson ignores the fact that nearly every intellectual, political, and military leader of the Founding generation — many of whom had no connection to slavery — stressed the importance of self-defense in entirely different contexts.

It was slavery skeptic John Adams, in his 1770 defense of Captain Thomas Preston, one of the soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, who argued that even British soldiers had an inherent right to defend themselves from mobs. “Here every private person is authorized to arm himself, and on the strength of this authority, I do not deny the inhabitants had a right to arm themselves,” he noted. When Pennsylvania became the first colony to explicitly guarantee the right to bear arms, it was Benjamin Franklin, by then an abolitionist, who presided over the conference. It was the anti-slavery Samuel Adams who proposed that the Constitution never be used to “authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.” In the writings and speeches of nearly all American Founders, the threat of disarmament was a casus belli.

In making her case that the Second Amendment was predominantly an invention of the South, Anderson stresses that most American jurisdictions did not even have their own Second Amendment before the constitutional convention. She’s right. Many anti-Federalists believed that enshrining these rights on paper would lead to future abuses. Of course, Southerners didn’t need permission to suppress black slave revolts, anyway. They had done so on numerous occasions before the nation’s founding.

Yet, by 1791, of the four jurisdictions that had written their own Second Amendments, three of them — Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania — had already abolished slavery. When Vermont authored its first constitution in 1777, in fact, it protected the right to keep and bear arms in the same document that it banned slavery.

But to make the claim that the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution to placate slave owners, Anderson is impelled to take numerous shortcuts. Take, for example, this pivotal sentence in the book:

“In short, James Madison, the Virginian, knew ‘that the militia’s prime function in his state, and throughout the south, was slave control.’”

The author frames the quote as if Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, had said it himself — or, if we’re being generous, that it’s a fair representation of his views. When you follow the book’s endnote, however, it leads to a 1998 paper titled “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” written by anti-gun activist Carl T. Bogus, who shares Anderson’s thesis. It is his quote. Nowhere does Bogus offer any sample of Madison declaring, or even implying, that slave control was the impetus for the Second Amendment.

In another instance, again relying on Bogus’s paper, Anderson declares that among his “great rights,” Madison discusses only “trial by jury, freedom of the press, and ‘liberty of conscience,’” and that the right to bear arms does not even “make the list.” This, too, is extraordinarily misleading, as the quote comes from a Madison speech proposing the Bill of Rights in June 1789. Early in his argument, Madison mentions, in passing, some of the “great rights,” before literally listing — “fourthly,” in fact, right after freedom of religion and assembly — 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.”

As I read The Second, I kept thinking how easily it could be reedited to make a compelling book about the immorality of stripping Americans of their rights. After all, gun control was inextricably tied to racism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1834, the State of Tennessee revised its constitution from “That the freemen of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence” to “That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.” A number of Southern states followed suit.

Which is one of the reasons that Michigan senator Jacob Howard, when introducing the 14th Amendment ensuring that the constitutional rights of blacks in the South were protected, specifically pointed to “the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments to the Constitution,” as in the freedom of speech and of the press and “the right to bear arms” (italics mine).

Civil-rights leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries also lamented that the right to self-defense was denied them. Fredrick Douglass reacted to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by editorializing that the best remedy would be “a good revolver, a steady hand, and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap.” The late-19th-century civil-rights leader Ida B. Wells argued that one of the lessons of the post–Civil War era, “which every Afro American should ponder well, is 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.” T. Thomas Fortune, another black civil-rights activist of the era, argued that it was with a Winchester that the black man could “defend his home and children and wife.”

Now, it should be noted that even if the Second Amendment had been specifically written, as Anderson maintains, under pressure from states in the South that wished to preserve the subjugation of humans, the nation’s sin would have been denying the inalienable right of self-defense to all people. We don’t attack the idea of free speech simply because people are denied its protections. That fact only accentuates its importance. For most of our history, self-defense was also seen as an immutable right that existed with or without the sanction of the state. “Remember that the musket — the United States musket with its bayonet of steel — is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty,” is how Douglass made the case for natural rights. He did it better than many of the Founders. Certainly, he did it better than Anderson.

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